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When Is a Meeting Not a Meeting?

Grassley-Garland breakfast a classic of the genre

Merrick Garland (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Merrick Garland (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

At least Merrick Garland will get a free breakfast.  

The Obama administration’s Supreme Court pick will enjoy a morning meal on Tuesday at the invitation of Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, who has a major say in whether to advance Garland’s nomination.  

But probing conversation will not be on the menu.  

Grassley has long considered the chief judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit the kind of nominee a Democratic president and a Republican-controlled Senate might agree on. In 1997, he called Garland “highly qualified.”  

But in the cauldron of election-year politics, Grassley and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are holding firm against holding confirmation hearings and votes now that Garland actually has been nominated.  

In fact, the Iowa Republican only agreed to meet with him after taking heat from voters back home over Easter recess. Splitting the difference and observing the niceties now is, in fact, a tradition in political circles. Official Washington even uses the code word “perfunctory” for such drive-bys.  

Here are a few other examples of “meetings” that went down purely for show:  

 JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Turkish president with Obama (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

The Marginalized President The Obama administration has long made clear it needs Turkey heavily involved if its strategy for defeating the Islamic State is to succeed. But when that partnership hit a rough patch in recent months with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan taking exception to President Barack Obama’s criticisms of Turkey’s press freedom things got uncomfortable.  

When Erdoğan traveled to Washington for last week’s nuclear summit, he was not on the list of world leaders to get an official meeting with the president. Instead, the two chatted only briefly on the sideline of a group dinner at the White House.  

The White House didn’t say much about the conversation, but made clear it was — in diplomatic-speak — an unofficial meeting, pointing out in a short statement that they chatted “on the margins” of the summit. Message sent. Message received?  

Harriet Miers making rounds of the Senate (CQ Roll Call)

The W. Loyalist Harriet Miers was a corporate lawyer in Dallas and a George W. Bush loyalist who followed him to the White House in 2001. She eventually became White House counsel. Then, to the shock of just about everyone, Bush nominated her to the Supreme Court in October 2005.  

Things did not go well, and Miers withdrew her nomination later that month. But not before heading to Capitol Hill to huddle — perfunctorily — with Judiciary Committee members and other senators.  

“It was clear to many on both sides of the aisle, I’m sure, that she would not be the ultimate appointee,” said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “But they met with her literally as a courtesy call.”  

Dalai Lama exiting the back door. (Jim Watson AFP/Getty Images)

Trash Bag Diplomacy Sometimes the visuals tell you everything you need to know about the expediencies driving a meeting. Take the Dalai Lama’s brief 2010 White House meeting with Obama. The spiritual leader did not stay long, and was seen exiting the White House via a side door — and walking by bags of trash.  

To make things even more unfortunate, photographers captured the scene. The New York Post called it “Dalai’s not-so-grand exit .” Obama administration officials were eager to avoid making too much of a visit by the leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, fearing it might anger Chinese leaders.  

You never want to upset a prominent investor. But sending the Dalai Lama out the backdoor through a colonnade of trash? That’s just plain wrong.  

Moataz El Hamalawi - Pool/MENA/Getty Images
Obama with Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak (Moataz El Hamalawi – Pool/MENA/Getty Images)

Cold-shoulder in Cairo Hindsight so often brings things into focus. That appears to be the case when taking a second look at Obama’s now-famous trip to Egypt in June 2009 to deliver what many experts consider a historic speech aimed at improving U.S.-Middle East relations.  

Then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had long been a close U.S. ally in the region. But, curiously, Obama only gave Mubarak what Middle East analyst Norvell DeAtkine described on a University of North Carolina blog as “a short, perfunctory meeting.”  

“Some observers believe the speech was intended to go over the heads of the Middle Eastern leaders and directly address the people, appealing to the educated segment of the population,” DeAtkine wrote shortly after Obama’s speech. “Some felt this did not go unnoticed by [Mubarak].”  

How to explain the perceived perfunctory snub? Perhaps this way: Almost two years later, Obama backed a popular uprising that drove the longtime Egyptian strongman from power. With hindsight, the 2009 photo-op seems chilly.  

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Obama with Raul Castro (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Historic Handshake On Dec. 10, 2013, Obama attended Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa. But it was what Obama did when he ascended a small set of stairs inside a Johannesburg stadium that stole many of the headlines.  

Obama extended his hand as the cameras caught up. The world gasped as Cuban President Raúl Castro came into the frame. The leaders of countries that had been bitter rivals for decades then shook hands and exchanged a few words.  

Fast forward more than two years, and Obama has re-opened the U.S. embassy in Havana, began normalizing diplomatic relations and even visited the Caribbean island nation. The moment shows what appears perfunctory one day actually can be the roots of a historic policy shift.  

Contact Bennett at Follow him on Twitter: @BennettJohnT.

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