Building a Better Press Secretary

Suggestions for Scott McClellan’s successor.

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The generals aimed at Donald Rumsfeld and hit Scott McClellan. President Bush is standing by his secretary of defense despite the complaints from retired brass, but today he did accept his press secretary’s resignation. White House officials recognize there needs to be a shake-up, but they’re resistant to doing anything too vigorous. So, it wasn’t altogether surprising that when the new Chief of Staff Josh Bolten signaled the need for change, the dutiful, gracious, and somewhat piñatalike McClellan stepped forward to sacrifice himself for one last symbolic mission.

The press secretary not only serves at the president’s pleasure, in the Bush White House, he speaks at the president’s pleasure. In this limited role there have nevertheless been two distinct models. Ari Fleischer infuriated the press corps (and me in particular) with his double talk and the sprig of sanctimony he included in every dish. But Ari was a veteran of years of policy battles on the Hill; he could spar from a posture of strength with the generalists in the White House press corps. McClellan, by contrast, was well-liked during his three years behind the podium but spent much of his time there in a fetal position. He got pounded day after day because the president didn’t allow him to do much more than repeat the talking points. He was not just robotic but rock ‘em sock ‘em robotic.

It would be nice if the new press secretary arrived in the post and immediately provided a transcript of the testimony by Cheney and Bush in the CIA leak case, along with the text of Donald Rumsfeld’s unaccepted resignation letter. But here on planet Earth, we should look for more modest improvements. Here are some suggestions to Bolten and crew as they hunt for the third White House spokesman:

1.Pick one of us: Hire as your press secretary someone who has been a journalist, as the Kennedy, Johnson, Ford, and Reagan administrations did. There are reports that Tony Snow of Fox News is in the running. This will no doubt cause a blogeurism about Fox’s and Snow’s bias (he should get back pay!). But “fair and balanced” is not the standard for White House press secretaries. Anyone’s who’s worked in a newsroom—whether he wore an American flag pin on the air or not—will understand the rhythms and demands of the press corps. White House officials would be able to stop guessing at what motivates the press and ask someone who might actually know. A press secretary who knew the shared language of the media would also be able to make the day-to-day operations run more smoothly. Furthermore, a recovering journalist in the inner circle might also be able to save officials from their worst instincts. A member of the press could explain what happens to a reporter when the administration feeds him implausible spin: The official looks foolish, antagonizes the reporter, his editors become agitated because they think he can’t get more than pabulum out of the White House, and the lack of an angle means the reporter will go find his own—undoubtedly a more hostile one.

2.Don’t lie to them: When Scott McClellan went to Karl Rove and Scooter Libby and asked them about their roles in the Valerie Plame leak, they denied any involvement. McClellan dutifully took up their defense with reporters and lied for them. Because neither Libby nor Rove nor anyone else stepped forward to rescue McClellan or provide a plausible explanation for his release of inaccurate information, his credibility was shot. Even reporters who wanted to think the best of him could no longer trust what McClellan said because they didn’t know if he was being given more bad dope. The episode also sent a signal to reporters about McClellan’s status in the administration. Rove and Libby could mislead McClellan and know that neither McClellan nor the president would make them pay.

3. Let himinside the circle: The new press secretary needs not only to be in the room when the decisions are being made, but he needs to be empowered to talk about what he’s seen. Having real access to the president and his top advisers is how he builds standing with the reporters who cover the president. At this late date, with so much distrust of the official line, no press secretary is going to be able to be effective without demonstrable access. And he needs to talk about the reality, not just peddle the freeze-dried anecdotes of high competence, sharp decision-making, and fabulous hair. That goes against the Bush code of secrecy, but that code has driven the president’s approval rating straight into the basement. The next press secretary needs to peddle something a lot closer to reality, if not from the podium at least back in his office or during the off-camera “gaggle.” Bush allies insist the president hasn’t lived in a bubble. That would be an easier case to make if over the previous six years they could have pointed to a few more moments where someone talked back to him, changed his mind, or told him he was wrong.

Will the White House do any of this? Probably not. Bush and his top appointees continue to see the press as adversaries rather than fair-minded umpires or legitimate critics. But just six months ago, suggesting the president take unscripted questions after speeches was considered laughable. Now for the first time in his presidency, Bush has invited hostile questions along with fawning ones. The White House mind-set may not change much, but its information policy is capable of adjustment.