Sometimes -- not often -- I wish I were out of retirement and back in the journalistic harness. It usually happens when I watch President Obama diddling the members of the media at a White House press conference. As a lawyer, Obama is keenly aware of the precise meaning and nuances of every word he speaks, and as an accomplished orator he is a master at deceit and obfuscation. He also obviously feels that he is smarter than anybody sitting in front of him, and can get away with anything when addressing them. Which may be true.
When he answers a reporter’s question, I sometimes find myself screaming at the questioner: “Ask the obvious follow-up, Dummy.” But Dummy never does. It is considered poor etiquette to challenge the President too strongly, to back him into a corner. Reporters understand that they must not display disrespect for the office, whatever they might think of the current occupant.
Such a day was Friday. Senator McCain, Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential election, had publicly declared that the recent news accounts revealing classified national security information about America’s covert anti-terrorism campaign were being deliberately leaked by the President’s aides to build up his image as a macho defender of liberty. A statement like that from McCain carries weight, because he seldom, if ever, goes out on a limb. Too many people have thought that Obama was a wimp when it came to national security, and maybe even secretly sympathetic to America’s enemies, and these impressions had to be countered as the 2012 election approached.
No way is he a wimp, the leaks indicate. He carries around a pack of bubble-gum-style cards imprinted with the faces and misdeeds of terrorists, and occasionally he picks a card out of the pack, and we drop a drone on the guy’s house.
At Friday’s press conference, a reporter asked Obama whether what McCain and others have said about the leaks was true. Obama replied: “The notion that my White House would purposely release classified national security information is offensive. It’s wrong.”
This reminded me eerily of what star baseball pitcher Roger Clemens said when first asked by a reporter whether he illicitly used steroids during his playing career. “That’s ridiculous,” said Clemens. If I had been there, I would have asked, “But, Roger, is it true?
Essentially the same question -- minus the “Roger” -- could have properly been put to Obama yesterday. “You may find the notion offensive, sir, and it may seem wrong to you to bring it up, but is it true?”
That question didn’t get asked, and if it had been I rather doubt that Obama would have answered it honestly. But it could have been useful to have him on the record as lying. It wouldn't be the first time.
And so we find the Democrats and Republicans locked in another screaming match, but the press seems to have little interest in whether the truth will ever come out. The focus has shifted to a supposed investigation by the Justice Department, to track down the true leakers.
Don't be surprised if that comes to nothing. People in politics rarely do a good job of investigating their political allies.
AFTERTHOUGHT: If Obama truly didn't know who leaked the secrets, as his call for an investigation would seem to indicate, then how can he be sure that the leaks didn't come from the White House? An outright denial -- which he deftly avoided -- would not be believable, and he would be exposed as a liar. If only a reporter had pressed him on this point!