Scotty, the Joke Was on You

By Ana Marie Cox
Sunday, April 23, 2006

I 've always had a soft spot for departing White House press secretary Scott McClellan. Watching him give his choked-up goodbye on the White House lawn last week, I realized why. The jowls he's grown, the hair he's lost and the dark circles that have grown under his eyes in two years and nine months on the job have made him resemble Washington's other helpless diplomatic pawn: Scott McClellan is the baby panda of the press corps.

No wonder I couldn't stand to see him get beaten up.

McClellan is a metaphor magnet, actually. And they're rarely complimentary: He's been called a punching bag, a rock 'em sock 'em robot, a cog in the greater machine, Piggy from "Lord of the Flies." Even conservatives tend to use a tone in talking about him that's usually reserved for homely pets that can't seem to get adopted: the adjective "capable" turns up a lot. (McClellan and his wife have four cats and two dogs, a poignant piece of trivia for those of us who think of Scott as an abused puppy.)

In modern administrations, the press secretary is often compared to an obstacle of some sort. McClellan's prickly predecessor, Ari Fleischer, was a smirking wall -- mean, arrogant, indifferent. McClellan was no more forthcoming, but he lacked Fleischer's swaggering, eat-you-for-breakfast podium style. His verbal tussles with reporters have never seemed like a fair fight. They'd run over him with facts and quotes, and his tired, puffy face would take the impression for an instant, before popping back into place, reinflated by the expulsion of talking points. When reporters fought with Ari, it was unstoppable force meeting immovable object; when they charged at Scotty, they were running over a human traffic cone.

This is a White House that, for the most part, deals with errors, misstatements and blatant untruths by simply refusing to acknowledge their existence. What "Mission Accomplished" banner? Which Social Security reform? Harriet who?

Such unselfconscious dissembling at the top of the administration makes it difficult to believe that McClellan delivered Karl Rove's and Scooter Libby's infamous denials of their involvement in leaking the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame completely without deceit. Surely he was in on the joke.

And yet -- well, go to the video. In the contentious briefings that followed every scandalous revelation about the administration's attempts to undermine the antiwar criticisms of Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, McClellan almost physically crumbles. His eyes grow dim, his shoulders slump. He becomes twitchy and marble-mouthed, stammering through his stock phrases -- he professed inability to comment on special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's investigation more than 200 times in the last year and a half -- and, occasionally, perspiring visibly. In the game of dodgeball between the press corps and the president's men, McClellan was always getting beaned between the eyes.

Perhaps that's why he was so easy to like, or at least pity; Rove and Libby didn't even do him the honor of having him do their dirty work. He didn't know what he was doing. In a White House full of jocks, McClellan had the air of the last kid to get picked for the team. One suspects he didn't really want to play the game anyway; he'd rather be at home, rehearsing the Darth Vader-Luke Skywalker lightsaber duel -- perhaps pantomiming with his brother Mark, head of Medicare and Medicaid, who is reportedly a science fiction geek.

At the height of his fumbling through the Fitzgerald investigation, the pathos of the press secretary drew the attention of professional flacks at PR Week, whose well-meaning advice was touchingly obvious: When reporters "come up to him after a press briefing, pat him on the back, and say, 'Hey Scott,' they do that because they still need him. He should not mistake that for respect."

You know what else McClellan probably shouldn't have mistaken for respect? Rove's lying to him. Because McClellan's awkward parrying also served a purpose: The White House could not have shown its disdain for the press corps more clearly if it hadn't bothered to hire a press secretary at all.

McClellan's increasingly hapless briefings made for good blog fodder and excellent "Daily Show" segments, and critics of the administration posted snippets of his flailing with unrestrained glee. But for me, it stopped being funny when McClellan -- in an act of clear desperation -- began to fall back on the one commodity he had: His own sweet guilelessness. Badgered over and over about his representation of Rove's and Libby's denials, McClellan beseeched the press: "I think you all in this room know me very well. And you know the type of person that I am."

Yes, Scott, we do. You're not the type to lie. You're just like us: the type who gets lied to.

Ana Marie Cox is the author of the Washington novel "Dog Days" (Riverhead) and an essayist for Time magazine.

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