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May 29, 2008

What Happened to Scott McClellan in Longer Perspective: 100 Years of the White House Press

I never expected McClellan to write a book about being the jerk at the podium for Bush, or to make connections between his experience and the larger wreckage of the Bush presidency. But he's done just that.

“You got to be able to step back and look at the big picture,” said Scott McClellan on the Today show this morning, talking about his book disturbance. I did that in April 2006 when McClellan resigned as White House spokesman. See The Jerk at the Podium: Scott McClellan Steps Away. Most of what I have to say on this week’s events is in that post.

(This week it was still on the first page of results for a Google search of McClellan’s name. The New York Times topic page for McClellan also picked it up. So did Mahalo. Long form bloggers live for these moments, when the live web and search come together.)

McClellan saw that he became just that: the jerk, the guy whom everyone could abuse. He is now trying to explain, in public, how such a thing happened. In “The Jerk at…” I was talking about his visible part in the Bush presidency— on television, in the public eye. Invariably, Washington reporters I met would tell me what a good person McClellan was… in person. “Great guy to work with.” And they almost always said the same thing about why his performances were so excruciating. “He’s in a tough spot.” And then their voices would trail off.

But it was way more than that. He was the point person for what had become a kind of propaganda presidency. The shocking thing is that he knows it now, he goes there in his explanations, even though the Washington press corps (still) does not. If they did go there, they would be the ones in a tough spot.

The Today Show rocked today. McClellan, a Texan from an prominent political family, pressed his case. Then he was mocked by Dan Bartlett, a Texan around the same age who could not make heads or tails of that case. (You have to watch it.) I never thought I would see the intellectual crack-up of the Bush team on live television, but that is what the clip shows, I think.

McClellan’s story (in my paraphrase)…

I was stupid, I allowed myself to be fooled by them. I was misled. I was misguided by the people who were supposed to guide me so I don’t die out there. I trusted the wrong people, but they were the top people. I see now that I was the public speaking part of a propaganda mission. The people running it let me lie for them. They destroyed their own press secretary when they did that. The American people rejected us because we didn’t level with them. I know, because I was the one not leveling….

And just below the surface of the words. A dream I had about public service died inside when I lied for you from the White House podium. I blame myself for not seeing that. And now I turn to your part in those events.

I never expected McClellan to write a book about being the jerk at the podium for Bush, or to make connections between his experience and the larger wreckage of the Bush presidency. He’s not only done that; he’s clearly ready to hit the circuit and explain himself. So to the wave of commentary here and coming, I offer another step back: a hundred-year perspective on this week’s events. The ruining of Scott McClellan was part of something way bigger, and to understand it we have to go back to the beginning of the White House press corps.

In from the cold

The modern era in presidential press think begins with Theodore Roosevelt, who directed that special quarters be built for reporters when renovations were made to the White House during his first term. In 1902 the work was completed: the press got invited into the heart of the presidency and the nature of presidential power shifted.

It shifted because of something Roosevelt had grasped: a national media system, then emergent, needed a big national narrative, and the President would be the main character in that narrative because, once elected, he alone stands for—as well before—the country as a whole. As head of government, ceremonial chief of state, and national protagonist—a triple advantage—the President would always dominate over other actors in the system. What today we call “commanding the stage,” because we take for granted that there is a stage, was in 1902 an imaginative leap forward into the media age.

With Roosevelt, often called the first modern president, the executive began its long ascendency over the other two branches, a development that sped into maximum overdrive with the president whom Scott McClellan served. The incorporation of the press into presidential power actually began a few years earlier with William McKinley, who first invited reporters into the White House and allowed them to hang out in a small room off the North Portico. Prior to that time they had taken to waiting in the street hoping to interview departing visitors. Congress was the nerve center of Washington then, and the more powerful branch. Its press gallery dates from 1841, 60 years before the White House supplied similar quarters.

It was McKinley who instituted regular White House briefings, but he kept his distance: reporters never met with the President and had to conduct interviews outside the building. When Roosevelt took over after McKinley’s assassination things changed; the great embrace had begun. T.R. liked reporters. (His uncle was a newspaper editor; Lincoln Steffens, the muckraking journalist, was a friend.) He took them into his confidence, traveled with them in tow and encouraged them to report on the president through the medium of his outsized personality. His notion of the presidency as “bully pulpit” and his decision to invite the press into the White House were parts of the same insight. Ever since then the presidency and the press have glamorized each other.

The stooge figure

That era lasted almost exactly 100 years. Bush engineered a strategic shift, the press part of which I have called Rollback. Scott McClellan was a key figure in that shift, but he seems to have had a change of heart about it, which is important to whether the change becomes permanent or fades with Cheney and Bush gone.

Sensing an institution in decline and uncomfortable with interlocutors of any type, they decided to return the press to where it stood before McKinley: effectively out in the cold. But they didn’t go all the way and actually expel reporters from the executive mansion, which would have alerted the country—and the press—to something extreme going on.

Instead the Administration decided to innovate in other ways. It denied the whole theory of the “fourth estate,” ridiculed the idea that the press is part of the system of checks and balances, told reporters they were a special interest group rather than a conduit to the public-at-large, wiped out all remaining distinctions between propaganda and public information, and welcomed the de-legitimizing of the news media by allies in the culture war.

“Back e’m up, starve ‘em down and drive up their negatives” is the way I summarized this approach. In July 2003 Bush took it further when he installed in the White House briefing room a stooge figure, a pathetic character who had no power, no in-in-the-loop knowledge, no respect from key players in the Administration, no talent for improvised explanation under the lights, and no problem being made to look like an ass in front of the country, the cameras and the rest of the world.

This was Scott McClellan, at that time a Bush loyalist in the extreme sense, someone willing to surrender his self-respect to be part of the President’s team. (“I have given it my all, sir, and I’ve given you my all,” McLellan said on the day his resignation was announced, words that have a strange poignancy now.)

Now these were mere tactics; the strategy was something else entirely. Here’s the way I would put it: The Bush forces, led by Dick Cheney, thought they had an insight that cancelled out Theodore Roosevelt’s insight from 1902. And they had a view of presidential power that contradicted his. Their idea—unappreciated to this day—was to make the executive more illegible, which would increase presidential power on the model of the state trooper’s sunglasses. (He can see out but no one can see in.)

This, I think, was an imaginative leap away from Roosevelt’s. T.R.’s insight was that the President as national protagonist could, by revealing himself more regularly to the media, begin to dominate the national stage. The president’s image had to be controlled, of course, and Roosevelt was quite good at that. Later Administrations would perfect the art of news management. Bush’s idea was entirely different. You’re more powerful if you don’t have to explain, answer questions or admit even the slightest error.

“There’s no longer any credibility.”

The leap that Roosevelt engineered (“come on in…”) led to an increase in presidential power by making the president a bigger figure nationally. For Bush and Cheney greater opacity in government signifies the president’s unchallenged power. Don’t answer questions; it encourages people to think that you can be questioned. Give up on persuasion; propaganda gets the job done more efficiently. Reason-giving only shows weakness; when the real reasons are elsewhere that shows strength.

Strategic non-communication was the best name I could come up with for this approach. It was a staggering gamble and of course it failed on every front, especially the one most important to Bush: public support for the war in Iraq. In August of 2007, Tim Russert reported on a meeting between Bush and House Republicans that featured some blunt talk. According to Russert, one Republican congressman told Bush: “The word about the war and its progress cannot come from the White House or even you, Mr. President. There’s no longer any credibility. It has to come from Gen. Petraeus.”

That Congressman was saying a remarkable thing: The White House was no longer a legitimate source of political news about the war in Iraq. It could not be believed on the subject. McClellan is trying to explain how things got to that point, since he now regrets his part in them. Here is what I wrote about that part in April ‘06.

McClellan’s specialty was non-communication; what’s remarkable about him as a choice for press secretary is that he had no special talent for explaining Bush’s policies to the world. In fact, he usually made things less clear by talking about them. We have to assume that this is the way the President wanted it; and if we do assume that it forces us to ask: why use a bad explainer and a rotten communicator as your spokesman before the entire world? Isn’t that just dumb— and bad politics? Wouldn’t it be suicidal in a media-driven age with its 24-hour news cycle?

You would think so, but if the goal is to skate through unquestioned—because the gaps in your explanations are large to start with—to refuse to explain is a demonstration of raw power. (As in “never apologize, never explain.”) So this is another reason McClellan was there. Not to be persuasive, but to refute the assumption that there was anyone the White House needed or wanted to persuade— least of all the press!

McClellan in his book charges that the Bush White House was “continually in campaign mode, never explaining, never apologizing, never retreating. Unfortunately, that strategy also had less justifiable repercussions: never reflecting, never reconsidering, never compromising. Especially where Iraq was concerned.”

But where his account and mine really come together is this part about the culture war: “I think the concern about liberal bias helps to explain the tendency of the Bush team to build walls against the media,” McClellan writes. Culture war concealed what was a risky and radical shift in White House communications. “Unfortunately, the press secretary at times found himself outside those walls as well.”

It wasn’t by accident. When Roosevelt welcomed the press in from the cold, he was agreeing that the modern presidency needed an interlocutor, and would benefit by having a official one on hand. It was exactly this premise that Bush and Cheney rejected, as part of a larger project, creating a more unfettered presidency all around, less accountable to other parts of the system. They wanted the lights to go out on the idea of answering questions from an unpersuaded press. They chose McClelland as the dimmer, and he was dumb enough to let them.

But I don’t think they calculated well.

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 29, 2008 2:15 PM