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Knoller: In The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

CBS White House Correspondent Mark Knoller offers his assessment of President Bush's press conference this morning – and talks about why he wasn't there…

Talk about being out of pocket.

You probably didn't notice, but one part of the White House Press Corps wasn't able to attend the President's news conference this morning.

At the time, we were aboard the White House press plane en route to Kennebunkport, Maine where Pres. Bush is now spending a long weekend.

So instead of attending the hastily announced Q-&-A session in the White House briefing room where I should have been and otherwise would have been, I watched it from 39,000 feet aboard the chartered jetBlue Airbus A320 that served as the press plane on this trip. On that aircraft, passengers can watch a number of broadcast and cable channels downlinked from the DIRECTV satellite.

But it was a frustrating experience. When the White House put out the word at about 9:00 this morning, I was sitting in the press waiting area at Andrews Air Force Base.

When I left the White House last evening, the only event on the President's schedule for today was his departure via Marine One at 12:15PM.

But I'm told the President began the day by deciding to hold a news conference before leaving town for some 2½ weeks.

After all, he was already up-to-speed for one. He had held a joint press availability on Monday at Camp David with Afghanistan's Pres. Hamid Karzai. And then yesterday, he sat for an interview with Fox News business anchor Neil Cavuto, followed by a 45-minute roundtable session with a group of print reporters.

So he didn't have to do much prepping for an open session with the rest of the press.

By my count, this was the 36th formal, solo White House news conference of his presidency. Now, that's not a lot. But if you count all the abbreviated press sessions he has with foreign leaders at home and abroad, his total jumps to 177. And that doesn't count the hundreds of photo ops at which he agrees to answer a couple of questions.

Among reporters, there are differences on whether Pres. Bush is wary if not scared of news conferences. I don't think he likes them, but he's definitely not scared of them.

He's better than most of his predecessors at tolerating blunt and pointed questions, though he seemed a bit miffed today when David Greene of NPR asked him if he holds subordinates accountable for their conduct considering his clemency for 'Scooter' Libby and his support for Attorney General Gonzales.

"Lewis Libby was held accountable," he insisted. "He was declared guilty by a jury and he's paid a high price for it."

As for Gonzales, the President took issue with the premise of the question.

"I haven't seen Congress say he's done anything wrong," said Mr. Bush of Gonzales.

"Why would I hold somebody accountable who has done nothing wrong?"

His news conference didn't produce bulletin news, but there were nuggets worthy of reporting. And I certainly would have preferred to be in my seat in the briefing room than in the 7th row of the press plane.

Reflecting a reporter's inflated sense of his own importance, I can just imagine the President saying: "What's that? Knoller's on the press to Kennebunkport? Great. Let's have a news conference!"

In reality, he couldn't care less. Although I felt he owed me one.

At his news conference last month, he called on every reporter in the front row, and then was making his way down the second row. One by one, he headed in my direction. And then, just as he finished answering the query of the reporter on my right, and I expected to be called on next, he ended the session.

As it turned out, I could have been on a plane that day too.

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