WASHINGTON — A crack appeared Thursday in a White House communications operation known for staying on message -- in the form of a vice president with a habit of speaking his mind.
It happened when Joe Biden went on a morning talk show and, almost as if he hadn't gotten talking points, veered off the team's message about how to avoid swine flu.
Biden said he was telling his family members to avoid confined spaces such as planes and subway trains. The trouble is, the administration is trying to tamp down alarm over the flu with a message about skipping only unnecessary travel to Mexico and simply staying home when feeling sick.
"It's not that it's going to Mexico. It's you're in a confined aircraft; when one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft," the vice president said on NBC's "Today" show.
"I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway," he continued. ". . . . If you're out in the middle of a field and someone sneezes, that's one thing. If you're in a closed aircraft or closed container or closed car or closed classroom, it's a different thing."
The U.S. travel industry was quick to complain about the comments, and the White House scrambled to respond. It first issued a statement repackaging the vice president's words, and later offered a shrug and an apology.
The gaffe was a reminder of Biden's penchant for the impolitic comment, a sometimes embarrassing habit that can have greater consequences now that he is vice president.
Noting in a letter to President Obama that Biden is a "very senior administration official,' Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) said that the vice president's words "could do unnecessary and irreparable harm to the airline and travel industries."
Industry officials agreed.
"Elected officials must strike a delicate balance of accurately and adequately informing citizens of health concerns without unduly discouraging travel and other important economic activity," said Roger Dow, president of the U.S. Travel Assn.
The State Department has issued an advisory warning against travel to Mexico, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is not suggesting that people shun public transportation.
Instead of seeking to rebut the travel industry's criticism, the White House admitted error and tried to move on.
"I think the vice president misrepresented what the vice president wanted to say," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
"The advice he is giving family members is the same advice the administration is giving to all Americans: That they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico," said Elizabeth Alexander, the vice president's spokeswoman, rewriting Biden's words a bit.
"If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways," she said.
Later in the day, Gibbs was pressed about the discrepancy between Biden's original words and the White House's.
"I understand what he said. I'm telling you what he meant to say," Gibbs said.
"Obviously, if anyone was alarmed, we apologize for that."