WASHINGTON – I confess to being surprised by the surprise over the discovery Monday of a drone at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Happily, this particular offender was nothing worse than a hobbyist’s copter gone awry. But the presence of drones at the White House should not come as news to anybody who has ever heard a Joe Biden speech or a press briefing by Josh Earnest. Drones large and small are a fixture at this White House.
Consider Sunday’s appearances by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on all five major network and cable news shows. Speaking days after President Obama’s State of the Union address consumed more than an hour, McDonough consumed another hour or so in his combined appearances and caused 8,000 words to be expended by questioners and guest. The roughly 10 million people who watched McDonough will never have that hour back.
Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked why Obama hadn’t scaled back his agenda even though Republicans won the midterm elections – and McDonough let his drone take wing.
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“Here is what we’ve done since the midterms,” he began. “We’ve normalized relations with Cuba, a policy that for 50 years had been failing. We’ve made great strides on carbon...”
“Respectfully,” Wallace interrupted, “you are not answering my question.”
McDonough droned on. “We laid out a plan for the middle class …”
When interviewers tried to interrupt McDonough’s drone, the results were unsatisfying.
Was Obama offended by House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress?
“I’m not going to get into the back-and-forth on that up on the Hill.”
Why does the world feel more chaotic now than 15 years ago?
“I’m not sure what you were feeling 15 years ago.”
How would McDonough advise the Japanese in dealing with a hostage held by the Islamic State?
“I’m not getting into a conversation with the Japanese on your show. I’m not here to talk about that today.”
What does McDonough think of criticism by hostages’ families that the administration won’t let them negotiate for the release of their loved ones?
“I’m neither going to divulge our conversations with them or get into a negotiation with anybody else through you on this show.”
The drone had his maiden flight in American politics long ago, when John Adams complained to Abigail about long-winded delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. In the 19th century, President William Henry Harrison went on for two hours delivering his 1841 inaugural address in a cold rain without an overcoat or hat. He died a month later.
In modern times, the best-known drone at the White House was Bill Clinton, though he was arguably outflown in this department by his vice president, Al Gore, and by his (and later Obama’s) economic adviser Larry Summers.
The Obama administration has elevated the use of drones to a strategy, helping officials avoid answering questions. You might call this defensive drone warfare.
The same day McDonough consumed a great quantity of airtime to say very little, Obama, in India, fielded a question from the Associated Press’ Julie Pace, who asked whether the upheaval in Yemen undermines his citing the country as a model for U.S. anti-terrorism efforts. Obama’s answer took him 1,024 words, but the gist of it was 12: “Yemen has never been a perfect democracy or an island of stability.”
On Monday, it was Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker’s turn to pilot the drone, at a news conference in India with Earnest and other White House officials. “Our relationship with India has been a central component of America’s rebalance to Asia,” she said, adding that “the last two days have demonstrated that over the years India and the United States have systematically forged an indispensable partnership that’s about shared values and shared interests.” A central component of a rebalance to systematically forge an indispensable partnership?
Yes indeed, and Pritzker had more blabbity-blah about how the two countries “committed to confronting the political and economic challenges” and how they expanded a “strategic and commercial dialogue” to “capitalize on abundant opportunities.”
Pritzker was good, but perhaps nobody in the Obama administration is as proficient in the drone department as Secretary of State John Kerry. He gave a news conference in Nigeria on Sunday, but his opening statement left time for only two questioners. “I came here today to deliver a very simple message,” Kerry began – then he spoke 1,116 more words before coming in for a landing.
In an administration of drones, there’s no such thing as a simple message.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.