Carney gets reporters talking football, not politics, during press gaggle

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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White House press secretary Jay Carney successfully spent about a quarter of Tuesday’s press conference talking about a football game, even as the president’s much-touted outreach to the Arab world is collapsing just six weeks before the 2012 election.

The traveling press corps managed to ask only seven non-football questions, according to the 1,985-word transcript provided by the White House. The gaggle’s first quarter was devoted to the president’s assessment of a disputed call during a Sept. 24 football game between the Green Bay Backers and the Seattle Seahawks.

“I have no announcements, but I do have to say that there is a pressing matter that kind of transcends all else for most Americans,” Carney said as he began the gaggle on Air Force One as it flew back from New York toward Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.

Carney’s casual introduction prompted laughs from the attending reporters, two weeks after Carney began claiming that a little-known YouTube video prompted a lethal jihad attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya.

“Come on. You’re not even waiting for the question, Carney,” a reporter joked with Carney.

“This morning I watched it, and it was really astounding,” continued Carney.

“And by ‘it,’ I mean the end of the Packers-Seahawks game,” he announced, 13 days after Cabinet Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was found in violation of the Hatch Act.

Since then, Sebelius has not been asked to resign and only one reporter, ABC’s Jake Tapper, has asked Carney about Sebelius.

Carney’s discussion of the Packers-Seahawks game continued for 475 words, or roughly 25 percent of the press conference.

The subject was extended by questions from the press.

Q    Does the President have a position on this?

MR. CARNEY:  As an avid sports fan and an avid football fan, he does….

Q    So the President clearly thinks it was an interception?

MR. CARNEY:  Yes, he thinks that there was a real problem with the call.

Q    And the pass interference before the interception?

MR. CARNEY:  I didn’t get into the details, but I think everybody who saw that play saw a number of problems with it.

The back-and-forth came the same day that top GOP leaders slammed Obama’s foreign policies, and the same day that Obama declined to meet with foreign leaders.

In 2011, he met with 13 leaders at the UN’s General Assembly, according to CBS Radio.

Carney’s successful digression was eventually truncated by 546 words of boilerplate from Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, about the president’s just completed speech at the UN General Assembly.

“The president felt it was very important to address directly what has been going in the Middle East and North Africa. … And I think what you heard from the president is a very strong message to the world that that type of politics needs to be left behind if we’re going to deal with the challenges we face. … I think it was a chance for the president to step back and lift up his view of the world as it stands today and to project a vision of American leadership that deals with the challenges we face and supports our values around the world,” he said.

“And with that, I’ll take your questions,” Rhodes said, having successfully used up a second quarter of the press conference.

Together, the two officials managed to run out half of the clock at the press gaggle, with the president slightly ahead in the polls and one day closer to election day.

Reporters did not use the press event to ask questions about the president’s oversight of the economy, which is suffering through record deficits and debt, record unemployment and declining incomes.

Nor did they ask Carney about the impact of the president’s June decision to award work-permits to at least 800,000 illegal immigrants during a time of sustained high unemployment.

However, reporters did ask seven questions about matters that have nothing to do with football.

All were easily swatted away by Carney and Rhodes.

“Are you going to take this opportunity to announce any meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday?” asked one unidentified reporter.

“I have no scheduling updates for you on that. Prime Minister Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Secretary Clinton on Friday,” Rhodes replied.

The reporters did not press Carney to explain why the president’s expected meeting with Egypt’s Islamic president was canceled, nor did they ask him if the president had changed any of his campaign ads following his weekend acknowledgments that some of those ads were misleading.

The did ask one softball question about his speech to the world’s leaders.

Q    Ben, the President not only condemned extremism and violence and called on leaders to do the same. … What gives him confidence that that message will go over in the countries that often have cultures that have a very different take?

Q    In either of the courtesy calls, did Syria or Iran come up?

Q    During the reception last night, can you talk about were there any pull-asides or handshakes with people that you can tell us about?..

Q    Was Thein Sein down there?

There was one sharp-edged question, when a reporter asked about Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso’s charge on Sept. 24 that “this president has failed on foreign policy.”

“Hey, Jay, Sen. Barrasso had a TV interview last night; accused the administration of stonewalling and engaging in a cover-up regarding the murder of Ambassador Stevens. Can you address anything on that?” another reporter asked.

Carney and Rhodes tag-teamed to provide 361 words, and end the press gaggle.

“I’m sure the senator is aware that there is an active investigation into what happened in Benghazi. … I think you heard the president again say with great clarity at the General Assembly today that he is determined to make sure that those who killed our personnel in Benghazi are brought to justice,” Carney said.

“This is something that we’re very focused on, and we have every interest in understanding exactly what happened precisely so we can make sure that we are doing everything we can going forward to protect our diplomats,” said Rhodes.

“Thanks, guys,” a reporter said as the gaggle closed.

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Neil Munro