This week, White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters something they didn’t know. To wit: he will soon be stepping down, for good, from the podium. Reporters might have seldom gotten what they wanted from his daily briefings. But taken as a whole, his tenure speaks volumes about the state of the presidency. At least it does to Bob.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The shakeup of the White House staff has been widely dismissed as minor cosmetics, but one very visible change is the departure of the Bush administration's chief cosmetician. Presidential Press Secretary Scott McClellan resigned on Wednesday, perhaps to spend more time with the truth.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: This relationship is built on trust, and you know very well that I have worked hard to earn the trust of the people in this room, and I think I've earned it.
BOB GARFIELD: That was McClellan in a press briefing last year. And he's right – he could be trusted by the press corps. He could be trusted to tap dance, change the subject, refuse to answer and otherwise dodge any question that challenged the administration on presidential leaks, weapons of mass destruction, war casualties, Hurricane Katrina and other issues of the day - in other words, a politician's spokesman just loyally doing his job. It isn't easy being press secretary for any president because every presidency is afflicted by mistakes, scandals, political calamities and run-of-the-mill embarrassments. But it was McClellan's miserable lot to be fronting for a boss in a political tailspin, a President at pains to reconcile his own assertions to the American people with ever more well-documented reality. The results in the briefing room, day after day in front of that weary blue drape, were brutal.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: As I said, we're not getting into talking about an ongoing investigation. That's what the President indicated as well. And you know I'm not going to comment further on that. There are some that are interested in playing the blame game. The President is interested in solving problems. We have been directed by the White House counsel's office not to discuss this matter. If I were to get into commenting from this podium while this legal proceeding - For me to even respond to that question would force me to talk about an ongoing investigation. [OVERTALK] There is an ongoing investigation, and you know I'm not going to comment further on that.
BOB GARFIELD: No, he wasn't going to comment on that or that or that, not because he didn't wish to, but because it's all been covered before, or it would be improper in the midst of a criminal investigation, or because - this was one of McClellan's favorites – the President was more focused on the priorities the American people care most about. Priorities, the White House implies, it is better equipped to decide than some self-appointed media filter. This mentality, and there is no evidence that McClellan felt differently, is not conducive to government transparency, nor are compulsive secrecy and open contempt for the press conducive to trust in the briefing room. The Bush administration looks at the Fourth Estate and sees a fifth column of enemy subversion. The press room looks at the Press Secretary and sees a human shield for hogwash. But McClellan's ultimate downfall can probably be blamed on nothing more sinister than timing. His predecessor, Ari Fleischer, was no less chronic a tap dancer and stonewaller, maddening in his own right.
ARI FLEISCHER: Now, the President has not made any decisions about what military option he might pursue. During the campaign, the President did not express, as you put it, disdain for nation building. Think about the implications of what you're saying. You're saying that the leaders of other nations are buyable, and that is not an acceptable proposition. [LAUGHTER]
BOB GARFIELD: The press laughed and rolled their eyes, but seldom talked back or raised their voices or demanded the straight answers denied them. This had something to do with Fleischer's command of the room, but probably more to do with the political zeitgeist. In those days, Bush was a popular wartime President and the White House press corps a roomful of somnambulant stenographers, plenty maddening themselves. What McClellan faced every day was a very different crowd, embarrassed by their own quiescence and fed up to here. And, as the President's approval ratings indicate, so now is the public, which is why the next presidential spokesperson is in for a tough time. Hiring a new cosmetician does not constitute an extreme makeover, and uttering words is not the same as answering a question. For a chilling journey to briefings past, the new chief – flack - should check out McClellan's exchange just one month ago. The question was, are staff changes imminent at the White House?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Let me speak very clearly to this. This is part of the inside Washington babble that goes on in this town. It's part of the parlor game. We are focused on the priorities that the American people care most about.
BOB GARFIELD: So was that a yes, a no? Impossible to know. But we do know this. From now on -
SCOTT McCLELLAN: I'm not going to comment further on that. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]