The Final Briefing: McClellan's Farewell

Never expecting that Porter Goss would resign suddenly as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, I woke up and went to work on Friday, May 5th nonetheless braced for a day I felt sure would be emotional: the last day on the job for White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.

At the 9:00 AM "gaggle" (morning briefing, off-camera), the president’s top spokesman for the past two years and nine months appeared relaxed. There were no queries about who knew what about Valerie Phlame and her CIA identity, no more "blame game" over Katrina and the response, nothing about what the US was doing in Iraq or what it may or may not do in Iran. This was all about the 38-year-old McClellan himself, who saluted the reporters who covered him and were frequently antagonists.

"You’re a great group," he told the morning regulars in the James Brady Briefing Room, "and I will miss you, individually." For all the jostling and rough questioning, McClellan insisted he had enjoyed his experience "thoroughly" and had been honored to be at "the center of a lot of history" since succeeding Ari Fleischer as George W. Bush’s press secretary in ’03. As to what he will do next, McClellan is unsure beyond saying he has had offers on the lecture circuit and possibly a contract to write a book. Eventually, he said, he and wife Jill will return to his home state of Texas — which McClellan considers the greatest state and "some say is the greatest country," he deadpanned. His advice to his successor: "Enjoy! Have fun! It is the greatest position to be in."

At the afternoon session (which is televised on CSPAN, Fox News and other outlets), questioning returned to the usual issues: about the president’s low numbers in polls, the cost of gasoline, ("We’re looking at results, not polls,” McClellan remonstrated), Iraq ("we’re succeeding in Iraq and winning"), Darfur, Russia ("we’re encouraging Russia on a democratic path" he told Tass correspondent Andrei Sitov), elections in Nicaragua and Peru, and the status of embattled Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The difference from usual sessions was in the correspondents: veteran CBS-Radio reporter Ivan Scott, who had been the first correspondent to press McClellan about his then-rumored departure two weeks ago, wished the outgoing press secretary well and quoted a toast that "may you be in heaven a half-hour before the devil realizes you’re gone." India’s correspondent Goyal, known for his questions about his homeland, praised McClellan’s performance, while talk show host Les Kinsolving, whose signature is his circumloquacious questioning, began by promising a "two-parter" — leading McClellan to fire back "it’s your last two-parter for me, Les."

Citing a blessing from her native South Korea, USA Journal correspondent Janne Pak wished McClellan and his family "Good luck and long life." The standing room only briefing room agreed, and McClellan was welcomed and bid goodbye with applause.

During his remarks, McClellan casually mentioned that the President would make an announcement in the Oval Office at 1:45 and there would be pool (regular White House reporters) coverage. Later, as reporters gathered in the basement of the briefing room to make merry and bid McClellan farewell, they learned that the announcement was Goss’s farewell — which held them (and McClellan) up from the going-away party. Later, led by Austin Statesman-American reporter Ken Hermann and AP Radio’s Mark Smith (the outgoing president of the White House Correspondents Association), McClellan and his wife Jill were toasted and hailed with jokes and poetry. Recorded messages from CBS White House Correspondent Mark Knoller (who is in Sibley Hospital recovering from an ailment) and McClellan’s mother, Texas State Comptroller Carole Strayhorn (who is an independent candidate for governor of the Lone Star State this fall) surprised the press secretary. "Scotty Baby, you keep that Keeton-McClellan-Rhinelander-Strayhorn dynasty going," went the message from Strayhorn.

Hermann, the Peck’s Blab Boy of the White House correspondents, stole the show by portraying McClellan and what he would really like to say in a farewell statement, including "Goyal, the President does support India; Les [Kinsolving], monkeys do not have relationships with chickens,and April [Ryan of the American Urban Network], the President does not support reinstitution of slavery." Sipping champagne and Tex-mex food, Scott and Jill McClellan loved it.