In the 32 years since I began covering the White House, I have never before had one of my questions the presidential press secretary refused to answer later be raised by members of Congress.
On July 12, however, a letter from 19 members of the House of Representatives to “The Honorable George H.W. Bush, president” reads as follows:
“Dear President Bush,
“On May 26, 2005, your press secretary, Scott McClellan, refused to answer a question about whether you are ‘opposed to contraception.’ Mr. McClellan said that he would not dignify the simple question with a response. Nearly a month later, we are still waiting for an answer from you.
“Mr. President, do you support the right to use contraception?
“Ninety-five percent of American women will use birth control at some time in their lives, and contraception is essential to healthy family planning, the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and minimizing the need for abortions.
“Today, the right to contraception is under attack by some pharmacists who have recently refused to fill valid and legal prescriptions for birth control pills and other contraceptives. Before this trend grows, responsible men and women need the president to stand up in support of their rights to contraception, not to shy away from the issue.
“Mr. President, this pervasive issue is essential to reproductive freedom and healthy family planning. We urge you to be forthright and to let the American people know where you stand. We respectfully request that you clarify your support or opposition to contraception.”
This letter to the president was organized by Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida. Among the 19 signatures from seven states – all Democrats – are Henry Waxman and Barney Frank.
The “Dear Colleague” letter that obtained these signatures included a transcript of the daily White House news briefing on May 26, 2005, with the following exchange:
Q: There are news reports this morning that parents and children who were guests of the president, when they visited Congress, wore stickers with the wording, “I was an embryo.” And my question is, since all of us were once embryos, and all of us were once part sperm and egg, is the president also opposed to contraception, which stops this union and kills both sperm and egg?
MR. McCLELLAN: I think the president has made his views known on these issues, and his views known –
Q: You know, but what I asked, is he opposed – he’s not opposed to contraception, is he?
MR. McCLELLAN: – well, and you’ve made your views known, as well. The president –
Q: No, no, but is he opposed to contraception, Scott? Could you just tell us yes or no?
MR. McCLELLAN: Les, I think that this question is –
Q: Well, is he? Does he oppose contraception?
MR. McCLELLAN: Les, I think the president’s views are very clear when it comes to building a culture of life –
Q: If they were clear, I wouldn’t have asked.
MR. McCLELLAN: – and if you want to ask those questions, that’s fine. I’m just not going to dignify them with a response.
Will President Bush also refuse to dignify with a response my question as repeated by 19 members of the U.S. House of Representatives from seven of the United States?
I shall endeavor to see at one of the White House news briefings before the president goes to his Texas ranch during the congressional recess in August.
I realize it is rare indeed that any press questions at the White House are backed up by Congress – particularly by congressmen with whom I often disagree, like Waxman and Frank.
But I am grateful that they did and am renewed in my intention not to play softball with any president.