The Un-Spokesman
Scott McClellan's Performance Reflected the White House's Strained Press Relations

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.

Despite published speculation, Clarke said yesterday she has not been approached about the job.

Some past presidential spokesmen -- Jody Powell, Marlin Fitzwater and Mike McCurry among them -- have used wit and whispers to find ways to be helpful to reporters even while furthering the boss's goals. But McClellan did not wink, nod or freelance, sticking closely to the day's script.

"This president was interested in diminishing the role of the press secretary," said David Gregory, NBC's chief White House correspondent. "Our collective frustration with him and Ari was with the fact that you just couldn't get answers out of this group. . . . Scott had the advantage of being well regarded and trusted by the inner circle. But he was just as cautious as anybody else about going further than the president wanted him to go from the podium, and that limited the White House's ability to drive a story."

But White House communications director Nicolle Wallace, who is expected to leave to join her husband in New York, praised McClellan's performance, saying: "The measure is not your ability to rein in the hotblooded passions of the room. The measure is how you handle yourself and your ability to keep your cool." She said that seven years in Bush's service, including two campaigns, would wear anyone down.

A new communications team is often brought in during politically difficult times. Larry Speakes resigned as Ronald Reagan's spokesman soon after the Iran-contra scandal erupted. Clinton replaced George Stephanopoulos at the podium with Dee Dee Myers after a stumbling start to his first term, and replaced Myers with McCurry after the Democrats lost both houses of Congress.

The White House briefing room has long been the scene of heated battles, which have grown louder and more theatrical since the advent of televised briefings in 1995. Republican strategists say the proliferation of media outlets and a more partisan political climate have put White House spokesmen under a constant state of siege.

"The press creates an environment where it's going to be very hard for any press secretary to last long," Fleischer said.

"The White House press secretary says black, the press corps says white," Clarke said. "It's almost become a reflex."

Joe Lockhart, who was press secretary during Bill Clinton's impeachment, said the Bush administration bears much of the blame for the hostile tone. He said reporters can be friendly or antagonistic, depending on how a president is faring.

"From the president and vice president on down, the view is that cooperating with the press is not in the administration's interest, and it makes Scott's job harder, as it made Ari's job harder," Lockhart said.

As Bush's political fortunes waned in recent months, McClellan adopted a more combative stance. During an off-camera briefing about Vice President Cheney's hunting accident, he chided NBC's Gregory for the tone of his questioning, noting that "the cameras aren't on right now," prompting an outburst for which Gregory later apologized.

At another briefing, McClellan told Hearst columnist Helen Thomas: "I'm sure you're opposed to the broader war on terrorism."

Perhaps McClellan's most difficult briefing came on Oct. 31, the day after then-White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby was indicted in the Valerie Plame leak investigation. McClellan told the press in 2003 that Libby and White House strategist Karl Rove had assured him "that they were not involved" in leaking the name of the CIA operative and that these were "unsubstantiated accusations."

McClellan insisted, again and again, that he could not comment on an "ongoing legal proceeding," despite a barrage of questions and Gregory's insistence that McClellan's own credibility "may very well be on trial with the American public."

In an interview last fall, McClellan said: "The media's trying to get under our skin and get us off-message. My job is to help the president advance his agenda."

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