Last week was something of a slow news week for many of us in the Japanese media here in Washington. Monday was President's Day, so the federal government was closed, and Congress was in recess. The few newsworthy events of the week (President Bush traveling around the country to promote his health care and energy initiatives, the South Korean defense minister, Kim Jang-soo, visiting the Pentagon on Friday, and the war of words between the Clinton and Obama campaigns), didn't really concern us. The major U.S.-Japan event was Vice President Cheney's visit to Japan, but since Tokyo covers these events, we had nothing to do with it.
So instead of going into some kind of analysis of developments I didn't cover, I would like to take this opportunity to share with you the lighter side of a few press conferences and discussions I attended this past week.
On Tuesday (February 20), the National Press Club sponsored a discussion with White House Press Secretary Tony Snow and a few seasoned members of the White House Press Corps. Hosted by CBS chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer (who turns 70 today), the hour-long discussion shed some light on the personal lives and day-to-day job responsibilities of six White House correspondents (listed at the bottom of the page here). The format was a mostly friendly, reverse press briefing, where the press secretary asked members of the press about their lives and experiences covering the White House. While humorous anecdotes abounded, my favorite exchange came when Tony Snow asked David Gregory what it was like to go to his hometown and be recognized or celebrated for being a TV personality. It went something like this (these are not direct quotes):
Snow: "What's it like going back home and having people recognize you when you go out? I'm sure it's pretty awesome to be a hometown celebrity."
Gregory: "I don't think I get recognized enough! But I think the most memorable moment when I was recognized was one time when we were covering a convention in Nevada. I will never forget when this sweet older woman came up to me with the biggest smile on her face and a sweet voice, saying, 'You're that guy on TV! Wow, it's great to meet you! By the way, you are completely ridiculous. Why do you ask such silly questions at press conferences?' The woman then asked to take a picture with me."
I want to shake that woman's hand.
Mark Knoller, the CBS radio correspondent with a very distinctive voice put in his two cents on the subject shortly thereafter...
Knoller: "Tony, one of the good things about being on the radio is that nobody knows what I look like. It means I can go to Barnes and Noble and look at dirty magazines without having to worry about getting spotted."
For those of you who are curious, here's a link to an article on CBS's website with a picture of Mr. Knoller. Be on the lookout next time you're at a big bookstore.
Mr. Knoller was on a role this week. Now I haven't been attending White House press briefings or gaggles (sort of mini-briefings held off-camera most mornings), so he might be on a roll all the time, but I was a big fan of his joke in the gaggle on Friday. Deputy Press Secretary Tony Fratto was going over the schedule of the president for the following week. When he mentioned the president's photo-op with the Miami Heat on Tuesday the 27th, there was little discussion in the room. Mr. Fratto seemed like he was about to explain that it was a pro basketball team, when Mr. Knoller cut him off with: "They're a global warming group."
Maybe you had to be there, but we all thought it was funny.
Perhaps the best exchange last week was the one between Ambassador Christopher Hill (the U.S. representative to the six-party talks among the U.S., Japan, China, Russia, and North and South Korea) and a reporter from Fox News.
This was on Thursday (the 22nd) at the Brookings Institute. Brookings had a live satellite uplink with the Asia Society in New York, and to be fair to both audiences, was alternating questions between the two venues. Two questions from NY, two from DC, back to NY for 2, then back to DC for 2... Pretty easy, right? You'd think so.
After 2 from DC, the moderator was about to ask NY for two, but didn't have the chance to get started when a woman standing on the side of the room shouted out (again, no direct quotes):
"This is (name deleted) from Fox News and I have a question!"
She got to mid-question before she was cut off, but then the strangest thing happened. She left the room. She barely made it back in time to be the 2nd person to ask a question from DC. It went a little something like this:
"This is (name deleted) from Fox News and I have a question. Yes, so the IAEA came out with a report today outlining how the Iranian government has not complied with UN Security Council resolutions calling on it to halt uranium enrichment. All the evidence points to them continuing this enrichment. What do you think of this?"
Keep in mind that this discussion is 100% about the six party talks and the NORTH KOREAN nuclear problem. Not one to keep a speechless audience waiting, Ambassador Hill shot back with:
"I think you're in the wrong press conference. I field questions about the six party talks, North Korea, and the Boston Red Sox."
Well, the U.S. and North Korea will be holding a working group meeting sometime in the coming weeks in New York, which I will likely be following, so I will try to keep posting updates on the ambassador's snappy answers to stupid questions. Somehow I doubt this will be the last instance...