In my opinion, Scott McClellan was one of the worst White House press secretaries. He was often short with reporters and refused to say anything about anything that was not in his talking points. He did not seem to know what role the White House press corps played in the functioning of the government.
When McClellan did not want to answer a question, he would “refer” you to other agencies or to the vice president’s office. In fact, McClellan had three standard evasive practices. The first was to refer the questioner to an executive agency, department or another branch , which he learned from his predecessor, Ari Fleischer. The second was to invoke the war on terror to shut down a line of questioning. The third, which he also learned from Fleischer, was to accuse the questioner of asking a “hypothetical” question. The third practice gave McClellan undue leverage because most questions embody a hypothesis.
I would sit in the press briefing room in the White House and wonder if McClellan really understood why we were there. He was argumentative, obtuse and sometimes scornful.
So it is with great surprise that we learn that McClellan was on our side, all the time yearning for us to ask him tougher questions. Give us a break.
During his tenure as press secretary, McClellan knew that the press corps, singly and collectively, had great doubts about the merits of the war and the disingenuousness of Vice President Cheney in trying to link al-Qaeda with Saddam Hussein. If McClellan was yearning for greater press coverage of the failures of the administration, he was awfully good at hiding his desire.
My colleagues are quite astounded that McClellan has written a kiss-and-tell book. But we wonder whether he wrote it more because he was eased out of his White House job than any deep feelings he might have had about high administration officials lying about Valerie Plame.
As news, McClellan’s book is hot stuff. But as literature, apparently it is wanting. One reviewer has described it as “limp.” Another has said it is inferior to former counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke’s memoir. Perhaps even inferior to former Treasury secretary Paul O’Neill’s lifting of the veil on the White House.
The importance of McClellan’s revelations, and why they dwarf the others’, is because he was the public face of the administration. As a press secretary seeks to control what the world thinks of a president and his actions, whatever he says now, McClellan day after day defended the president, the war, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and the interrogation of prisoners by harsh means.
It is likely that media-savvy people like Karl Rove, with their friends in the press, picked up the disillusionment of reporters with McClellan. They realized that they needed someone who got along better with the press, knew what motivated them, and was less combative.
The White House got what it wanted in Tony Snow. Snow was a conservative and a journalist. He not only knew what the man in the Oval Office wanted but also what the irregulars in the briefing room needed. He understood that the press office has to operate efficiently—phone calls have to be returned and documents have to be provided. McClellan’s press office was perceived to be erratic.
Snow’s successor, Dana Perino, who was promoted with his blessing, is also well regarded by the press. She is well-informed and, on the whole, treats reporters civilly, although sometimes she will attack one. Unlike McClellan, she does not act as though the sole purpose of the press corps is to antagonize the briefer.
The smart money in the press corps is on Perino getting a job with a network as soon as she leaves her White House job. That is now a well-trodden path, blazed by George Stephanopoulos.