'McClellan Should Have Quit if Policy Upset Him'

The only presidential press secretary who ever resigned in protest over a policy disagreement with his boss said that Scott McClellan should have done the same thing if he didn’t agree with President Bush on Iraq or any other matters.

“If he didn’t believe in something the Administration was doing or felt that officials like [former White House deputy chief of staff] Karl Rove or [former White House communications director] Dan Bartlett or President Bush weren’t leveling with him, McClellan should have quit,”  said Jerry terHorst, the only presidential press secretary in the history of the job to resign in protest over Administration policy. “There could have been more who did it, before and after me,” added terHorst, who quit as Gerald Ford’s press secretary after in 1974 over then-President’s pardon of former President Richard Nixon.

Now 86 and retired to Asheville, North Carolina, terHorst interrupted his reading of McClellan’s controversial new memoir "What Happened" to talk to me last week.  Of the book, he said “The thing that bothers me is he never says when he came to believe he was mouthing falsehoods or why  he felt that way.  I don’t see any of that in the book.”

Should McClellan have followed the example of terHorst himself after one month as press secretary and resigned in protest?  “Certainly,” replied the onetime Washington bureau chief of the Detroit News, who had known Ford since covering his fellow Michiganian’s first race for Congress in 1948.  McClellan himself touched on this on Meet the Press over the weekend, telling moderator Tim Russert that “many of the conclusions I came to at the end were not ones that I would’ve embraced at the beginning, and I went through a process here to make sure I got to the truth.  And I believe I have gotten to the truth from my perspective.”

But terHorst will have none of this about going “through a process” and reaching a conclusion later.  As he told me, “When I became press secretary, I took an oath in the presence of my wife and President Ford there.  It’s the same oath McClellan had to take. The oath is to ‘support and defend the Constitution,’ not the President.  And nowhere in the Constitution does it say the President is above the Constitution or law.”

(From my own perspective as a White House correspondent, I can say that, at the time of his departure as press secretary, McClellan voiced none of the qualms or doubts he now displays on television and in his book.  On April 4, 2006, rumors of his departure made it into print and McClellan was questioned about his continued employment at his daily briefing.  After the briefing, a group of us White House reporters went to his office later to show solidarity with the embattled press secretary, whom we personally liked and empathized with.  McClellan insisted that the rumors of his departure “were being started by someone else who wants my job.”  When I left and shook hands with McClellan, I said I hoped he stayed on as press secretary.”  He told me: “So do I.” Within ten days, he was gone).

In recalling how he learned of Ford’s pardon of his predecessor for all crimes he “may” have committed on the Saturday evening before it was announced, terHorst said that many of those who were advising President Ford “were saying ‘don’t tell terHorst because he’ll be the first to leak it to the press.’” That upset the press secretary and was a factor in his sudden resignation right after the Nixon pardon was announced.

But, he added, this never affected his friendship with Ford or with most of the people around him.  terHorst saw Ford often “and we never again talked about the pardon.  He didn’t hold any grudge.”  The same was true, he said, of most of the White House staffers he dealt with and who he felt kept the Nixon pardon secret from him until the last minute.  “I was on good speaking terms with both [White House Counsellor] Bob Hartmann, [congressional liaison] Jack Marsh, and [White House Counsel] Phil Buchen,” terHorst said, adding that about the only Ford White House staffers he didn’t remain in touch with were Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Dick Cheney.

“I just wasn’t on their wavelength,”  he said, without explanation.

terHorst did meet McClellan once, at a luncheon for former press secretaries at the White House, and found his successor to be “very gracious.”  Of his performance at the podium, terHorst said of McClellan: “I thought he was doing his best to sell the Bush program.  He never varied, never wavered, and was loyal to the program.”

But the longtime Detroit News reporter also made clear his belief that a press secretary to the President should have some background in journalism, along with access to and influence with the President.  His two “heroes” in the job are Steve Early, onetime wire service reporter and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s press secretary throughout his more than twelve years as President, and James Hagerty, former New York Times reporter and Dwight Eisenhower’s press secretary for eight years.

“Steve set a high standard for what a press secretary could do,” said terHorst, “He stayed close to the center of power, interpreted what the President wanted, and sold it to the press.  Jim had a unique ability to stay in touch with reporters, and that included those who didn’t attend his briefings.  If you couldn’t be there full-time, Jim would call you to let you know if something important was coming up.”

Like many old Washington hands, Jerry terHorst laments the decline of social relationships in the nation’s capital.  He recalled his early days covering Capitol Hill in the 1950’s, when [Michigan’s liberal Democratic Sen.] Blair Moody disagreed with everything that [Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy] stood for, but they would walk back from voting in the Senate together.  It’s certainly not that way in Congress today and it’s apparently not that way in the White House press room.  Very few of the reporters have time to commiserate together, or talk about things other than work.  E-mail, internet, youtube, and facebook take up too much time.  I hope it will be more personal someday.”