Bush's Press Secretary Notes Fairness of White House Press Corps as She Bids Farewell
Reporters applauded and many took snap-shots of Perino in her 145th and final briefing in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, as President Bush will leave office on Tuesday with the swearing-in of President-elect Barack Obama.
The press conference began with a slide show -- evoking laughter from reporters -- of humorous shots of reporters interacting with the president and the press secretaries. Perino, Bush’s fourth press secretary, praised two of her predecessors, Ari Fleischer and the late Tony Snow, but did not mention Scott McClellan, a former press secretary who wrote a book critical of the Bush administration last year.
One reporter asked Perino, “Do you perceive a bias? Do you think he was treated fairly? Do you think that other Presidents have gotten an easier deal? I was just wondering what your thoughts are.”
Perino said the slideshow was in fun and should not be taken the wrong way, but she offered a serious note about the media.
“Here's the thing. I don't think that I would always be asked about my feelings about liberal bias in the media if there wasn't any liberal bias in the media,” Perino said. But, she added, “I really think that everybody in this room, on a scale of one to ten, I give you a nine in terms of fairness -- in fairness in working with us and then listening to us.”
Much of the unfairness comes in the commentary, Perino said.
“I do think that outside of the White House briefing room, the increase in the amount of commentary, I just think it's quite remarkable that everyone says they want to add more commentary to their news pages,” Perino said. “In some ways, I think, well, how is that even possible? It seems sometimes that that's all that there is.”
She also took the opportunity to comment on the state of journalism.
“There’s no doubt that your industry is going through a change and a transition and a transformation, and I really do think, for the sake of democracy and the sake of our country, we need to have more of you,” she said. “Good, tough reporting takes a lot of money and it takes investment, it takes time, and it takes the willingness from your editors to be willing to go off on assignment and to really hold your elected leaders to account. I don’t think that journalism is dead, but I think that we all have a responsibility to make sure that it survives.”
The only tension came from the dean of White House reporters, Helen Thomas, a columnist for Hearst Newspapers, who acknowledged she might be a spoiler. Perino responded, “That’s okay. You’ve got a real question?”
“Yes, I do. I wanted to know, considering the president's undiluted support of Israel, what does he think of Israel bombing the U.N. buildings that became sanctuaries for Palestinians?” asked Thomas, who has covered the White House since John F. Kennedy was president.
Perino responded, “While the President has had support of Israel, he has also shown unending support for Palestinians, and especially because he is the first president ever to promote a two-state solution. … Now, on that particular incident, I'll let the Israelis speak to it, but obviously they had to take great care to make sure that civilians are protected.”
Thomas interjected again, “How can these bombs discriminate between people?” Perino answered, “Hamas, which is a terrorist organization, hides among innocent people and uses them as human shields.”
Thomas again asked, “Well, how does he feel about bombing U.N. buildings?” Perino said, “I think I answered the best I could, Helen.”
Asked if she would be writing a book, she said, “I don’t, you know, I don’t know.”
But she said she and her husband Peter planned to volunteer in Cape Town, South Africa, for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a $15-billion program President Bush started to help fight global HIV/AIDS.
“I want to be able to talk about that experience in some way when I get back, if any of you will listen,” she said. “I talk about the statistics all the time and how only 50,000 people were being helped in Sub-Saharan Africa when the president took office, and now it’s over 2.2 million. I say those statistics a lot to make the case for why that program is so good. But I want to go and experience it personally, firsthand, and to see how American taxpayer dollars are being put to good use, and hopefully come back and be able to tell you guys about it.”
Perino, 36, became a deputy press secretary in 2006. In September 2007, she became press secretary after her predecessor Tony Snow left the job. The following year, Snow died from colon cancer. She spoke about him during the farewell slideshow.
“Tony was a man who loved his job. Tony loved President Bush,” Perino said. “He lived life to the fullest and when Tony lost his valiant battle against cancer last summer, we all lost a world champion.”
The slides showed a photo of Snow smiling as he wore a championship belt.
When one reporter observed, “Dana, you mentioned Ari and Tony, but I don't think I heard you mention Scott (McClellen). Was that a slight or was that -- was anything deliberate?”
Perino answered, “No harm meant, I just didn't mention him.”
The presentation ended with a note on the future of the press and of incoming Obama Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
“America needs more reporters, not fewer. So let's hope someone figures out a business model that will keep you in your seats for a long time to come,” Perino said. “I wish my successor, Robert Gibbs, all the very best. Please go easy on him -- for a week.”