Is there possibly a more thankless job in public life than the one currently occupied by Scott McClellan?
Imagine having to stand in front of the White House press corps and defend President Bush right after the boss has been exposed in sworn testimony as a leaker of classified national security information. Imagine trying to square Bush's actions with all of Bush's previous condemnations of leakers as contemptable creatures that deserve to be fired.
It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. So McClellan gave quite a performance yesterday, one that conjured memories (at least for yours truly) of Ron Zeigler spinning the Watergate scandal for his '70s boss, Richard Nixon.
Just three quick highlights:
1. McClellan was asked to square Bush's aforementioned actions with his earlier statements. McClellan then replied: "There's a distinction between declassifying information that is in the public interest and the unauthorized disclosure of classified information that could compromise our nation's security."
Translation: If Bush leaks, it's OK. If anyone else leaks, it's not OK. If Bush leaks, it's in the "public interest." If anyone else leaks, it's a threat to the nation's security.
Never mind the fact that what he leaked in the "public interest" was apparently self-serving material that was factually misleading (see my Thursday post). The larger question that comes to mind is this: If Bush can leak whatever he wants by deeming his actions to be in the "public interest," are there any checks and balances at all on his power to withhold, release, and control information?
2. The White House can't get its story straight. In the wake of Scooter Libby's sworn testimony that Bush authorized him to leak material from the National Intelligence Estimate - this was some time prior to July 8, 2003 - the White House now says that it wasn't really a leak at all, because the released NIE material had already been declassified at that point.
But here's the problem with that claim: McClellan held a press conference on July 18, 2003. The NIE came up for discussion that day - whereupon McClellan declared, "It was officially declassified today."
So...doesn't that mean Bush had authorized a leak of material that was still classified prior to July 18?
Here's where McClellan began to spin like a top. At times he tried to plead ignorance, saying that he couldn't recall what he had said on July 18, 2003: "I have not looked back at exactly what was said at that time."
But even though he says he hasn't looked back, he is nevertheless convinced that there would be no need to acknowledge any errors or inconsistencies: "I’d have to go back and look at the specific comments, but I’m not changing anything that was said previously. So let me make that clear."
3. Which brings us to the last highlight. At times he simply took refuge in the fact that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's case against Libby is now being fought out in the court filings. McClellan said: "There is no way for me to...talk about this issue without discussing an ongoing legal proceeding. And I can’t do that. We have a policy that’s been established. And I’ve obligated to adhere to that policy."
Within 10 minutes of saying that, he tried to refute a reporter by citing something that Fitzgerald had filed in court -- as part of the same "ongoing legal proceeding" that McClellan had just said he could not comment about.
It's hard to imagine that McClellan can survive much longer; this new Vanity Fair article probably won't help him much. But the real question is whether any replacement can do any better - given the administration track record that a new person would have to work with.