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Helen Was Right … and So Was Gibbs


When we posted a FactCheck Wire item last week about a dispute between White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and longtime correspondent Helen Thomas, we were surprised that Gibbs didn’t know President Obama had taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago’s law school. That’s a fact that had come up many times during the campaign, after all, including during a kerfuffle about whether Obama had the right to call himself a "professor."

Well, sometimes you have to walk a story back so far it falls off a cliff.

Here’s how the April 14 exchange went, according to the official White House transcript:

Thomas: Why is the president blocking habeas corpus from prisoners at Bagram? I thought he taught constitutional law. And these prisoners have been there …

Gibbs: You’re incorrect that he taught on constitutional law.

Thomas: … for many years with no due process.

But a YouTube clip of the exchange shows what was actually said:

Thomas: Why is the president blocking habeas corpus from prisoners at Bagram? I thought he taught constitutional law. And these prisoners have been there …

Gibbs: You’re not incorrect that he taught on constitutional law. [emphasis ours]

Thomas: … for many years with no due process.

Our friends at PolitiFact discovered the discrepancy.

We have alerted the White House to the crucial missing word in its transcript. A spokesman said he would look into it; it’s possible that by the time you read this, the transcript will have been corrected. And we have deleted our original item, since it no longer has a point.

Update, May 1: As of 11 a.m. today, the White House had not corrected its transcript, and the Wall Street Journal, which had written about the exchange, hadn’t updated its article. For the record, we reprint our original post below, with strike-throughs:

Helen Was Right

By Brooks Jackson – April 22nd, 2009.

Did President Obama teach constitutional law or not? The question came up at a White House press briefing on April 14, when the president’s press secretary publicly contradicted veteran reporter Helen Thomas on that point.

Thomas: Why is the president blocking habeas corpus from prisoners at Bagram? I thought he taught constitutional law. And these prisoners have been there …

Gibbs: You’re incorrect that he taught on constitutional law.

Thomas: … for many years with no due process.

The contradiction was left unresolved and might have continued to go unnoticed had the Wall Street Journal not reprinted this exchange as the lead of an April 21 opinion piece by William McGurn, former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

McGurn’s main contention was that Thomas had raised a valid point about the administration’s efforts to deny rights to prisoners held in Afghanistan. But he also seemed to imply that Gibbs was right and Thomas was wrong about the president’s credentials as a teacher of constitutional law: "All Mr. Gibbs could do was interrupt and correct the doyenne of the White House press corps about Mr. Obama’s class as a law professor," McGurn wrote.

Actually, Thomas was right and Gibbs was wrong.

According to the University of Chicago Law School:

U.C. Law School News Release, Nov. 4 2008: Barack Obama taught at the Law School from 1992 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004. During those years, he brought a dynamic teaching presence to his courses, which included "Constitutional Law III: Equal Protection," "Voting Rights and the Democratic Process," and a seminar entitled "Current Issues in Racism and the Law."

And the White House says the same thing in the president’s online biography:

White House Web Site: Upon graduation [from Harvard Law School], he returned to Chicago to help lead a voter registration drive, teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and remain active in his community.