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Unanswer Man
Scott McClellan Is the President's Spokesman, Which Doesn't Leave Him Much to Say

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);

Congress has an important oversight role, and the administration is committed to working with it on these difficult matters (five times); and

He would not discuss ongoing intelligence activities (five times).

It was all on live television and in the news conference transcripts, which are posted on the White House Web site and then e-mailed around, deconstructed, blogged about, picked over and scoured throughout a vast electronic briefing space. The words of White House spokesmen have never been so widely or quickly distributed.

"You can't make a mistake," says Marlin Fitzwater, White House press secretary in the first Bush administration, whom McClellan sought out for advice before he started the job. "So you just get into a routine of repeating the same thing over and over again."

"I would urge you not to confuse clarity with rigidity," says Nicolle Wallace, the White House communications director, who works closely with McClellan. "There is great clarity in the way the president wants us to communicate, and Scott embodies that."

When briefings get tense, McClellan's voice can become robotic, as if he's a hostage reading a statement. His body language can betray unease: He starts blinking rapidly and he clenches his shoulders as an interrogator unfurls a question.

"There's no question the dynamic of the briefing room has changed with live TV," says senior White House aide Dan Bartlett, who also works closely with McClellan. "When you have live cameras rolling, it makes for an even more stressful working environment. You're talking about difficult issues, and mistakes get compounded."

Colleagues (on-message) say McClellan has held up well in these difficult months. Others (off-message) say he's had a tough time, has lost hair, gained jowls and looks stressed, especially over the Plame case, which made a return to the briefing room Thursday after an absence of a few weeks.

It started when the president told Fox News's Brit Hume last week that he believed that Rep. Tom DeLay was not guilty of money-laundering charges in Texas. This undercut McClellan's vow that he would not comment on the Plame matter because it is an "ongoing investigation," something he has repeated hundreds of times in recent months. We join Thursday's episode in progress:

Reporter: "Why would that not apply to the same type of prosecution involving Congressman DeLay?"

McClellan: "I just told you we had a policy in place regarding this investigation, and you've heard me say before that we're not going to talk about it further while it's ongoing."

In a flurry of follow-ups, McClellan repeated that the White House had a policy on the Plame case (four times) and that the policy was not to comment (three times).

NBC's David Gregory broke in, declaring the administration to be "inconsistent," then "hypocritical."

"You have a policy for some investigations and not others, when it's a political ally who you need to get work done?" Gregory asked.

McClellan: "Call it presidential prerogative; he responded to that question. But the White House established a policy." He mentioned that the DeLay case is a "legal proceeding."

Gregory: "As is the Fitzgerald investigation. . . . As you've told us ad nauseam from the podium."

After more back-and-forth, McClellan said, "You can get all dramatic about it, but you know what our policy is."

Which ended that exchange.

"We've come to understand that no matter how we slice and dice something, Scott's going to stick to the recipe," says Ken Herman, White House correspondent for Cox News Service. "I can't think of any topic where on the sixth or seventh iteration of a question we get something different from the original answer. By somebody's measure, that's the definition of doing the job well. Certainly not ours."

As with most people who do regular televised battle with McClellan, Herman says McClellan is a nice guy, polite and friendly off-camera. "He seems to have the right temperament to be a punching bag," Herman says.

"Who knows, maybe he goes home at night and kicks his dog?"

The Thing

It should surprise no one that McClellan is an unexpansive interview subject. He toggles on and off the record, although the latter offerings are only slightly more revealing than the former.

Over lunch at the Occidental at the Willard Hotel, McClellan says that he is "honored" to serve George W. Bush, that he will "vigorously defend the president and his agenda," that "Washington can be an all-consuming town if you allow it to be," that there are "a lot of bright people working in the White House," that he has "great trust in the American people to make the right judgments" and that he's merely "part of a team."

And that: "It's a good team."

And that: "At the end of the day, this is about the president and his agenda."

The maitre d' addresses McClellan as "Mr. Secretary," which means he is either mistaking him for a Cabinet member or believes this is the appropriate way to address a press secretary.

"Sometimes the nature of this job will put you in a tough spot," McClellan says. He is speaking about the Plame investigation, which has been a source of great strain, according to people he has confided in privately, including several reporters.

He has anguished that his credibility has been harmed by his statements in 2003 that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby "have assured me they were not involved in this," this being the outing of Plame as a covert CIA agent.

Today Libby is under indictment, Rove's involvement has become apparent and McClellan's public statements haunt him. "His credibility is shot," the San Francisco Chronicle said in an editorial calling for McClellan's resignation.

Over lunch, McClellan will refer to the leak investigation as "the thing I can't talk about," "the thing that's put me in a tough spot," "the investigation" and simply "it." You can see McClellan's spine stiffen when the case is raised, his normally fast speaking style slowing to a grind.

He says, repeatedly, that he would like to say more about the investigation, and in time he will, "hopefully sooner rather than later."

Asked if he's spoken to Rove about Rove's assurances that he was not involved, McClellan says: "That's asking me to talk about it and I'm not gonna do it."

Asked if he was wrong in a 2003 briefing to characterize suggestions that Rove and Libby were involved as "ridiculous," McClellan says: "That's not something I can get into."

Asked why he himself has not hired a lawyer, McClellan says: "I'm not going to talk about it."

In the course of researching this story, the following Scotty fun facts were extracted:

McClellan's wife, the former Jill Martinez, volunteers part time in the White House. They were married in November 2003, live in Arlington, have no kids, no iPods, two cars, two dogs and three cats -- all of them rescued strays and none of which McClellan has ever kicked.

McClellan, a Methodist, is reading Rick Warren's bestseller, "The Purpose-Driven Life."

He was a varsity tennis player at the University of Texas, often wakes -- at 5 a.m. -- to a BBC radio broadcast, then switches to NPR, then alternates between news radio and country music for the 15-minute commute to work in his Chevy Tahoe.

From the podium, McClellan will often bring up his "close relationship" with the reporters who cover the White House. He keeps talking about the "trust" he's established and how they know each other "very well."

"I think this is an example of Scott talking in code," Gregory says.

Saying that Rove and Libby "assured me they were not involved" is different from saying "Rove and Libby were not involved," says Fitzwater. "Assured me" is a classic construction among spokesmen, he says.

"That's a signal that most press members can get. The press secretary vouches for the president every day. He does not vouch for the staff."

Ka-Blam! No Comment.

Several White House reporters say that as much as McClellan is liked personally, the administration has left him with no meaningful freedom from the podium beyond jackhammering that day's message and providing mundane updates. ("The president had a good discussion with a group of Senate Democrats and Republicans earlier today.") It has diminished the daily briefing to a playacting spectacle in which he recites lines while reporters play the part of exasperated inquisitors.

"He's a hostage to the message they put out," says Julie Mason, the White House reporter for the Houston Chronicle.

"The fate of a press secretary is always tied to events," says Mary Matalin, a White House adviser. "They're not good or bad on their own. By definition they are constrained to what the message is. It's such a limited lane, you can't strut your stuff there. But in such a limited lane, Scott is perfect."

McClellan was cautious from an early age. His mother, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, was a three-term mayor of Austin whose youngest son "went from diapers to shaving working on my campaigns," she says. As free-speaking as her son is tight-lipped, Strayhorn instilled in her four boys a sense that their transgressions could easily become public. "I remember my mom saying to me that what your friends do is one thing, but what you do could be on the front page of the paper," McClellan says.

Strayhorn says that her son required stitches many times as a child -- tree-climbing accidents, falls onto concrete and whatnot. And not once did she see him cry.

"I think he had eight stitch jobs before 2," Strayhorn says. "In this day and age, they'd probably call me an abusive mom," she continues, adding -- for the record -- that she is "not an abusive mom."

Strayhorn, now the Texas comptroller and a candidate for governor, describes her son as "one of the most focused people on Earth" and tells this story: McClellan once returned home after playing tennis and started telling her about his match when a fuse blew and the house went dark. But he kept talking, on-message, as if nothing had happened. "We were like, 'Uh, Scott, haven't you noticed that every light in the house just went off?' "

After graduating from UT, McClellan immersed himself in the family realm, Texas politics. (His brother Mark McClellan also works in the Bush administration, as head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.) He ran three of his mother's campaigns for statewide office. Karen Hughes, who was communications director for Bush when he was governor, took notice of McClellan and made him a deputy communications director. He would eventually go to work as the traveling press secretary for Bush's presidential campaign in 2000.

McClellan's parents divorced when Scott was 10. His father, Barr McClellan -- who now resides in Buffalo and whom Scott says he speaks to infrequently -- published a book in 2003 claiming that Lyndon Johnson was behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

"I'm wondering if you agree with your father," McClellan was asked during one briefing in 2003.

"Thank you for the opportunity," McClellan replied. "But I'm not going to have any comment on it. Thanks."

* * *

As McClellan is leaving the Occidental, the maitre d' urges "Mr. Secretary" to tell "Mr. Bush" that he's doing a great job. Bush is in Minneapolis on this day, and McClellan is heading back to his office, assuring the reporter he just ate with that he said more than he usually does. It's not clear what exactly.

"I think I talked about how badly I wanted to talk about it," McClellan says by phone a few days later, referring to the thing he can't talk about.

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