Unanswer Man

McClellan Speaks to the Press
(Ron Edmonds -- AP)

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By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 22, 2005

On the Thursday morning after his reelection in November 2004, President Bush bounded unexpectedly into the Roosevelt Room of the White House, where about 15 members of his communications team were celebrating. He just wanted to thank everyone for their hard work on the campaign, he said, before singling someone out.

"Is Scotty here? Where's Scotty?" Bush asked, half-grinning, according to two people who were in the meeting but asked not to be quoted by name because they were discussing a private event. Bush scanned the room for Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary.

"I want to especially thank Scotty," the president said, looking at his aide. "I want to thank Scotty for saying" -- and he paused for effect. . . .

" Nothing ."

At which point everyone laughed and the president left the room.

This is one of those quips that distill a certain essence of the game. In this era of on-message orthodoxy, the republic has evolved to where the leader of the free world can praise his most visible spokesman for saying nothing.

Those were considerably less embattled days for the Bush administration, which has since endured a difficult year. It's been "a perfect storm of bad news," says Mark McKinnon, the president's longtime advertising consultant, listing Hurricane Katrina, Iraq and the CIA leak investigation. McClellan, per his job description, has borne the daily brunt of it.

The weary White House frontman is an iconic Washington role, epitomized over the years by Nixon's Ron Ziegler during Watergate and Clinton's Mike McCurry during Monica. A ceremonial flak jacket hangs in the closet of McClellan's West Wing office, following in a tradition of previous tenants, beginning with Ford spokesman Ron Nessen. The press secretary delivers an administration's daily boilerplate and also serves as a storm wall, or "human piñata" in the words of Ari Fleischer, whom McClellan succeeded on July 15, 2003, the day after Robert Novak outed CIA analyst Valerie Plame in a column.

"It may not look like it," McClellan, 37, said from the podium after an especially tough week recently. "But there's a little flesh that's been taken out of me the last few days." This is as close as McClellan will flirt in the briefing room with conveying something beyond the preapproved white noise. Indeed, he has been credited -- or blamed -- for taking the craft of party-line discipline to new heights, or depths.

Bottled Up in a Message

Last Friday reporters battered McClellan over a New York Times report that the president had authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without warrants on people in the United States. Over several minutes, McClellan emphasized that:

The president is doing all he can to protect the American people from terrorists (10 times);

The administration is committed to protecting civil liberties and upholding the Constitution (seven times);


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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