What they said: How the media and Gibbs sparred over Jimmy Carter's race remark on Obama
You have to hand it to the White House press corps. It knows how to stay on topic. As seen during a White House briefing this week, the reporters repeatedly asked about President Carter’s remark that racism is driving some opposition to President Obama.
The excerpts below make for intriguing reading, as White House spokesman Robert Gibbs discussed Carter, public perception, race relations in general and the arrest this summer of a black Harvard professor by a white police officer.
The Wednesday press briefing began with several questions about healthcare and foreign affairs. Then came the first question on Carter, combined with a query about the activist group ACORN. The unedited excerpts were taken from a transcript prepared by the White House:
Q: Okay. And I just wanted to get the White House reaction to a couple items in the news. One is former President Jimmy Carter saying that he believes an overwhelming majority of the intensely demonstrated animosity towards the President is because he’s black and those voters can’t accept the fact that a black man is President. And also an organization the President a long time ago did file that motor voter law for, ACORN --
GIBBS: A larger group of legal entities --
Q: Along with them, ACORN, a group the President has had some ties with over the years. The Census Bureau eliminated their relationship with that group for the 2010 census and the Senate overwhelmingly voted to cut off housing funding. And I was just wondering the White House reaction to either of those.
GIBBS: Well, let’s take a look at what former President Carter said. The answer that I’m going to give is the same answer that I gave on Sunday, when I was asked this question. The President does not believe that that criticism comes based on the color of his skin. We understand that people have disagreements with...
...some of the decisions that we’ve made and some of the extraordinary actions that had to be undertaken by both this administration and previous administrations to stabilize our financial system, to ensure viability of our domestic auto industry. I don’t think that -- like I said, the President does not believe that it’s based on the color of his skin.
You know, Jake, as it relates to ACORN, obviously the conduct that you see on those tapes is completely unacceptable. I think everyone would agree with that. The administration takes accountability extremely seriously. I think the Census Bureau evaluated and determined that this group could not meet the bureau’s goal of achieving a fair and accurate count in 2010.
And I assume others are evaluating to ensure, as we always are, that any grantee, whether that grant was let in this administration or in previous administrations -- there’s housing counseling grants that were let in previous administrations; FEMA grants that were let in previous administrations -- that we constantly evaluate to ensure that any grantee is living up to what has to happen in order to fulfill that grant application.
Q: Are you saying that the President is not concerned about the climate of hate in this country today?
GIBBS: No, I don’t think that was -- I think that was neither --
Q: That’s a direct quote. (Laughter.)
GIBBS: I think that was neither Jake’s question nor my answer.
Q: You don’t think it’s race-based?
GIBBS: No, I simply said I didn’t think and I don’t think the President believes that the majority of those that are upset at actions that have to be taken are --
Q: Why are they so upset that people get health care?
GIBBS: That’s a question for somebody that has that view. I’m somewhat in a bad situation to interpret that for them.
[And so it went. The questioning continued in the sometimes chaotic manner of press briefings, bouncing from topic to topic — healthcare, Carter and White House “czars.” Eventually, the questioning returned yet again to Carter. Once more to the transcript.]
Q: There’s obviously a national conversation going on about race and the role it has or hasn’t played in some of the hostility toward the President. Why is he or why are you so reluctant to talk about it? I mean, you were reluctant to talk about the House vote on Joe Wilson. You’re reluctant to talk about --
GIBBS: I think we talked about it. I don’t want to quote Bill, but I think Bill said that the House vote was a House matter and that the President had accepted his apology.
Q: Okay, I interpreted that as reluctance to get into it.
GIBBS: You didn’t ask me about the House renaming a post office last week, but I don’t think that demonstrates our reluctance to -- no, I’m not going to get into House business. That’s their business.
Q: I guess my question really is that he gave this big speech during the campaign on race. There’s now a conversation that’s risen to the level of a former President about race. Can we expect him to talk about that, to address it in any way, or is your hope to keep him away from this conversation and focused on other things?
GIBBS: Well, I think most people that see him understand that he’s an African American. So this whole notion that somehow people won’t see or notice that has always, to me, been something of a peculiar line of either questioning or reasoning. Look, I’m just simply saying I don’t think -- that the President does not believe that -- I forget exactly how the original question was -- that the majority of this is based on that. I just don’t subscribe to that. Yes, sir.
Q: If the incident in Cambridge was viewed in the President’s eyes as a teachable moment for the country, why is this not a teachable moment, in terms of the role that race is playing in society?
GIBBS: Which --
Q: The discussion going on right now, from the House floor to the former President to those remarks. Why is this not a teachable moment for this President to lend his voice?
GIBBS: Obviously the President has and has always had great concerns about race relations in this country. He’s talked about them in speeches. He’s talked about them throughout his career in politics; believes we’ve made great strides, and obviously we’ve got work to do. But I don’t -- I’m not sure I see this large national conversation going on right now.
Q: Has the White House instructed any Democrats or asked any Democrats, either in the House or Representatives or elsewhere, to stop talking about race and to get back to the health care legislation?
GIBBS: No. Ann, do you want to --
Q: What impact does it have when a former President of the United States, someone who came from the South, someone who worked against discrimination all of his career, says that the -- what was it -- an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity is because he’s black? What effect does that have on the country when a former President says that?
GIBBS: Look, you know, it adds to -- it adds to our dialogue. I’m just simply saying I don’t think the President agrees with that.
-- Steve Padilla
Photo: Gibbs at the White House Wednesday. Credit: Associated Press