Scott and Me: A Remembrance

It’s hard to believe that I first shook hands with and talked to Scott McClellan two years and nine months ago — in fact, it was on the final day of his predecessor’s tenure as press secretary to the President. The announcement that deputy press secretary McClellan would succeed Ari Fleischer as President Bush’s top spokesman had been made, and the incoming and outgoing press secretaries were serving cake and coffee at the White House briefing room to "us guys and gals" — the correspondents who cover their twice-a-day briefings.

Although I did not know McClellan — at 35, the second-youngest person to hold the job as press secretary to the President — I did interview and write about his mother, Carole McClellan Rhinelander, when she had left the office of mayor of Austin, Texas, switched from Democrat to Republican, and ran for Congress. "Wow! — The congressional race was a long time ago," said McClellan, recalling his mother ran for Congress in 1986 (she lost but since went on to become state railroad commissioner and now state comptroller of Texas). Later, I sent him a copy of the HUMAN EVENTS article on his mother, whereupon the new press secretary wrote me a gracious thank-you note.

That was the start of what could be called a friendship — at least, as far as that goes in Washington, D.C. — or, at the very least, a good working relationship. Because McClellan was unfailingly courteuous to me and never failed to call on me or respond to my queries at our briefings — even when they grew critical — I was saddened to learn yesterday that he was leaving the podium at the White House.

Was McClellan a "rapid response" dynamo like Ari Fleischer or Bill Clinton’s memorable spokesman Mike McCurry? Hardly. The first thing that viewers of his briefings on CSPAN or visitors to the press room pointed out was that McClellan was slow and deliberate and in no way self-assured as questions got intense — and, of course they did, from the day the special prosecutor began probing who leaked Valerie Phlame’s CIA connection to the day after Vice President accidentally shot a hunting buddy. Was he a friend of reporters who bought them drinks after work a la Jim Hagerty (Dwight Eisenhower’s press secretary for eight years) or Pierre Salinger (who held the job under John Kennedy)? In no way — Hagerty and Salinger were among the small group of presidential spokesmen who were professional newsmen themselves. The last alumni of the Fourth Estate was NBC reporter Ron Nessen, who left the network to become Gerald Ford’s press secretary in 1974-76. More often than not, press secretaries are campaign operatives and paid "guns for hire" — Jody Powell (Carter), James Brady (Reagan), McCurry, and Fleisher come to mind. McClellan was the latest of that group who come to know reporters not as one among them, but as one facing them during the campaign and (if the candidate was elected) in the briefing room.

My own analogy, made yesterday to fellow White House correspondent Linda Feldmann of the Christian Science Monitor, was to Ron Ziegler, the youngest (29) press secretary ever and under a near daily drumbeat of fire as Richard Nixon’s spokesman from 1969 until the day he resigned from office in 1974. Ziegler enraged reporters by giving them the party line ("Ziggles" was the nickname correspondents had for some of his replies) but pleased his constituency — namely, his boss. So it was with McClellan: one could grow exasperated when he recited the same lines ("we need people to do the work Americans are unwilling to do for themselves" went his mantra to explain why the President supported a guest worker program; mention of Katrina or former FEMA head Michael Brown inevitably brought a reference to the "lessons learned" review), when he was caught in situations where he was obviously not told the whole story (the Karl Rove-Phlame controversy, the Cheney shooting, or when he voiced support for FEMA’s Brown at the morning session only to announce his resignation in the afternoon). Indeed, one could make a case that NBC-TV’s correspondent David Gregory was speaking for other reporters and McClellan-watchers in TV-land in general when he had his now-celebrated exchange with the press secretary following the Cheney shooting and shouted "Oh, come on!"

But it didn’t really matter if he upset some correspondents in the briefing room or didn’t become a "matinee idol" to the CSPAN audience. Like Ziegler and before him George Christian (LBJ’s harried press secretary during the Vietnam War), McClellan was pleasing his constituency — the President. That’s why, appearing on CSPAN’s Washington Journal on Easter, I predicted McClellan would stay. Three days later, I was proven wrong. Although the details of his exodus are not known, my suspicion is that McClellan himself saw that incoming White House chief of staff Josh Bolten wanted his own person and chose to tell the President — on Monday, according to McClellan himself — he was going. Put another way, McClellan seemed to jump and was not pushed, and decided to jump sometime shortly before he met with his constituent-in-chief. Scott McClellan and I had our good days and bad days. On occasion, he could grow irked with my questions; when I quoted a HUMAN EVENTS interview about how former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had likened U.S. policy toward Iran to Great Britain’s toward Germany in 1945, McClellan shot back: "I haven’t seen the interview. But I reject your characterization [Whoa! It wasn’t mine — it was Gingrich’s; I was only quoting the interview]." When I quoted another article claiming that the White House had sent former Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie to Texas to convince Tom DeLay to step down as House GOP Leader, McClellan demanded to know where I read that and insisted I provide a copy. Two of his staff stopped me after the briefing to remind me to send the article to them. (It came from the American Spectator on-line; when I sent it to McClellan deputy Trent Duffy, he then told me "no one from the Administration" had talked to Tom DeLay about quitting; Gillespie, of course, was not "from the Administration" but a private citizen).

At this final briefing Tuesday, McClellan was defensive, particularly toward ABC-TV’s Martha Raddatz and me. When I asked about three people who had asked the President to withdraw their nominations to major appointments, he said he was not sure he agreed with my saying this was significant because it was only three people. As veteran Washington journalist Llewellyn King told me after the briefing, "He seems to be in the mode of attacking the messenger." A day later, McClellan was out.

For any tension between us, McClellan never took it personally. When my parents celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary last year, he arranged a letter of congratulations from the president that they will always cherish. When a colleague and his wife wanted to attend the annual Christmas Party at the White House — even though neither were White House correspondents — they got an invitation; I suspect strongly Scott McClellan had a hand in this. Whenever my interns or visiting friends wanted to actually see one of his briefings, they always got admitted, escorted, and had the times of their lives — although, inevitably, they were disappointed to find that the briefing room was such a trashy disaster area and not the elegant auditorium it appeared to be on CSPAN.

Now Scott McClellan is gone and the new spokesman will soon be named. It won’t change much — I didn’t know McClellan until he arrived, but did get to know him, as I will his successor. But I will also remember Scott McClellan, who demonstrated that one can have disagreements with people and never let that interfere with being a gentleman. And I will miss him.