Special Report

The Inoperative Jay Carney

The Obama press secretary summons the ghost of Nixon’s Ron Ziegler.

By 5.23.13

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“He has such an early-morning face and such a palpable desire to please that to bait him would be like kicking a puppy.”
-- Liberal columnist Mary McGrory of Ron Ziegler, 1969

In the beginning, the press loved Ron Ziegler.

As the young Nixon aide began his first days as press secretary to the President of the United States, he would later be described as “eager, helpful, warm, energetic.” This reputation would change. It would change drastically as the Nixon administration dramatically crashed and burned around him, going up in the flames of Watergate.

Memorably, in March of 1973, following a presidential statement on the latest revelations on Watergate in the press room, with Nixon leaving the podium as soon as his last sentence was read, Ziegler began taking questions from a furious press corps. For a while, he stood there like a sailor leaning in a verbal hurricane. No, he insisted. No, there were no contradictions between what the president had previously said and what he had just said moments ago. No, no, no, and again no, Ziegler insisted. By question eighteen, Ziegler wilted.

“This is the operative statement” he finally said as the press fell silent in astonishment. Then, memorably forever after, came this line:

“The others are inoperative.”

And who could forget Ziegler’s most famous line at a press briefing? The one where he dismissed the metastasizing Watergate story as nothing but a story about a “third rate burglary.”

By June of 1973, a committee of the National Press Club, chaired by reporter James McCartney of the Knight newspaper chain, issued this blast at Ziegler:

The White House press secretary has been reduced to a totally programmed spokesman…. Rather than opening a window into the White House, the press secretary closes doors. Information about public business is supplied on a selective, self-serving basis. Legitimate questions about public affairs are not answered on a day-to-day basis; even worse, such questions are often not seriously considered.

So.

Here we are.

Forty years have passed between Ron Ziegler’s time at the podium of the White House Press Secretary (Ziegler died in 2003) and that of Obama press secretary Jay Carney.

What’s changed at that podium?

Apparently, nothing.

Here’s the Washington Post’s Monday account of the latest from Mr. Carney:

The White House offered a new account Monday of how and when it learned that the Internal Revenue Service had improperly targeted conservative groups, saying that some senior officials were informed of the findings but that President Obama was not.

The Post’s story goes on to describe a Jay Carney briefing that sounds eerily similar to Ziegler’s contentious, contradictory, and occasionally belligerent White House briefings. Here are a few quotes from the Post’s Monday story:

• “The assertions came as the White House struggled to contain a political uproar…”

• “White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler told White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and other top officials about the IRS findings nearly a month ago, press secretary Jay Carney said Monday…”

• “The new account goes well beyond what officials had said as recently as Sunday.”

• “Carney had said previously.”

• “But Carney said Monday…”

• “The Treasury Department was informed on three separate occasions..”

• “The revelations were the latest in a series of disclosures about what officials knew…”

• “The string of disclosures added to a growing sense of a White House under siege, struggling…”

• “Administration officials were on the defensive Monday…”

• “The revelations have prompted a criminal investigation by the Justice Department, multiple congressional investigations and a succession of hearings…”

• “No evidence has emerged that any White House official knew of the conduct…”

• “The administration’s accounts of what it knew about the IRS inquiry have shifted markedly over the past week.”

• “But on Sunday night, the White House acknowledged…”

• “Then on Monday, Carney revealed…”

• “Communications between the Treasury Department and the White House also have turned out to be broader than initially acknowledged.”

“Contrition is bulls--t,” Ziegler once said.

Increasingly, Carney seems to be channeling Nixon’s man.

Take this White House “gaggle” aboard Air Force One on May 13, bold print for emphasis. Here’s the question and Carney’s answer: 

Q: Jay, the President said that he himself was unaware of the IRS targeting. But was anyone else at the White House aware as early as 2011, when this first came out, or of the testimony in March when an IRS official talked about it?

MR. CARNEY: No. My understanding is that the White House Counsel’s Office was alerted in the week of April 22nd of this year, only about the fact that the IG was finishing a review about matters involving the office in Cincinnati. But that’s all they were informed as a normal sort of heads up. And we have never -- we don’t have access to, nor should we, the IG’s report or any draft versions of it.

Now, of course, in Ziegler fashion, the Carney statement from May 13 is “inoperative.”

Why?

Because we now find out the answer is “yes.”

Reports the Post’s Dan Balz yesterday:

But over the past few days, officials have offered a more detailed description of what really happened. (Obama White House Counsel Kathryn) Ruemmler was informed that political targeting had taken place and shared that information with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and some others on the senior staff. And there were subsequent discussions between White House and Treasury officials about the report.

Well.

Even liberals in the media are now -- finally? -- beginning to raise their eyebrows.

Here’s Howard Fineman over at the HuffPo, again with bold print for emphasis:

So far, voters don't seem to be abandoning President Barack Obama over controversies gripping the Beltway world. But White House aides are tempting fate with their reluctant, piecemeal and contradictory disclosures of what they knew and when they knew it, especially about a report on the Internal Revenue Service's 18-month effort to target tea party and other conservative groups for special scrutiny.

The aides either have forgotten or are unable to implement the basic lesson of scandal control in Washington: Get the full story out -- all of it -- as fast as you can before your critics accuse you of a cover-up or worse.

What Fineman doesn’t say here is that what he calls “the basic lesson of scandal control in Washington” originated with what might be called the Lesson Ron Ziegler.

As Watergate began to explode, day after day, week after week, a man once perceived even by the Kennedy liberal columnist Mary McGrory as having “such an early-morning face and such a palpable desire to please that to bait him would be like kicking a puppy” was being kicked around in such brutal fashion that, had he actually been a dog, the White House press corps would have been arrested and charged with being a group of journalistic Michael Vicks.

Now comes Jay Carney. A man dubbed the “spokeskid” by Rush Limbaugh, a man whose youthful, friendly demeanor over the years in his various media jobs once easily qualified him for the McGrory description of “puppy.”

Jay Carney, the quintessential Establishment Liberal Journalist married to a quintessential Establishment Liberal Journalist (ABC’s Claire Shipman). The Time Bureau chief here, work for CNN over there, based one day in Miami and the next in Moscow and Washington covering everything from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the almost-collapse of the Clinton presidency.

And in the wake of Benghazi and the IRS scandals, not to mention the blossoming AP and Fox/James Rosen scandal, Carney is now being repeatedly written up in the media as essentially the New Ron Ziegler. Here’s a sampling of recent headlines:

Carney dodges, dives and ducks more questions on IRS scandal

The White House’s shifting IRS account

What is going on with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney? 

White House story on IRS targeting evolves 

More Obama aides knew of IRS audit; Obama not told

Got those words used to describe Carney and what he’s reduced to peddling as he stands where once Ron Ziegler himself once stood?

“Dodges…dives…ducks…evolves…more Obama aides knew….White House story evolves”

Aside from his infamous “inoperative” statement, Ziegler used a line that, if you substituted the word “IRS” or “Benghazi” or “AP” could have been uttered by Carney. This statement:

Certain elements may try to stretch the Watergate burglary beyond what it is.

This past Sunday, forty years after this last Ziegler accusation was made, Carney’s White House colleague Dan Pfeiffer took to the Sunday talk show circuit. The Times wrote it up this way:

Mr. Pfeiffer accused Republicans of exploiting three issues — I.R.S. political targeting; the attack in Benghazi, Libya; and the Justice Department’s subpoenaing of phone records from The Associated Press — for political purposes….

Got that?

For Nixon’s spokesman it was “certain elements” who “may try to stretch” Watergate “beyond what it is.”

For Obama’s spokesman it was accusing “Republicans of exploiting three issues…for political purposes.”

A lot of things can change in forty years. In 1973 there was no Internet. No Fox or talk radio. There were no iPads or iPods, and no Apple.

In 1973, Jay Carney was eight years old.

He must have had a lot of time for television.

To watch Ron Ziegler at work.

And learn. 

Photo: UPI

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.