The Biden Beach Bash and the Ethics of Enjoying an Afternoon

Every Halloween, when Al and Tipper Gore lived at 1 Observatory Circle, they threw a costume party for journalists and staffers. Ted Kennedy's office Christmas Parties were famous for his Santa Claus impersonations. Even the Cheneys opened the doors of their house to cocktail parties where journalists were sometimes invited. Journalists of a certain rank -- a rank higher than mine -- are often invited to State Dinners. The White House brings in anchors and correspondents to brunch with the president before the State of the Union addresses. So the decision by Vice President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden to throw a summer hootenanny on their front lawn is part of a long tradition of convivial commingling.

rahme.jpgAccepting a few hours worth of hospitality from the Bidens may be just that -- a chance for families to get together and enjoy each other's company. The main attraction, aside from the Vice President and his family, were the rides for kids, the face painting, and the moon bounce. The adults chit-chatted on the upper part of the lawn while the kids -- journalists' kids, Biden's family, the children of White House officials -- chased each other around with water guns. It was a nice way to spend a hot Saturday afternoon.

But these aren't ordinary afternoons, and the very idea that a journalist would accept a slice of watermelon from the Vice President strikes many a critical activist as criminally insane -- an example of the cozy relationships that exist between journalists and their sources, an example of how the oppositional role of the press has been compromised by people in power.

Well, yes. The relationships can be cordial, occasionally cozy, and they can simultaneously be professional and skeptical. Indeed, has there ever been a time when journalists and the political establishment have been MORE skeptical about each other?

I take this argument to heart: journalists worthy of the name ought to be on duty 24 hours a day, and in an ideal world, any opportunity to interact with administration officials should be an opportunity to grill those officials on any range of subjects.  Journalists, if they're good for anything, should use whatever access they have to consistently and relentless pressure powerful interests. We're at war; the government is detaining people indefinitely; there's a huge oil spill in the gulf; there are better things to do.

But a bunch of really good, hardened, news-breaking, interest-accountable holding reporters are in fact able to share more comfortable moments with people they cover. For the record, the event was paid for by the Democratic National Committee, not by taxpayers.  There was no additional Secret Service presence needed, so I don't think the afternoon produced any hidden costs to the government.

Am I fatally compromised?

Well, I walked out of the Naval Observatory Saturday afternoon. I carried a view of the Vice President I hadn't before seen, a few tips from senior administration officials about a variety of subjects, a wet shirt from Rahm Emanuel's water gun, and that's about it.

Perhaps that warm feeling will lead me to somehow subconsciously cover the vice president less aggressively. Actually, in writing about the event, which was on the record, I may never get an invitation to one again. And that's OK. I know readers are interested in these types of things, and I think there is some value in sharing how one journalist rationalizes them, even if it will only serve to make critics more angry.

This was an experience, a chance to catch up with sources, a chance to observe the Vice President in his natural element, a chance to see the chief of staff interact with his family, a chance to kibitz with other journalists. We did talk about Helen Thomas.

My self-identity as a journalist has evolved from the days when I used to see myself as a neutral arbiter between equal parties. I trust the government less than I did.  Two weeks ago, I wrote about a Defense Intelligence Agency intelligence facility and the way in which its operators may be circumventing restrictions on interrogations. I wasn't rounded up and thrown into jail. I had some rough conversations with senior administration officials. And then I shared  a beer (well, not really, because I don't drink) with those same officials. I'm working on a follow-up to the DIA story. I continue to believe that the White House political operation is tame. I continue to believe that Iraq is much less stable than it appears to be. I'm still fairly certain that health care will wind up costing taxpayers more than current estimates project (although with less of an impact than doubters believe).