Plenty of Embarrassment to Go Around

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 19, 2006; 5:42 PM

The Metaphor Alert sounded at the White House at about 9:45 a.m.

Minutes earlier, press secretary Scott McClellan had announced his resignation on the South Lawn and hopped aboard Marine One for a trip to Andrews Air Force Base with President Bush. The helicopter doors closed, the rotors began to spin, and then stopped a minute later. The doors re-opened and the president exited with a shrug. He just can't gain altitude these days.

"We have an issue with the helicopter," reported Bush, as his staff hastily prepared a motorcade. "Everybody's safe."

If only.

Nobody's safe at the White House these days, as new Chief of Staff Josh Bolten swings his axe. Andy Card is gone, McClellan and senior Bush aide Jim Towey will soon be gone, and Karl Rove had to give up one of his jobs. There's a new director at OMB, a new deputy staff chief in the White House -- and plenty more shaking up still to come.

It must be a particularly difficult moment for McClellan -- and the malfunctioning helicopter is the least of his problems. It speaks volumes about McClellan's relationship with the press that he chose to announce his departure while the White House press corps was about 30,000 feet over Alabama.

The reporters were on a charter flight to Tuskegee, due to land at 10:05 a.m. for a Bush speech later in the day. McClellan broke the news at 9:39 a.m. to the few wire reporters and camera crews that had stayed behind at the White House.

McClellan had lost much of his credibility with the press when he vigorously asserted that neither Rove nor vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was involved in the CIA leak scandal -- and then refused to talk about it when his assertions were disproved. It put selfless loyalty to Bush above McClellan's own reputation. His reward: becoming the victim of a staff shakeup.

McClellan was fairly candid about the forced circumstances of his departure. "The White House is going through a period of transition; change can be helpful," he told Bush on the lawn. "I have given it my all, sir, and I've given you my all." The few witnesses reported him to be choked up.

Bush bestowed the dreaded "heckuva job" laurel on McClellan ("job well done" was today's version) and said: "I don't know whether or not the press corps realizes this, but his is a challenging assignment dealing with you all on a regular basis."

It was, of course, made particularly challenging by Bush himself, who undermined his press secretary by arming him with little information to share with the public.

Fortunately for McClellan, conversation in Washington quickly turned to his successor. The name of Fox News radio host Tony Snow was floated, leading to the inevitable wisecracks about whether he would be getting back pay for all the pro-Bush broadcasting he has done.

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