When the White House spokesman lacks credibility, the press and the public suffer. Mark Hand looks for possible ways Scott McClellan can save his image - and job
There are certain things no effective press secretary can do without. Topping the list are a podium, a BlackBerry, and credibility.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan certainly has the first and probably the second. It's the third that some are starting to doubt.
Two years ago, McClellan flatly denied from the podium that Karl Rove and Lewis "Scooter" Libby were involved in the leaking of CIA officer Valerie Plame's name. Now that special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation has shown those statements to be false, the White House press corps has adopted a seriously aggressive posture in questioning McClellan's credibility.
Until McClellan or a senior Bush administration official offers a full explanation for the inaccurate statements, the current level of mistrust that exists between the White House and its press corps is expected to fester, potentially harming the President's ability to communicate effectively.
Since his initial comments two years ago, however, McClellan has sidestepped all questions about the White House's involvement in Plame's outing, claiming that any statements would impinge on the special counsel's ongoing investigation.
Washington oddsmakers are now keeping a close eye on McClellan.
"If he's going to be riddled by this day by day, and as this story evolves and he's not able to comment, it's difficult to see him as a long-term spokesman," says Napoleon Byars, who served as a Department of Defense public affairs official for more than 20 years and now works as a professor in the University of North Carolina's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
A White House correspondent, who asked not to be identified, predicts McClellan, who replaced Ari Fleischer as press secretary in summer 2003, will soon be leaving his post. "I'm expecting very big changes," the correspondent says.
The credibility gap
But even if McClellan resigns, the White House will still need to offer a public accounting of the circumstances that led to the October 7, 2003, briefing where McClellan said Rove and Libby "were not involved" in the leak.
Without a full explanation, McClellan's successor could face a similar credibility gap. "I hope the credibility is restored because the next person is going to be in a pretty tough position if [it's not]," Byars says. "They'll be responding to the same questions that Scott was responding to. Until a White House official comes out and restores that microphone's credibility, that job will always be responding to that question."
This particular line of questioning reached a fever pitch two weeks ago during McClellan's daily briefing. Connie Lawn, White House correspondent for USA Radio Network, became the first member of the press corps to inquire about McClellan's job status, asking if he had considered resigning. McClellan said he had not.
Lawn, who has covered the White House since 1968, explains that reporters' questions are the most important part of the press briefings - "to get those questions on the record, to get them out there in public."
Lawn knew how McClellan would respond to her question about his possible resignation over the Plame affair.
"For most of us, the answers are preordained. We could write the answers before we get them," she says. "It's a ballet. It's a dance."
As for reports of animosity between McClellan and the press, Lawn emphasizes that she likes McClellan as a person, a sentiment held by other members of the press corps. "We understand that he's got a job to do, which is different from our job," she says.
During the same briefing, McClellan noted that he has "worked hard to earn the trust of the people in this room, and I think I've earned it."
But Deborah Mathis, a nationally syndicated columnist and former White House correspondent for Gannett News Service, says that many reporters who cover the President no longer trust McClellan.
"[When reporters] come up to him after a press briefing, pat him on the back, and say, 'Hey Scott,' they do that because they still need him. He should not mistake that for respect," Mathis says. "Behind the scenes, they still need a relationship with him, and he shouldn't confuse the two."
When she covered the White House during the Clinton administration, Mathis says, reporters understood that the job of the communications office was to be discreet and steer the press corps in certain directions. Mike McCurry, White House spokesman for President Clinton, successfully managed to sidestep dishonesty, she argues. "And that's a real art: to not tell the truth and not lie at the same time," she explains.
Most of a White House press secretary's work is performed behind the scenes, where the press can be more forceful in its demands and display less deference to the spokesman. The fact that McClellan has now lost control of the formal press briefings does not bode well for him.
"If he can't carry the on-camera courtesy part of it, you know what's happening off camera," Byars says, referring to an even testier relationship that is likely affecting the news-gathering process taking place outside of the public's view.
Mary Coffman, associate professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journal- ism and a former Washington-based TV news correspondent, says she has heard from at least one White House reporter who said this is the most contentious White House that she has covered in many years.
But President Bush's White House isn't the first to deal with a press corps that sought to prey on the weaknesses of an administration's messaging. "We saw it happen somewhat with Mike McCurry, but then after a while the trust was regained for him," Coffman says.
Marlin Fitzwater, White House spokesman under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, "went through some pretty tough times with Iran-Contra, but you always heard that he had a great relationship with the press and was always on the up and up and did not deceive the press," she notes.
With public opinion polls not treating President Bush kindly during his second term, the press has approached its White House coverage with greater skepticism.
Lawn notes that one of McClellan's predecessors in the White House - Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart - explained that any press secretary must simultaneously serve two masters: the press and the President.
"But in reality, the greater loyalty is to the President," she says.
The Bush administration's reluctance to concede any ground on the issue of accountability could prevent it from regaining the confidence of the American public. Byars believes that the White House could defuse the situation with the press corps - and improve the President's standing among the American public on the issue of trustworthiness - by simply acknowledging that McClellan did not have all of the facts and was misled before he made his comments in 2003. But at this point in the controversy, McClellan will need assistance from the administration, Byars contends.
"If this thing is to work out, someone in a higher position of authority needs to go in and restore Scott's credibility," he says. "It's difficult for him to do it on his own now. He's adrift. The spokesman's position is too important to the public. If the spokesperson doesn't have credibility, I think we all suffer."
As for McClellan, Mathis believes he does not have the aptitude to continue as the White House's top communicator. "I've been through a lot of press secretaries," she says. "There are some really good ones out there. There are some average ones out there. And there are a few who have no business there. And I would put Scott in that last category."