On Monday morning, Washington awoke to learn that Commerce Secretary John Bryson had been involved in a series of auto accidents in southern California on Saturday evening, and cited with a felony hit-and-run by responding police. This news was of course shocking.
For several hours, the White House and the Commerce Department declined comment. In this vacuum, the rumors took a life of their own. Some speculated there was alcohol involved, despite initial police accounts that this was not the case. After official statements reported seizures were the cause of the accidents, the ire turned on that initial speculation, blaming the sardonic culture of Twitter.
But the entirety of blame did not lie with those on the social network. Nobody can deny that Twitter is not a forgiving place absent of (sometimes inappropriate) snark and vitriol, but it is also a venue for compassion, which is evidenced any time a notable figure passes away and the timeline becomes a place for remembrance and prayer. Some rightly issued apologies for inappropriate remarks, and the discussion largely fell silent.
Part of the blame surely lay at the feet of an inept White House communications operation, unable to provide the general public with any answers to the health and well-being of a cabinet secretary. This media stonewall continued in Press Secretary Jay Carney’s daily briefing.
In Carney’s first answer, we learned that President Obama had not spoken with Secretary Bryson. This seemed odd. A cabinet secretary is hospitalized following serious traffic incidents and a police citation and the president does not pick up the phone to check on his welfare?
Pressed for details, Carney continually directed questions to the Commerce Department. As if this matter had nothing to do with the White House. On the fifth question, Carney was asked: “So as the matter stands right now, is the Secretary healthy and fit to serve?” Carney referred the question to the Commerce Department.
Later in the briefing, Carney said the White House was alerted on Sunday evening and the president was informed on Monday morning. Again, this strikes even the casual observer as odd. The Commerce Secretary is tenth in the presidential line of succession and there is a government-wide Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) that ensures that the executive branch leadership is accounted for and able to serve.
Did the President of the United States really find out at the same time as the general public that 36 hours beforehand his Commerce Secretary had been hospitalized? And if so, was his first concern the fact that his staff left him in the dark unnecessarily for so many hours?
Later that afternoon, the president did a series of local television interviews, in which he was asked about the situation. The president reiterated that he had still not spoken to Secretary Bryson and that he had “just found out about this today.”
Later that evening, at 10 pm, the White House issued a statement declaring that Secretary Bryson was taking a medical leave of absence and that Deputy Secretary Rebecca Blank would serve as Acting Secretary. While White House statements at 10 pm are not absolutely abnormal, they are rare. This fit the mold of the bizarre events of the day.
Let’s be clear, everyone hopes Secretary Bryson is well, recovering and getting the medical attention he needs. Bryson is in the prayers of countless Americans. But the reaction of the White House to this news has made a strange set of circumstances seem odder than likely necessary.
President Obama certainly has an estranged relationship with his cabinet, preferring to govern mostly out of the White House. But according to White House Visitor Logs, John Bryson actually visited more often than many of his colleagues–a total of 31 times (barring multiple John Brysons). Energy Secretary Steven Chu had visited 17 times and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has only swung by 13 times. To put that in context, Democratic consultant Hilary Rosen has visited the White House 33 times and union boss Richard Trumka has visited 69 times.
The White House has more questions to answer. These questions do not require them to divulge any private or health-related information if Bryson and his family choose to not share that information. But White House officials should explain why the president was left in the dark, why the president is still not in touch with his cabinet secretary and why they had such a hard time gathering facts over two days.
If the position of the Commerce Secretary does not merit that type of attention, then shouldn’t the focus be placed on the necessity of the position in the first place?
**Update** ABC News now reports that President Obama finally called Secretary Bryson Tuesday morning.