The Un-Spokesman

White House press secretary Scott McClellan on Air Force One after announcing his resignation. His persistent non-answers were a source of frustration to the press corps.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan on Air Force One after announcing his resignation. His persistent non-answers were a source of frustration to the press corps. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 20, 2006

He was painful to watch at times, gamely repeating the same stock phrases under a barrage of hostile media fire, grasping for new ways to deliver the same non-answers.

Two days after deflecting questions about his own future by stiffly insisting that "I never speculate about personnel matters," Scott McClellan resigned yesterday as White House press secretary amid warm words from President Bush but less than flattering reviews from the Fourth Estate.

The administration kept McClellan "on a short string," said ABC's Sam Donaldson, a longtime White House correspondent, "and it was reflected in his inability to tame the press corps and keep them in bounds. Scott didn't have that ability. He was probably ill-cast to be a press secretary."

Michael Wolff, who recently profiled McClellan for Vanity Fair, said the spokesman's appointment showed "a certain amount of contempt for the press on the part of the White House. . . . It was a comedy, a farce, actually. He could not do the job, bottom line. He came out every day and he couldn't talk through a sentence."

But former colleagues of McClellan, an affable Texan who has worked for Bush since he was governor, say he acquitted himself well in what has become an increasingly difficult and contentious job.

"There's so much more incoming to the briefing room and a more antagonistic relationship between the White House and the media," said former Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke. "I think he did as good or a better job as anyone could have done. I'm sure it was frustrating for him, but he seldom let it show."

Ari Fleischer, who was McClellan's boss when Fleischer held the spokesman's job, said his successor enjoyed "the trust and confidence of the president" and "was flawless in his performance, especially when you read the transcripts." But asked about McClellan's apparent discomfort at the podium, Fleischer said: "Whether or not a press secretary thrives in the back-and-forth, pugilistic environment of the television age is always going to be an issue."

McClellan's tenure coincided with a rough reelection campaign and the lowest approval ratings of Bush's term in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Harriet Miers nomination and the continued carnage in Iraq. While Fleischer said McClellan would have preferred to stay on until year's end, his departure was engineered during a shake-up ordered by the new chief of staff, Josh Bolten. "I didn't need much encouragement to make this decision, even though you all kept tempting me," McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One.

In a choreographed show of support, the president appeared with McClellan on the South Lawn and said that "he handled his assignment with class, integrity."

"I have given it my all, sir," said McClellan, who plans to stay another two to three weeks.

Senior administration officials, who declined to be named while discussing personnel matters, said two people affiliated with Fox News are being considered as replacements. One is Fox radio host Tony Snow, a former speechwriter for the first President Bush who went on to anchor "Fox News Sunday." Snow, who survived a bout with colon cancer last year, told listeners that it is "an honor to be considered" but that anyone in his position would have to weigh family, finances and personal health.

Dan Senor, a Fox News contributor and former spokesman for the U.S. civilian authority in Iraq, is also being considered. Senor married NBC anchor and correspondent Campbell Brown earlier this month.


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