It was a bit of an "Alice In Wonderland" moment last night, watching President Bush in the State Dining Room lauding the accomplishments and character of one "John Roberts." After my four and a half years covering the Bush White House, I couldn't imagine the name "John Roberts" and the phrase "widely admired for his intellect, his sound judgment and his personal decency" being used in the same time zone, let alone the same sentence. More likely would have been "John Roberts" and "should join Judith Miller in jail"; or "frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs"; or, "Oh yeah, we've got a dossier on him".
I'll tell you, it was all a bit disorienting.
But it could work to my advantage. Now, every time I telephone a White House official and say that it's "John Roberts" calling, I'm certain that I'll hear a heart skip a beat on the other end of the line. I imagine that it won't take long for aides who answer the phone to soon pick up the query "Is this Judge Roberts?" And I'll be relegated (through my innate sense of fairness) to say, "No, it's the CBS correspondent" – which, no doubt, will be met with a sigh of relief and a disparaging "Oh." Of course, it will probably become infuriatingly frustrating for the Supreme Court nominee who has the misfortune to share my moniker.
It's no secret that the White House doesn't hold a lot of respect for the media at large, let alone the pack of snarling dogs that fall under the collective title "The White House Press Corps." A review of last week's White House press briefings, with Scott McClellan playing the part of the piñata, will give you an idea why.
That's one reason why they carefully planned the introduction of "the OTHER John Roberts" for 9 p.m. last night. We've gone all the way back through Reagan and not been able to find a president who chose prime time to unveil a nominee. And none of them asked the networks for airtime to do it. It's a way for the White House to get past what it refers to as the "filter" of the media. And the way that they managed to keep Roberts a secret until 7:42 p.m. skirted the nagging possibility that the evening newscasts would have time to prepare a lengthy takeout on the nominee's record on the bench. I don't want to say that the swirl of speculation surrounding names like Edith Clement, Edith Jones and others was an elaborate head fake to keep us off the scent of the real nominee, but a lot of people who were in the "initial loop" of selecting a replacement for Sandra Day O'Connor were pushing those names pretty hard.
Of course, we bear some responsibility for that, as well. We are so determined to crack the nut of this uber-disciplined White House that any dribble of information is lapped up like mother's milk. And, I must admit, we created a media echo chamber yesterday. Eventually, we began to hear back rumors that were prompted by our own inquiries. I'm certain that there was no end of glee at the White House as officials watched us chase our tails all day. And I'll bet they chuckled to themselves as they let their telephones ring and ring as their caller IDs flashed up the numbers of White House reporters.
As a correspondent, it was one of the most frustrating days of my life. A lot of my fellow White House denizens share the same sentiments. My BlackBerry was buzzing all day with messages from colleagues – "I HATE this" and "Just SHOOT me now" were two of the more popular expressions of exasperation.
It wouldn't be so bad to take our lumps and move on, except that we're all aware that at some point, Chief Justice William Rehnquist WILL retire, leaving us to do it all again.
So, score another one for a White House that displays a remarkable ability to control leaks. And send us back to the dog pound of the Briefing Room to await the next opportunity.