Washington Post reporter-slash-columnist Dana Milbank leans mostly toward the columnist today, hailing 89-year-old scold Helen Thomas for pressing relentlessly on White House press secretary Robert Gibbs (and by extension, President Obama) for being too wimpy in advocating the Brave Socialist Initative known as the "public option." Objectivity does not become her, Milbank writes. Lecturing does:
"Has the president given up on the public option?" she inquired from her front-row-middle seat.
The press secretary laughed at this repetition of a common Thomas inquiry, but this questioner, who has covered every president since Kennedy, wasn't about to be silenced. "I ask it day after day because it has great meaning in this country, and you never answer it," she said.
"Well, I -- I -- I apparently don't answer it to your satisfaction," Gibbs stammered.
"That's right," Thomas snarled.
"I -- I'll -- I'll give you the same answer that I gave you unsatisfactorily for many of those other days," Gibbs offered. "It's what the president believes in --"
"Is he going to fight for it or not?" Thomas snapped.
"We're going to work to get choice and competition into health-care reform" was Gibbs's vague response.
Thomas took that as a no. "You're not going to get it," she advised.
"Then why do you keep asking me?" Gibbs inquired.
"Because I want your conscience to bother you," Thomas replied. The room erupted; Gibbs reddened.
Notice "the room erupted." The overwhelmingly liberal White House press corps is a Helen Thomas Army. They don’t disagree with Obama, but they’re losing patience with his failure to be more forceful with the liberal majorities he has, polls not withstanding. Milbank explains:
Actually, conscience isn't the problem for Gibbs and his boss; it's spine. Thomas's question got at an Obama administration trait that is puzzling opponents and demoralizing supporters: Why isn't the president more decisive and forceful? On many of the most pressing issues -- the public option in health reform, troop levels in Afghanistan, sanctions against Iran -- the administration has hewed to hemming and hawing.
Milbank also takes comfort in the pressure from a former Post colleague, Jonathan Weisman:
Sometimes, of course, the refusal to take a position is a tactic to thwart opponents, or reporters. But the reluctance to be forceful has emboldened Obama's opponents -- a fact pointed out to Gibbs on Thursday by the Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman.
Weisman noted that the right wing had already forced the resignation of environmental adviser Van Jones and arts official Yosi Sergeant and was now alleging that Kevin Jennings, who runs the Education Department's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, had failed to report statutory rape in an incident 21 years ago when he was a teacher in Massachusetts. "Do you have anything substantive to say about what they are saying about this guy?" the reporter asked.
Gibbs did not. "I think the Department of Education had a statement on this," he said, allowing that "it's a shame" to watch conservative critics go after administration officials.
"Some in your camp would say that the White House has the power to stop it simply by no longer pushing these guys out of their positions," Weisman pointed out.
Gibbs's bold answer: The two officials "resigned on their own volition."
Can he say that with a clean conscience?
Milbank is suggesting that a man of "conscience" would support keeping an aide who signed a petition that the 9/11 attacks may have been a government plan (Jones), an aide who thinks the government-subsidized "arts" are merely PR tools for the White House (Sergeant), and an aide who thinks nothing of counseling a 15-year-old boy to wear a condom when he has sex with a man in a bus-station bathroom (Jennings).