Dick Cheney, 'Senior Administrative Official'

Vice President Dick Cheney was caught with his pronouns down earlier this week. He spoke grudgingly to reporters on his plane only as a "Senior Administrative Official" — and then talked about himself in the first person. What purpose does this kind of farcical kabuki dance serve? Is he speaking any more candidly than he would have on the record?

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

During Vice President Dick Cheney's recent trip to Asia, reporters traveling with him clamored for an interview. Instead, they were briefly allowed to question someone they could only identify as a senior Bush administration official.

But as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, things got very complicated.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: What if I couldn't say whose dream this was?

MARTIN LUTHER KING: Because I have a dream...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

LUTHER KING: ...that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they...

FOLKENFLIK: Well, what if this next person was identified only as a very senior official in the Clinton administration?

BILL CLINTON: I want you to listen to me. I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.

FOLKENFLIK: That might give you a taste of how surreal it was for reporters covering Vice President Cheney's return from Asia. Here's what that senior administration official traveling on the vice president's plane said about Cheney's efforts to pressure Pakistan President Pervez Musharaff about the Taliban.

Quote, "I've seen some press reporting that says Cheney went in to beat up on them, threaten them. That's not the way I work. I don't know who would write that, or maybe someone gets it from a source who doesn't know what I'm doing or isn't involved in it. But the idea that I'd go in and threaten someone is an invalid misreading of the way I do business."

The only person who could have been talking is Cheney himself. But the vice president's aides rejected reporter's demands to identify him. Leon Panetta served as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LEON PANETTA: I mean, that's the kind of thing, you know, that you ask yourself: What is he thinking?

FOLKENFLIK: Reporters asked White House Press Secretary Tony Snow yesterday again if the media-averse vice president would drop the pretense. They didn't get far.

TONY SNOW: I've spoken with the vice president's office, and the ground rules that were laid out are going to remain in effect.

FOLKENFLIK: Cheney's spokeswoman Megan McGinn issued a statement to NPR that said, quote, "We believed it was important to provide the press and the public with a briefing on these important meetings, and it was determined that a more comprehensive readout could be provided on a background basis."

Ron Hutcheson is the White House correspondent for McClatchy newspapers. He says that's absurd.

RON HUTCHESON: It's a silly game a lot of times. And the problem is it's really hard to put a stop to it, because in this case, the vice president has the leverage.

FOLKENFLIK: Interviews done on background - that is, not for direct attribution by name - are supposed to allow government officials to offer candid explanations of delicate issues. But Hutcheson says officials like Cheney, speaking on background invariably spin the same way they do on the record. Of course, there's one irony: none of this prevents government officials from complaining about the White House Press Corps reliance on unauthorized, anonymous sources.

David Folkenflik - hey, wait a minute. Let's just call me an unidentified media correspondent for NPR News, shall we?

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