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No One Could've Anticipated A Follow-Up

by Steve Young

Steve Young columns

For the weeks while the president was away in Crawford waiting for the emergency to cut his vacation so many hours short, we were unmercifully forced to interpret what the president meant from what he said. Thankfully, with his return to Washington, Press Secretary Scott McClellan has come to the rescue. We once again do not have to rely on words, but on intent, as McClellan is once again in place to assure us what the President's word mean.

In this past Friday's press briefing alone, Scott gave credence to the fact that he might be at his best when the facts are at its worse. In respect to the President's " one could have anticipated the breach" Good Morning America moment four days after the hurricane hit, McClellan was at his best.

QUESTION: Scott, when the President said a week ago that no one anticipated the breach of the levee, it seems to have been well established that, that was just wrong, that there were many federal reports, many stories over the years saying that in a hurricane of this strength that they would be breached. Why was he so willing, and has he asked his experts how he could have been.

McCLELLAN: No, I think you've characterized something wrong and interpreted something that he said in the wrong context...what the President was referring to is that you had Hurricane Katrina hit, and then it passed New Orleans. And if you'll remember, all the media reports, or a number of media reports at that time, that Monday -- even all the way to the Tuesday papers, were talking to people and saying that New Orleans had dodged a bullet. So I think that's what the President is referring to, is that people weren't anticipating those levees, after the hurricane had passed New Orleans, breaching.

Of course, if they had anticipated that the breach would happen the day of the hurricane, shouldn't someone have asked, "So, Scott, if what you say is true, why weren't we there in full force the day of the hurricane? Instead of being almost a week late, they would have been a day early."

But you can't fault Scott for not answering a question that wasn't asked and you can't expect him to ask the questions for the press who, in fact are supposed to be answering the questions for us...The American Public, who are due answers.

And how great was Scott's "dodged a bullet" gambit? Not only was he able to present a case for how "New Orleans dodged the bullet" headlines affected the White House, but he said it with a straight face despite the fact that there wasn't one American newspaper with the headline that said New Orleans had dodged a bullet. The New Orleans Times-Picayune's headline about the storm read, "CATASTROPHIC." You would think the press would be aware of what was or wasn't in the newspaper. But no one in the press corp followed up. Wouldn't it have been special if, when McClellan said headlines read "bullet dodged," there would have been someone, not from the press, but a plain old citizen from New Orleans at the briefing to ask a follow-up question: "Name one."

Yet while some are cynical of the press secretary's repeated dodges, you can't help but place a big helping of the responsibility on the press's plate that either doesn't ask the questions we would want them to ask or pay due diligence to appropriate and much needed followups. Questions and followups that we might ask had we the chance.

Which brings me to the most glaring omission to these little media get togethers. I certainly don't want to be blame-gamed for finger-pointing but the one missing element in attaining the needed information so the American public can make better and more informed decisions is...the American public.

So it is that I submit for Scott McClellan, President Bush and White House consideration, that at every Presidential Press Secretary briefing and Presidential press conference, one American, not in the press, nor selected by the White House, should be allowed into the briefing and selected to ask the first question -- their own question. Not examined nor sanitized prior to the asking. Only then might we hear a question truly for and by the American people.

Of course there would have to be a stipulation: the question cannot be dodged...or if it is, Helen Thomas gets the next question. And, oh yeah...we get a follow-up.

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Albion Monitor September 8, 2005 (

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