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Thread: Words Fail Him

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jan 2005

    Words Fail Him

    Words Fail Him
    Now that the daily White House briefings are instantly available online, Press Secretary Scott McClellan's mangled sentences, flat-footed evasions, and genial befuddlement have made him the butt of a thousand blogs, as well as of an increasingly savage press corps. Is he a victim, a pawn, or a P.R. disaster?

    (Gold9472: Isn't it amazing how long it took for a negative piece of news about Scott McClellan to come out? It must mean he's on the list for expendable people.)

    Contact him at

    ow come the White House pressroom doesn't have PowerPoint? Nearly every conference and meeting and middle-school assembly supplies this visual speaking aid and basic technology to lackluster and tongue-tied speakers.

    But when I mentioned PowerPoint and other marvels of communication to Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, in a recent interview, he got a cloudy look—as though I had been making an incongruous or impertinent suggestion. As though only a total outsider, or fool, or wise guy would apply such workaday logic to the briefing process.

    The briefing room exists, frozen in amber, in another time. The moment is somewhere after Richard Nixon tried to accommodate—and control—the burgeoning press corps by converting F.D.R.'s pool house, sauna, rubdown rooms, and dog kennel into press offices and a small auditorium (it's still, basically, a pool house, with a door that flaps open directly onto the White House lawn, allowing in gusts of hot or cold air). And somewhere well before the advent of personal computers and the digital age (there is no Wi-Fi in the briefing room).

    A kind of daily Socratic dialogue, or at least an attempt at one, continues to take place in the briefing room in a method of inquiry initiated by Joseph Tumulty, Woodrow Wilson's primary aide and, effectively, the nation's first press secretary: a ritual Q&A that leads to both what the White House wants you to know and away from what it doesn't want you to know. Only, now the dialogue is led by something of a knuckleheaded Socrates, each day struggling and failing to talk his way out of a paper bag.

    It's this verbal haplessness that has made Scott McClellan—a pleasant, low-wattage, old-before-his-time young fellow, with, at 38, a wife, no children, and "two dogs and four cats"—the living symbol of this White House's profound and, perhaps, mortal problem with language and meaning. McClellan himself, as though having some terrible social disability, has, standing miserably in the press briefing room every day, become a kick-me archetype. He's Piggy in Lord of the Flies: a living victim, whose reason for being is, apparently, to shoulder public ridicule and pain (or, come to think of it, he's Squealer from Animal Farm). He's the person nobody would ever choose to be.

    His daily march into hostile territo-ry, without any of the available diver-sions and protections that a basic presentation-software package might provide, is so fraught that it must be a cunning setup—diabolical Karl Rove at it again. If not, it's a remarkable, defining lack of self-awareness on the part of the heretofore all-controlling Bush administration.

    McClellan himself hardly seems to be a control freak, nor does he seem all that interested in analyzing his place in a grand political design.

    He's obviously comfortable as just a cog in the greater machine. After all, the briefing he presides over is, as much as anything, a ritual (you can more easily explain how it got to be here than why it continues to exist) and a sideshow. ("One thing that the live briefings did," McClellan says about the introduction of live broadcasts during the Clinton administration, "was attract a lot of colorful characters," by which he means, without particular rancor, flaky people and media hounds.) In this and in other recent ad-ministrations, the high-end White House media and communication functions have been moved out of the traditional press office into a larger political sphere (Karl Rove is the real press secretary—or media general). What's more, the Bush administration has taken a further step to downgrade the operation: it's practically Bush policy to see the press corps as irrelevant and out of step with the American people.

    The diminished role and stature of the place can't be missed: the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room is gross—there's the smell of disinfectant or long-lingering chlorine, broken seats, grungy carpets, harsh lighting, buckled acoustic tiling, shabby draperies ("Somebody fix the curtain—stage right, a white spot," an exasperated cameraman kept yelling, at nobody in particular, on one of the recent days when I was in the room).

    But here's the thing that seems to have caught many people in and out of the administration quite unawares: outside of any plan or design or strategy (countermanding the plan, really), the briefing has slipped its bonds, defied its relegation, and become the true public face of the White House.

    This supposed side-show works now as something like the White House's daily discourse with the nation (if not for the nation as a whole, at least for the ideologically polarized Internet nation) and the world. It's the White House reality series. Or the briefing is our stumblebum version of challenging the P.M. on the House of Commons floor (we get the vitriol without the grandiloquence and good cheer).

    Beginning with the advent of the live broadcasts, under Clinton's last press secretary, Mike McCurry, then as a staple of the cable news cycle, and now as endlessly repeated, ever available streaming video, the briefing has become the living, inarticulate, comically absurd voice of the White House. Under Mc-Clellan the briefing is not only the source of news but news itself: McClellan's performance, its degree of ham-handedness, echoed and refracted in a thousand blogs, is a central political event.

    "You're talking on [the White House] Web site?" says McClellan, a little bewildered, when I ask him about the transmutation of the briefing process in the last few years, as well as the embarrassment of having his every grunt and pause and garbled sentence rendered in freely available, near-instantaneous transcriptions. "When did that start?" Mc--Clellan fuzzily asks Mike, the transcriber he insists upon having at our interview. "Do you have any idea?"

    Anyway, Scott McClellan, ready for prime time or not, may be the first real-time political figure and, arguably, the most public, or most exposed, man in America, gamely, doggedly repeating his set phrases ("We're going to keep focusing on the pressing priorities of the American people"; "We're going to continue to focus on the priorities of the American people"; "We're moving on to the priorities of the American people") long after they've become punch lines.

    Putting someone as strikingly out of his depth as McClellan into this job (and keeping him there) could well be part of this administration's contempt for the press. But while that contempt is surely real, installing McClellan here may actually, in another self-awareness gap, have been the administration's idea of a generous act.

    In the modern history of presidential press secretaries—from, say, Ron Ziegler in the Watergate White House through to the present—the job has veered between greater and lesser levels of stonewalling and accommodation. McClellan's immediate predecessor, Ari Fleischer, by nature a cold fish—and a prickly one at that—was quite a gifted stonewaller (true stonewalling involves a certain amount of aggression—an implicit threat that you will really be messed with if you go for the follow-up question). Then, too, his general air of resistance and tight-lippedness may have reflected not just the Bush administration's media hostility but Fleischer's own distance from the inner circle (he was an outsider, an Elizabeth Dole–campaign man). He didn't try to explain, perhaps because he couldn't.

    McClellan, on the other hand, sincere and earnest, might reasonably have been regarded as a kinder, gentler, and, as it happens, more informed representative. He's an insider—a guy in the Texas circle. To that degree, the inner circle might have thought of him as a certain sort of gift to the press—the real Bush thing.

    Indeed, it's a Texas political-family thing. His mother, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, became the mayor of Austin when Scott was in the third grade. By high school he was fully involved with her campaigns; by college he was running them. His older brother Mark McClellan heads the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; before that, he was commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration. Their parents are divorced: father Barr McClellan is the author of a book claiming that L.B.J. murdered President Kennedy; last year, Strayhorn announced that she was quitting the Texas G.O.P. to run against Rick Perry, the Republican governor (formerly Bush's lieutenant gov-ernor), as an independent. This hint of family eccentricity perhaps helped create McClellan's clear aversion to conflict and foster his air of let's-all-get-alongness (while that's his obvious inclination in the briefing room, he seems to have no real talent for getting people to get along with one another).

    It was Karen Hughes, Bush's longtime aide and handler, who picked Mc-Clellan from the Texas Republican political crowd and brought him into then Governor Bush's political operation. McClellan is in the Hughes mold, haimish in a Texas sort of way, setting him innately apart from non-Texans. The Bush inner circle is also the us-versus-them circle.

    He's what the Bush people like to call a straight shooter. Very much the kind of young person whom older people like (this is a certain sort of high status in politics in general and in southern politics in particular—dweeb as acolyte). The premium is on one-dimensionality. A singularity of purpose. No edge. No shading. No artifice—or the artifice is strictly Dale Car-ne-gie artifice. No slyness. No real sense of humor. No over-analyzing anything (one of McClellan's favorite criticisms of the press, and another of his often repeated phrases, is about the "tendency to over-interpret"). What you see is what you get.

    In some perhaps crucial sense, he was, when he got the press-secretary job, in 2003, at the age of 35, not only the official representative of what the Bush people stood for but a proud example of it.

    My guess is that nobody in the inner circle thought it very important that he couldn't talk, that he had to plod and often struggle through every sentence. Not being able to talk—not being quick enough and facile enough to shape language to your precise and urgent needs—might even have been a further sign of his straight-shooter qualities.

    In that sense, McClellan may have been even an idealization. Just the facts, ma'am. That's all the press would get out of him—that's all anybody could get out of him. (He tends to relentlessly repeat anything that he thinks is a fact, for instance his initially quaint and then puzzling constant characterization of 50-year-old Supreme Court nominee John Roberts as "young," causing one reporter to press, "Are you aware of something that is getting ready to come out … that will make this administration say, `Well, that was when he was young and he has now changed his mind'?") Maybe the media wouldn't be able to twist his words, because his words would be, knowing Scott, necessarily so limited and basic.

    End Part I
    No One Knows Everything. Only Together May We Find The Truth JG

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jan 2005
    Also—and this must surely have been part of the thinking in such a top-down administration—because Scott couldn't talk, he wouldn't be able to say anything for himself. His lack of verbal acumen, his lack of dexterity with a subordinate clause, becomes another part of the way to control the White House message in a White House obsessed with such control. He wouldn't be able to cozy up to the press. That requires a serving-two-masters deftness. A special tonal range. A wink. A nod. An emphasis. A surgical use of modifiers, so that I say what I have to say in such a way that we all understand what I mean to say. A little Kabukiness.

    This is not just sophistry, something else that straight shooters don't practice; it's verbal athleticism. Language is the game. You need to have a gift for it.

    In McClellan's case, almost all of his sentences are dead on arrival. Even the pre-written sentences (most every briefing begins with a statement about the president's schedule or the plausibly positive developments at hand—we've turned the corner in Iraq, etc.) are so bald and flat-footed that they become a kind of insult—he doesn't disguise the bull.

    Herewith another emotional complication: among the overrated jobs in American journalism is being a daily assignment reporter covering the White House. You are, in essence, a transcriber. The White House dishes out relative baloney and you serve it. So if you're the press secretary, your job is to make the baloney palatable. You have to help provide press people with the wherewithal to maintain the belief that they are doing something more than writing up your spin—you have to go the extra lingua-mile to make the spin seem plausible, clever, elegant, seductive, uplifting even. It is not just the stubbornness of McClellan's baloney but the inartfulness that makes everybody nuts. He offers nobody any cover.

    The media, after all, is being blamed by many people (not to mention many of its own people) for pretty much uncritically accepting the Bush line about the war—about terrorism, W.M.D., and the prospects for a positive outcome in Iraq. The media's defense has been that it can function only within the prescribed information structure. How can we know when the White House is prevaricating, dissembling, not being straight with us, even outright lying to us?

    McClellan destroys this line of defense. His inability to finesse the administration line, to tickle its logic, to prettify it, to seem smart about it in the least—and with virtually every one of his prevaricating and dissembling and truth-avoiding utterances becoming the morsels of the daily blog diet—means the media has to struggle even more to justify how it ever believed these num--skulls.

    In fact, Iraq, relatively speaking, remains the elephant in the briefing room—nobody really talks about it. But as to everything else, McClellan has become a helpless and irresistible target.

    On Rove-Plame-Libby he dumbly delivered a bald denial on Rove's behalf (whereas Rove's actual denial was a study in the nuance of deniability) and therefore became as guilty as Rove and more foolish.

    Katrina became the objective correlative of McClellan's inability to connect language to reality ("Flood control has been a priority of this administration from Day One." And "As I have indicated, this is not a time for politics." And again: "This is not a time for finger-pointing or playing politics"), and, in turn, McClellan became the living example of the White House's own befuddlement.

    When Dick Cheney shot Harry Whittington, McClellan, in some strange, reflexive slow motion, adopted the Katrina defense—whatever happened on the ground was so complicated and the scene so remote that the White House prudently waited to amass all reports and all data before responding to the event.

    On Dubai Ports, an obvious shocked-shocked thing for the press and everybody not personally associated with the White House, McClellan was, once again, helpless to hit the ball back—to one reporter's asinine question about how many American companies run Arab ports, he just stood there blinking.

    Every day, he's pulped, pummeled, spit upon for speaking White House untruths—or for not speaking them well enough.

    It is so bad, and so constantly public—every misspoken word, every stutter, every repetition, repeated mercilessly across the information universe—that he can only hope that it's gotten bad enough for him to get a sympathy vote.

    Which is why, after months of repeated requests, I all of a sudden got a call to come to the West Wing and have a chat with McClellan. This is a reach-out. He's a man on the ropes. He needs to explain himself. It's personal—it's got to be. Even McClellan, whose singular talent is to stand there and take it, has feelings.

    But there remains the same intractable problem: he's as inexpressive one-on-one as he is in the briefing room.

    He makes the problem worse: while I intentionally have not brought a tape recorder, hoping to hear McClellan talk without the self-consciousness of preserved words, he, ever defensive and bureaucratic, has his own recorder on the table, and, what's more, an official stenographer sitting in on our conversation (the "steno," as Mc----Clellan calls him, has a tape, too—and a big funnel microphone which he points at me and at McClellan—from which he makes the transcription).

    Now, the subject is—my invitation here has everything to do with—the fact that McClellan has become the world's most pitiable (or martyred, depending on your ideological position) creature. And while it would probably not be a good idea for McClellan to break down in tears, you should, if you're in McClellan's position, want to somehow evoke rather than flatly deny your humanity—you want to slip it in, begin to suggest you bleed, too.

    But he denies all personal feelings. Indeed, his approach here to dealing with his humiliation is to call me up to demonstrate that he can deny what's crystal clear:

    Mcclellan: One thing that you can't let happen when you're in a position like this is—and you can't get caught up—well, let me back up. I think the best way to say it is that you can't take things personally.

    I offer a wider opening:

    Me: I don't know of another example where someone's words on a daily basis—someone's essentially extemporaneous words—are so dissected and repeated—

    Mcclellan: Around the world.

    Me:—and redistributed. It must make you crazy.

    Mcclellan: No, it's part of the job. I mean, I'm actually glad that we have the whole transcript out there so everybody can see and have the full context of it.

    It's one-note. He can't leave it. He's affectless. (His forehead is absolutely smooth—robotlike rather than Botox-like smooth.)

    He professes: He's an office worker, nothing more, nothing less, doing his job. There's nothing more than that.

    I can't even get him going very much on the history of his office (usually people in politics love the history digression), nor on his predecessors (he does offer that he sees himself most like George Christian, L.B.J.'s last press secretary, who was from Texas and who, if he is remembered for anything, is remembered for not being too memorable).

    Indeed, the only real nod to the idea of how the job has changed—creating the predicament of rancor and high exposure that he finds himself in—is to evoke, in all but random fashion, 9/11. It's a reference made, it seems, for no other reason than that in the Bush White House everything must be related to 9/11.

    Finally, though, I manage—this is just after the Cheney shooting mess—to get him to make a small admission of being just a little bothered by being so relentlessly bitten and kicked:

    Mcclellan: Well, last week was a little bit of an example where I think most people feel like the White House press corps, in general, went a little over the top.… I tried to be as responsive and forthright as I could be based on the facts that I knew. And obviously, there's a point where the vice president was going to have to come out and talk about it. He wanted to wait until Harry Whittington was doing better. But this town can—and I think I talked about it last week—can get into over-analyzing things at points. And I think there was a tendency to do that last week—or over-interpret things.

    Which is how I got to thinking about PowerPoint, pressing the suggestion with McClellan, who says there is a plan to renovate the briefing room.

    In a minimally well-equipped office, your junior-most assistant would have been able to put a time line up on slides, and let you flip to everybody's highlighted statements, and illustrate the issue with graphics and maybe even a little video (Harry Whittington from the hospital bed), and, in lieu of verbal repetition, provide some bullet points (no pun) which you could refer back to—"What I wouldn't have given to be able to talk about slides," said a former press secretary of my acquaintance who held the job before Power-Point was popular—sparing McClellan the verbal and intellectual burden of having to keep all these cockamamy moving pieces and wildly unlikely scenarios in credible and reasonable order in his head.

    So is he purposely being sacrificed? McClellan looks and acts like a pawn, so perhaps he is. And why else wouldn't you fire someone who is so obviously not up to it? There must be method here. The Rovian rationale might go something like this: Scott talks fine enough for our people; the fact that he's not the brightest bulb makes him more sympathetic and recognizable; he's everybody's good-guy brother—or ev-erybody's good-guy brother in our good-guy base. If NBC's David Gregory calls Scott a "jerk" for a little prevaricating when it comes to the vice president's hunting accident (which itself, probably, isn't playing so badly with the base), well, them's fighting words coming from a media snot. When it comes to the press, just grin and bear it—or let Scott grin and bear it.

    But, personally, I think the true answer is that the Bush people have no idea what they're doing here. Language exists for these guys only as a bullying tactic (if they say we're at war, then we're at war). They rule by repetition—that's their truncheon. Their whole theory, to the extent they theorize, is to keep it simple, stupid—in fact, to mock the people who make it complicated. The problem is that Scott McClellan isn't really a bully. He's rather a pantywaist. So something of a reversal has happened. The press is now the bully and Scott Mc-Clellan is recognizable to everyone as the kid who, unfairly and cruelly, to be sure, gets instant-ly set upon and pulled apart. Indeed, he reminds us all, disgustingly, of our own inarticulateness (which may not be the best way to get the sympathy vote).

    Then, too, not unimportantly, these guys in the White House—and probably not just them, but everybody in pre-modern governmentland—still don't know jack about the Internet. They have no idea what's really being said about them, at what rate, and by whom, and how widespread and how damaging the joke has become.

    This failure of language and nuance falls most squarely on Scott's head, but it is also, day by day, doing the rest of them in.

    And while it's too late now, if they had just gotten a big plasma screen up there and let Scott point instead of talk, they might have spared themselves a bit.

    Michael Wolff, a Vanity Fair contributing editor, is the author of Autumn of the Moguls (HarperBusiness) and Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet (Simon & Schuster).

    No One Knows Everything. Only Together May We Find The Truth JG

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