Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Beam up the next Scotty

On the occasion today of Scott McClellan's resignation as White House press secretary, let us briefly travel back in time to this classic exercise in stonewalling, as performed by the president's top flak:

"I'm not going to parse that (presidential) statement....I'm just not going to parse the statement for you, it speaks for itself...I'm not characterizing it beyond what the statement that I've already issued says...You can stand here and ask a lot of questions over and over again and will elicit the exact same answer...I'm not leaving any impression, David, and don't twist my words...I'm here to represent the thinking, the actions, the decisions of the president. That's what I get paid to do....I didn't write the statement..."

Sounds just like McClellan, right? It has to be McClellan, right?
That was Michael McCurry, press secretary for President Bill Clinton, on the afternoon of January 21, 1998. The news about Monica Lewinsky had just broken, and the president's lawyers had handed McCurry a statement contending that Clinton had never engaged in any "improper relationship" with the intern. Basically, McCurry was sent out there to lie (he didn't yet know it was a lie), to stand at the podium and let the press pound him as if he was a pinata.

In other words, that's often the nature of the job. Even McCurry, a longtime Democratic strategist who socializes with political reporters, knew that. All administrations, Democratic and Republican, lie or conceal, on rare occasions or with frequency, for good reasons or bad -- and the chief flak-catcher, whether he is in the know or out of the loop, has the thankless task of dancing at arm's length with the truth. On worldwide TV. In streaming video.

Ron Ziegler did this for Republican Richard Nixon during Watergate (he's the one who initially called it "a third-rate burglary attempt"). Bill Moyers did this for Democrat Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam, until he got bleeding ulcers and quit in 1966, telling his wife that "no man can serve two masters," referring to the president and the press corps.

So, in the institutional sense, it is not surprising that Scott McClellan's rocky ride has come to an end, and that his credibility is in tatters (notwithstanding President Bush's heckuva-job-Brownie statement today, praising McClellan for a "job well done"). The adversarial climate in the White House briefing room has been notoriously inhospitable, ever since the '60s. Even Bill Clinton, a Democrat trailed by a supposedly Democrat-friendly press corps, had three press secretaries during his eight years.

But this is not to suggest that all press secretaries are equally burdened by the job, or that their failings are equally distributed. They all operate (and most depart) under circumstances that are unique to their respective tenures. And, in McClellan's case, it was hard to imagine that he would ever go the distance, not with his particular marching orders.

Yes, McClellan did max out on his credibility in the traditional sense. He had insisted in 2003 that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby were "not involved"in the outing of CIA employe Valerie Plame, then he was forced to stonewall in 2005 when it turned out they were indeed involved. Most recently, he was compelled to argue that if Bush leaks classified material (in this case, to defend his war in Iraq), then it's in the "public interest," but if anyone else leaks, it's a threat to national security. And earlier this month, when the Washington Post found fresh documentary evidence that some of Bush's WMD claims in Iraq were groundless, McClellan's response was to dismiss the evidence as "old news" and demand that the press apologize.

But McClellan's mission was not to merely evade or spin information in the traditional sense. His core purpose was to be the point man for an assertive, even revolutionary, White House effort to delegitimize the mainstream conveyers of the news. And whoever replaces McClellan will play the same role.

As indicated in numerous reports, particularly here and here, the Bush administration has sought to treat the mainstream press as just another troublesome special interest group, to reduce its role as a semi-official participant in the nation's governance.
Jay Rosen, a press watchdog and journalism professor at New York University, wrote last summer: "I believe the ultimate goal is to enhance executive power and maximize the president's freedom of maneuver - not only in policy-making and warfare, but on the terrain of fact itself." And writer Ron Suskind, after interviewing top Bush officials, said in an interview that they clearly want to create "a culture and public dialogue based on assertion rather than authenticity, on claim rather than fact."

That's the key to assessing McClellan. His job was to contest or deny the "terrain of fact," the empirical evidence, as traditionally defined. Examples:

1. In the face of evidence last September that the Bush administration had responded sluggishly to the Katrina crisis (behavior that was later assailed in a House Republican report), McClellan simply offered an assertion: "Flood control has been a priority of this administration from Day One."

2. In the face of evidence last June that the Iraqi insurgency was not in its "last throes" (as Vice President Cheney had insisted), McClellan simply asserted that it was: "We're making great progress to defeat the terrorist and regime this is a period when they (insurgents) are in a desperate mode."

3. Sometimes, when cornered, he used to catch a breather by calling on Jeff Gannon. Remember Jeff Gannon? He seems so 15 months ago. Jeff Gannon was the fake name used by the real James Guckert, who wrote for a fake news service that was, in reality, an offshoot of a conservative activist website called GOPUSA. McClellan would call on "Gannon," a friendly softball would be lobbed his way, and McClellan would say, "I'm glad you brought that up, Jeff." Gannon became Exhibit A of the administration's rather expansive view of how the press should be defined. (I wrote about the Gannon case in some detail last year.)

In all likelihood, the new Scott won't differ much from the old Scott, not as long as the basic mission remains unchanged. Perhaps the successor's personal style will be different. One prominent conservative blogger said today that he hopes the new flak will be a tougher customer ("it's probably wishful thinking to imagine that the President would appoint someone who would take a more combative attitude toward the White House press corps"), but somebody like Dan Senor, an ex-Bush spokesman in Iraq, would be seen as a great leap forward in articulation skills.

But no matter who gets the job, the adversarial dynamic will remain the same. It was Mike McCurry, back in his crisis days of 1998, who opened a press briefing with these words:
"Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the theatre of the absurd."