By: Joe Strupp
President Bush’s surprise trip to Iraq on Monday, which included just five White House reporters, marks the fourth time in the past month or so that Bush has made surprise news in one location while the White House press corps was en route to another.
And that has at least a few veteran reporters perturbed.
“It was another example of the press traveling to one location and the news being made somewhere else,” said Steve Scully, past president of the White House Correspondents Association and a senior producer at C-SPAN. “This administration loves to pull surprises and that is from the get-go.”
Mark Smith, a veteran Associated Press reporter, was one of the many press corps members who were on a charter plane to Australia Sunday night when word spread that Bush had gone to Iraq. “There were more than a few grumbles,” Smith told E&P from Australia Tuesday. “It is certainly no fun being on the other side of the world when the news is made elsewhere. Being out of position is a bummer.”
As recently as Friday afternoon, press corps reporters were sent a schedule that had their charter plane leaving Sunday night, with a stop in Hawaii, for Bush’s trip to Australia. But a handful of correspondents, who were already scheduled to be pool reporters aboard Air Force One, began getting calls from the White House press office Saturday night and told to be ready for a surprise trip Sunday evening, Scully said.
Scully stressed that the pool reporters who fly aboard Air Force One on each trip are chosen via a rotation, not by the White House. He said that rotation remained in place for the pool that routinely includes one newspaper reporter, one news magazine, TV and radio representatives, and one of the major news wires. “It was the normal rotation,” Scully said.
Still, some press corps members have been upset that in the past month, Bush has made news on at least four occasions when the press charter planes were on route to other locations.
“We?re out of position for the big stories,” CBS News White House Correspondent Mark Knoller said in an e-mail to fellow WHCA members last week.
The first instance occurred on Aug. 9, when the press charter plane was en route to Maine to be with Bush for a visit there and he held what Knoller called “a formal, solo press conference back at the White House.”
Then, on Aug. 13, the press corps was flying to Waco, Tex., to be with Bush at his Crawford, Tex., ranch when Karl Rove announced his resignation and Bush joined him for comments in Washington. Just last week, when Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced his resignation on Aug. 27, the press charter plane had just landed in Seattle, according to Knoller, when Bush arrived in Waco to make his first comments on Gonzales’s departure.
“Here?s what we got in August for the money, time and inconvenience of traveling with the President?” Knoller’s e-mail added. “It?s money well-spent.”
Reached Tuesday, Knoller said he understands when the entire press corps cannot be in some places, like Iraq, noting “everything he did got covered.” But, he added, “not by those who are assigned to him?Even when your organization spends the money to cover the president, it doesn’t guarantee you are going to be there when he makes news.”
Scully and Smith both said it was not a complete surprise that Bush would pull a surprise side trip this past weekend, given that he has traveled to Iraq twice before since the war began and is anticipating the long-awaited report on the status there from Gen. David Petraeus, expected on Sept. 15.
“Clearly, he did it in part to attract attention to Iraq,” Scully said. “If he had delivered the remarks in the Rose Garden, it would not have the same impact.” He said speculation began last week that a surprise trip might occur. “Mrs. Bush had said she wasn’t going to Australia because of a pinched nerve and some thought that might mean a surprise,” Scully added. “It made sense because he was going to travel anyway.”
“No president likes to give out his travel plans ahead of time,” Smith said. “I’m not sure you can avoid [a surprise trip] entirely.”