The busy, busy White House beat

It’s been a big couple of weeks for Catholic news connected to the White House.

An interview with President Barack Obama, a gathering of the President’s Council on Faith-Based and Community Partnerships, the meeting last Friday between the president and Pope Benedict XVI, and, today, the opening of confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor and the announcement that Dr. Regina Benjamin has been nominated as surgeon general.  Both women are Catholic, though Sotomayor apparently has not been particularly active in a church recently.

President Barack Obama holds a round-table briefing with journalists from the Catholic press and the Washington Post in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington July 2. (CNS/White House)

President Barack Obama holds a round-table briefing with journalists from the Catholic press and the Washington Post in the Roosevelt Room of the White House July 2. (CNS/White House)

The round-table interview President Barack Obama gave to eight religion reporters and editors on July 2 was itself a goldmine of material.

We at CNS had separate stories about the president’s clarification of his intentions on a federal conscience clause for health care workers; his family’s quest for a church in Washington; discussion of his efforts to get pro-life and pro-choice camps working together on abortion reduction and on his hopes for his meeting with Pope Benedict the following week.

That last theme was the announced point of the press event, scheduled as a lead-in to the meeting with the pope, the two leaders’ first in-person encounter, which took place July 10 at the end of Obama’s visit to Italy for the G-8 summit.

Most of us in the interview at least tried to frame our questions in light of something related to Pope Benedict. However, as Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen points out in his blog on America magazine’s Web site, most of the questions were ultimately about U.S. domestic issues.

Some of our clients have asked me whether the interview was just so much spin, intended to boost Obama’s image among Catholics before the papal meeting. Of course something like that was part of what the White House had in mind. And everyone in the Roosevelt Room knew it.

But there were no restrictions on what we asked. The president took on all our questions — papal meeting-related and not — and answered them in depth, demonstrating a good grasp of why the issues we raised are important to our readers.

In the end, the round table served all our interests. Seven Catholic publications, none of which has the capability to staff the White House press room on a full-time basis (and a religion writer for the Washington Post who also doesn’t usually cover the White House), got our first access to the president. He was gracious and very engaged in our discussion.

No such meetings with religion media — at least none that included the mainstream Catholic press — ever took place during the administration of President George W. Bush.

President Bill Clinton had the Catholic press in once for a similar round table and on a second occasion I was included with religion reporters from various denominational press for another group interview.

The round table on July 2 was a part of outreach to religion media — and to religious leaders in general — that has far exceeded efforts of any presidential administration in the nearly two decades I’ve been on this beat.

Though there are surely detractors, this approach apparently has the backing of many on the White House staff.

One of those executive staff members, Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, accompanied Obama on his visit to the Vatican, briefing reporters before and after the meeting with the pope.

But much of the groundwork in making arrangements and briefing the president before the meeting was the work of Obama’s main Catholic adviser, Mark Linton.

Though Linton’s official job is at the office for faith-based outreach at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he’s continued to serve the role he had during the presidential campaign, as a liaison between Obama and Catholic leaders and communities.

Given the course of interactions with the Catholic Church in these first six months — from the uproar over Obama’s commencement address at Notre Dame to the reversal of the Mexico City policy on funding for family planning organizations, from ongoing collaboration between church-based organizations on immigration and health care legislation to the visit to the Vatican — Linton has more than had his work cut out for him.

Amid all that, I’m glad he remembered to invite the Catholic press in for a chat with the president.

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