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UPI White House watch

By PETER ROFF, UPI Senior Political Analyst   |   Feb. 25, 2005 at 5:29 PM
WASHINGTON, Feb. 25 (UPI) -- The Jeff Gannon business is a tempest in a teapot for the White House. Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan has said little to nothing about it unless prompted by a direct question in the daily gaggle.

And, as salacious as the story is, it is not a subject for public gossip by other White House aides. Ask one about even the smallest detail of the controversy and they will politely change the subject.

The strategy is a good one, especially given all the sound and fury, signifying nothing emanating from the blogosphere. The pure blogs and the blends, everyone from the Daily Kos to Media Matters for America and Buzzflash, are almost all Gannon, all the time. The story is irresistible thanks to all the wild allegations that can be made because of it.

The White House has determined this is a fight they cannot win. And they can't win largely because to do so would involve the impossible task of proving negatives; they can only put the concerns to rest after they provide evidence proving something did not happen.

They've had a lot of practice dealing with this kind of thing. The president's opponents have mounted attacks on everything from the energy task force to the president's service in the Texas Air National Guard -- many of which are unanswerable because there is no proof to counter the allegations.

It's not quite "When did you stop beating your wife," but it's close.

The Gannon business ties into all this because the White House is being asked to prove it did not know what it says it did not know. That's a difficult thing to write -- let alone prove.

What we do know is that a man named James D. Guckert gained access to White House press briefings after being cleared into the building on a daily basis. He did not, as some have charged, have a hard pass -- the permanent credential that allows reporters to come and go from the building at will because they work there -- just like Helen Thomas, CNN's John King and the Washington Post's Dana Milbank have.

Once in the briefings Guckert became "Jeff Gannon," the Washington correspondent for a start-up conservative news Web site called Talon News. His use of a professional pseudonym is somehow supposed to prove his villainy. I am not at all certain, but I suspect Guckert/Gannon is not the only person in the White House briefing room to have used a name different from the one they were given at birth or that matches what it says on their drivers license.

Gannon was known to his colleagues for his surly attitude toward them, something that was well in evidence as the scandal broke. He publicly urged his critics to bring it on because they were making him "a rock star."

Well, bring it on they did. One must assume it was some odd combination of ego and hubris that allowed him to believe his links to male-on-male Web sites and various provocative nude photographs taken of him would not surface.

Taken together, the specious background, the pseudonym and the nude photos all combine to make for an irresistibly salacious scandal that the so-called mainstream media, to its credit, has not exploited to the degree it easily could.

Bad judgment? Absolutely. A criminal conspiracy? I doubt it. More likely it is more a matter of insufferable egos clashing in the White House press room with partisan and ideological overtones. Gannon/Guckert made very clear to all who would listen that part of his agenda was to expose the liberals in the White House press corps -- which is not the job of a White House correspondent. Period. It is the job of the American people and media critics to make those judgments. White House reporters are supposed to focus on the administration, not each other.

What Gannon/Guckert has done through his error in judgment is create a hole that lots of folks are going through.

U.S. Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., inserted themselves into the discussion by sending a letter to Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in charge of the investigation looking for the identity of the person who told syndicated columnist Robert Novak that Valerie Plame secretly worked for the CIA, urging him to subpoena Gannon's private journal -- neatly linking the two issues together. Slaughter also wants the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to determine just how Gannon/Guckert was able to get so close to the president.

U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., got into the act too, asking the White House to explain how Gannon/Guckert or Guckert/Gannon was able to get into the briefings despite the fact that the White House press office has already answered the question.

What places them in an untenable spot is that the Democrats on Capitol Hill are demanding the White House prove they did not do the things various bloggers and others have suggested they did -- like plant Gannon/Guckert in the room to toss softballs to McClellan and, ultimately, the president. And those demands will continue until another shiny object catches their eye.

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(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

Topics: Helen Thomas
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