Monster's Ball

By Dana Milbank
Friday, May 30, 2008

Bush loyalists watching Scott McClellan kick off his media tour yesterday must have felt a revulsion akin to Dr. Frankenstein's.

McClellan's former White House colleagues had built and trained the former press secretary to parrot their talking points, monotonously if not mindlessly, no matter what argument or fact stood in the way. Saddam Hussein was a grave threat. The war in Iraq was going well. Scooter Libby and Karl Rove didn't leak Valerie Plame's identity.

But now the McClellan monster is back -- and he's got a new set of talking points that attack the very people he was trained to defend. He's a bit thinner around the middle, and the sideburns are comically longer, but McClellan's famous fealty to his message is as stubborn as ever.

"We set up a massive political operation that was aimed at really continuing that permanent-campaign way of governing," he informed the listeners of National Public Radio's "Morning Edition."

"We got caught up in the excesses of the permanent-campaign culture in Washington, D.C.," he explained to viewers of NBC's "Today" show.

By nightfall, he was on MSNBC's "Countdown" with Keith Olbermann, discussing "these partisan excesses that have existed . . . because of the permanent campaign in Washington, D.C."

Just as they had through the middle years of the Bush presidency, the airwaves again echoed with McClellan's litanies yesterday.

"Why did things go so terribly off course?" he asked. "Why did things get so badly off track?" He explained that he was "disappointed that things went so badly off track." His colleagues should "come to grips with the fact that things went terribly off course." McClellan himself had struggled "to come to grips with the realities of how things went so badly off course." Still, he maintained, "this is my honest perspective on how things went off track."

In his two morning interviews, McClellan spoke of the "selling" of the war -- four times. The need to "change Washington" -- four more mentions. "Destructive" and "bitter" partisanship -- four more. Manipulating the "media narrative" -- another four.

"We got caught up in playing the Washington game the way it's played today," he disclosed to NBC.

"It's just the way the game has become played in Washington, and we embraced it too often," was the version NPR got.

"I got caught up in the Washington game," he confided to MSNBC.

McClellan's former colleagues responded in the only way they know how -- with their own echo chamber of talking points.

Dan Bartlett said that the book had left him "puzzled and bewildered." Said White House press secretary Dana Perino: "We are puzzled." And President Bush? "He is puzzled," Perino reported.

Rove started another round. "This doesn't sound like the Scott McClellan I knew," he said.

"A different Scott from the Scott I knew," contributed Ari Fleischer.

"Not the Scott we knew," Perino joined in.

But it would take much more than that to knock McClellan off his talking points. Indeed, he had used many of the same tactics when he stood at the White House podium. After former terrorism adviser Richard Clarke criticized Bush, McClellan read aloud Clarke's friendly resignation letter. "There was no mention of the grave concerns he claims to have had about the direction of the war on terrorism," McClellan said in March 2004.

And perhaps nobody spent as much time being publicly -- and implausibly -- puzzled as McClellan himself was from the White House podium. An article on the treatment of prisoners? "Puzzling." Democratic complaints about Karl Rove's fear tactics? "Puzzling." Changes to restrict information on the White House Web site? "I'm somewhat puzzled."

Yesterday, McClellan put those same skills to work in his own defense.

Why didn't he challenge his colleagues about the wisdom of the Iraq war? Talking Point One: "I gave them the benefit of the doubt," he said. And he gave Meredith Vieira of "Today" the benefit-of-the-doubt line three times; NPR's Renee Montagne got the benefit-of-the-doubt line, too.

Why did he wait so long to make his objections known? Talking Point Two: "You live in a White House bubble," he told NBC. For the hearing-impaired, he rephrased: "You get caught up in the White House bubble." And for NPR: "When you're in the White House, you're in this bubble." For MSNBC, he explained that "you need some time to step back from being in that bubble."

Was he just a "disgruntled" former employee? Talking Point Three. "Actually, 'disappointed' is the word I'd use," he told Vieira. Indeed, he used the word five times during the interview.

"But you had to be more than disappointed," Vieira maintained.

The former spokesman considered this. "Dismayed and disillusioned," he proposed. But he was soon back on message.

Vieira asked him to respond to those who say he's trying to "cash in . . . because you're angry."

"Again," McClellan answered, "I'm disappointed . . ."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company