So much for a news vacation

CIA report, doubling deficit, and Bernanke's nomination mean no R&R for Obama

As the White House press corps flew to Martha’s Vineyard on Sunday, press secretary Bill Burton assured reporters that the president wouldn’t be the only one on vacation.

“He wants you to relax and have a good time,” Burton said. “Take some walks on the beaches. Nobody is looking to make any news.”

So much for that.

In the 48 hours that President Barack Obama has been on vacation, the CIA released a report that reignited the torture debate, Attorney General Eric Holder appointed a special investigator to examine the treatment of terrorism detainees, and the OMB projected a doubling of the national debt over the next 10 years.

Indeed, there’s been so much news that, when Obama announced Tuesday morning that he’s nominating Ben Bernanke for a second term at the Fed, he had to start by saying he was sorry.

"I apologize for interrupting the relaxing I told all of you to do,” he told reporters summoned to the announcement at the Oak Bluffs Elementary School.

So what about those walks on the beach?

“Sometimes news happens — I believe that’s the reason for the first three letters of that word,” Burton told POLITICO via e-mail Tuesday.

Burton said that Obama interrupted his vacation — and the press corps’ — to make the Bernanke announcement because he “thought there was a need to put to rest building speculation.”

But CBS correspondent Chip Reid suggested that there might be some ulterior motives at work: The White House would rather not have news of the OMB report — with its projections of higher-than-expected unemployment rates and budget deficits — paired with footage of the First Family frolicking in the waves.

“I actually believed them when they said there would be no news,” said Reid, who made the trek to Martha’s Vineyard anyway. “But the White House is so good at responding to any bad news, it's so hard to imagine them not doing it. They went back to form in responding to what would have been an ugly picture — him golfing with a $9 trillion deficit in the headlines.”

Instead, the White House gets fresh video of the president and Bernanke, talking business in matching blue blazers and open-collared dress shirts. The bonus: The Bernanke appointment swings the focus back to the economy — and the improving Dow — rather than the more contentious question of health care reform.

The news may have caught reporters and their bosses off guard, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t ready. CNN political director Sam Feist said that regardless of what the White House says, the network needs to be able to handle any “surprises,” even in the dog days of August.

“We’re ready. We have to be,” Feist said. “Some of these stories, the White House can’t predict. Some of them they can predict. Our job is to cover the news. We need to be ready and fully staffed to do it.”

And while the breaking news means the reporters will have to work on their tans another day, it also relieves them of having to invent news while the president is golfing — and of having to feel a little sheepish about not really working when they’re supposed to be working.

The Wall Street Journal’s Elizabeth Williamson said that covering a presidential vacation can feel “almost like cutting class in college.” News like the Bernanke announcement solves that.

"If it were genuinely quiet, we'd be doing a lot of blog items and looking around for features, but instead we are covering real news. And for the Journal, the Bernanke story is huge for us,” Williamson said. “It just seems like something always blows up in August, and that seems to be holding true."

Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this report.

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