Being the State Department spokesman is one of Washington's high-wire acts: One indiscreet remark and you've started an international incident in Kashmir or the Taiwan Strait.
But with Sean McCormack, who delivered his first briefing yesterday as the department's mouthpiece, the Bush administration has nothing to worry about. In half an hour, the disciplined and cautious new assistant secretary for public affairs put the fog into Foggy Bottom.
Did the test missile fired by Syria enter Turkish territory, as reported? "I don't have anything for you on that."
What kind of role should the Organization of American States have in Bolivia? "I don't have anything to share with you."
Has the United States announced a new envoy to Kabul? "That I have to check on."
Is President Bush trying to lower tensions with North Korea? "I wouldn't necessarily read anything into the president's remarks besides exactly what he said. I think he said exactly what he wanted to."
Starting with Archibald Macleish at the end of World War II, McCormack can count many luminous predecessors: Hodding Carter III, Bernard Kalb, Margaret Tutwiler, Mike McCurry, James P. Rubin and Richard A. Boucher. Traditionally, the words of State's spokesman, even more than those of White House press secretary, are taken seriously in foreign capitals as the official articulation of U.S. policy.
In that sense, the choice of McCormack is a bit unorthodox. Though amiable and well liked by journalists (he even married one), he is neither a diplomatic veteran nor a well-known politico. He joined the foreign service 10 years ago doing consular work in Ankara and Algiers and then working for the staff that prepares the way for the secretary of state's travel. But during the Bush administration, he worked his way up to being the top flack at the National Security Council, where his loyalty won the admiration of Condoleezza Rice, who brought him with her to the State Department.
Rice herself escorted McCormack and the outgoing spokesman, Boucher, into the briefing room. "He's very much a part of my team," Rice testified. Another veteran of Rice's NSC staff who moved to the State Department, senior adviser Jim Wilkinson, stayed behind to watch. Wilkinson's verdict: "He was great!"
But certainly not garrulous.
A questioner asked why a Syrian diplomat was excluded from a meeting between a U.S. official and Arab ambassadors. "I'm not up on that meeting," the spokesman said. "Let me look into it. And if there's anything that we have to add, we'll get back to you."
Another wondered about Rice's meeting with the Sri Lankan foreign minister. "Secretary Rice and Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Kadirgamar had a good meeting today," McCormack reported. "They talked about bilateral issues of mutual interest. . . ." The question turned to the killing of a journalist in Beirut. "The secretary did address this yesterday," McCormack said. "I really don't have, at this point, anything to add to those remarks."
The questioner persisted. How about an outside inquiry? "I think, at this point, I would just stick with what the secretary said."
McCormack, armed with a thick briefing book, sipped water to alleviate a dry mouth and punctuated questions with a series of high-pitched mm-hmms. He had reason to be anxious: not only does he have to understand the nuances of every U.S. position and the names of obscure foreigners but he also has to follow Boucher, who was by all accounts a master performer behind the lectern, agile and eloquent.
By the first standard, McCormack did well: He was good with names, and he knew his stuff. He used the sort of hand gestures taught in public-speaking classes, and he used a Dick Cheney half-smile to connote skepticism when speaking about countries such as Syria.
But on the question of style, McCormack was far more cautious and tight-lipped than his predecessor -- but it was his maiden briefing. He repeatedly deferred to the White House, something rarely seen in Colin L. Powell's State Department. On the matter of the Syrian missile, he was careful not to go beyond what Scott McClellan had said, qualifying his answer with "as Scott indicated."
As such briefings go, the journalists were gentle. Several prefaced their questions with words of welcome for McCormack. As the session continued, a couple of reporters left early, but most remained for the few minutes of chatter after the cameras go off when the spokesman is free to speak more candidly and can be identified only as a "senior administration official." Boucher was known to impart significant insight during these sessions.
Yesterday, however, the senior administration official could be heard saying, "I don't have any information" and "What I gave you is all I have" and "The secretary talked at length and eloquently on this yesterday [and] I couldn't possibly add anything." It was, as one listener observed, exactly what McCormack had said on camera, but offered in hushed voice with the lights off.