Institutionalized: Corps Versus Scott

Most White House press briefings go something like this:

Reporter: Ask question.
Press secretary: Recite talking point.
Reporter: Rephrase question.
Press secretary: Repeat talking point.
Reporter: Phrase question more provocatively.
Press secretary: Parrot talking point.
Reporter: Add exasperation quotient to question.
Press secretary: Again with the talking point.

If anything, sticking to the talking points is a more sacred institution in this White House than in most. At Tuesday’s unusually colorful White House Press Briefing “sacred institution” became the talking point. Have a look:

Question: “When did the president change his mind that the issue of gay marriage was not a matter for states and in fact was a federal issue?”

Press Secretary Scott McClellan: “The president has always firmly believed that marriage is a sacred institution …”

Question is rephrased.

McClellan: “… [the president] believes marriage is a sacred institution …”

Question is rephrased again.

McClellan: “… I dispute the premise of your question …”

Different reporter asks the original question again.

McClellan : “What I’m telling you is that the president has always believed marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman; that it is an instutition that should be protected.”

The final tally? When discussing gay marriage McClellan employed the phrase “sacred institution” nine times during the 36-minute briefing. Close cousins “enduring institution” and “enduring and lasting institution” made eleven appearances.

While McClellan and his talking point may not have killed off the concept that Bush had in fact changed his mind about whether gay marriage was a state or federal issue (see the next day’s Houston Chronicle), he did press the corps to get increasingly creative with their questions.


Would the president “like to see … Britney Spears behave herself?”

Even that didn’t faze McClellan. What did, however, was a question from the redoubtable Helen Thomas, who has been doing this for, oh, longer than some reporters present have been alive. Thomas finally nudged McClellan, however briefly, off his rote spiel:

Thomas: “What does [the president] think the penalty should be, [gay people who marry] should go to jail if they break this law that eventually he hopes to have?”

McClellan: “The president believes that we should protect and defend the sanctity of marriage, Helen. That’s what this is about. And there are people —”

Thomas: “They should go to jail?”

McClellan: “No, Helen, that’s not the way the president is looking at it.”

Just another dance in the institutionalized minuet that we call a White House Press Conference.

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.