Scott McClellan’s departure from the White House marks the end of an era—for Scott McClellan, that is. In terms of President Bush’s troubled communications effort, McClellan’s move means little unless there are other changes higher up the White House chain of command.
But for the beleaguered press secretary, and for the smattering of old Texas hands around the president, this is a Big Day. McClellan had barely turned 30 when he first started working for George W. Bush as his deputy communications director in Austin in 1999. While McClellan had worked elsewhere, his expertise was really limited to one politician: his mother, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the former mayor of Austin. McClellan grew up with Team Bush, which was his huge break in life and a huge constraint on his career. Other press secretaries assumed greater authority in the job as they engaged in the daily firefighting of the news cycle. But McClellan was always, to some extent, The Kid. The dynamic was set in 2000, when McClellan accompanied the media on Bush’s campaign plane as traveling press secretary. The job was always more logistical than political for one simple reason: McClellan was overshadowed by Karen Hughes, who was also on board for those trips. Inside the White House, it’s been the same story. McClellan has taken his orders from the man who followed Hughes as the president’s counselor: Dan Bartlett. It is Bartlett who has the president’s ear, sits in on his meetings and maps out the communications strategy for the rest of the team. That’s a role first carved out by Hughes herself, when she first entered the White House. It’s worth re-visiting her decision to understand how McClellan came to look like The Kid. Hughes had contemplated taking the podium job before January 2001, having served as Bush’s communicator-in-chief on the campaign. But when she began to seek advice from old Washington hands, she turned her back on the idea. Why? Because Hughes learned that time on the podium meant less time with the boss, and the only currency that really counts in the White House is face-time with the president. Hughes was right in one sense. In Bush’s team, power was even more concentrated than in other White Houses. You were either in the inner circle, or stuck outside the gates on Pennsylvania Avenue without a hard pass. But her judgment, as correct as it was for her, was a disaster for the press secretary—and ultimately the administration. By downgrading the job of press secretary, Team Bush thought the worst that could happen was they would annoy the press corps. Well reporters were indeed annoyed, and the Bushies thought the media’s frustration confirmed their good judgment. But there was another, unexpected effect. The podium is still a highly valuable channel for making news, shaping news analysis and reaching regular voters. By downgrading the press secretary, the White House sent the signal that it was unresponsive to the outside world and uninspired about its message. In good times, when the voters were happy, such signals got lost in the flow of other news. But in bad times, as they have been for the last year, those signals made a tough political environment even harder to manage. McClellan’s bland repetition of his talking points looked less like self-discipline and more like desperation. That’s why there has been a steady flow of members of Congress urging and demanding change in the communications team at the White House. In private sessions with the president, former chief of staff Andy Card and the communications team itself, GOP officials have repeatedly dumped on McClellan and the team in general. Ari Fleischer, who held the podium job before McClellan, described his job as being a human piñata for the press. But over the last year, McClellan has taken on that role for congressional Republicans. Was that fair? Not really. Most of those members of Congress were beating up the messenger because it was easy. Their real problem was and remains the policy—whether on Iraq, Social Security or port security. Just as unfair was the notion that McClellan was The Kid. Two moments stand out in McClellan’s tenure as press secretary, and neither suggest he was inexperienced. The first was the artful way he deflected the first questions about Karl Rove’s involvement in the CIA leak case. McClellan said he had talked to Rove and Scooter Libby, the vice president’s chief of staff. “They assured me that they were not involved in this,” McClellan said in 2003, giving himself enough wiggle room to suggest later they had lied to him. A kid would have simply denied it outright; McClellan denied the story and protected himself. The second moment was McClellan’s strong advice to Cheney in the hours and days after the vice president’s shooting incident. McClellan recommended a rapid public comment by Cheney personally, and let it be known that he had given such advice. It may have been PR 101, but the public disagreement was extraordinary: Cheney is still a force to be reckoned with inside the White House. Will McClellan’s successor be more fortunate? Only if there are more changes in the White House structure. There are signs that could happen, judging from the news that Rove himself will lose his post as the deputy chief of staff in charge of policy. Rove will return to his pre-2005 role of focusing on political strategy in the run-up to November’s congressional elections—a role he was likely to play anyway. The shift in his job is an acknowledgment of two things. First, that Rove—for all his energy and ideas—cannot do everything. Second, that the president’s new chief of staff Josh Bolten wants his own people in place. Joel Kaplan, who takes over the policy position in the chief of staff’s team, owes his job to Bolten. (He was previously Bolten’s deputy at the budget office.) Like his mentor, Kaplan has a reputation for being smart, capable, hard-working and a team player. While there’s plenty of speculation about who will take over from McClellan, the chances of a high-profile outsider (say, from the media itself) moving into the White House seem slim. Look for a smart, hard-working insider in the mold of Kaplan.