04/20/2006 08:06 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why You Should Feel Bad for Scott McClellan

Scott McClellan's announcement yesterday that he would be stepping down as press secretary came as no surprise. As recently as Monday he hinted that he might be on his way out when, after being asked by a reporter if he would be part of the much talked about White House reshuffle, he responded, "Two years in this position is a long time, I'm very mindful of that. But, look, I never get into any of that speculation." Well, everyone else did, and we all saw McClellan headed for the door.

At yesterday's press briefing, McClellan told reporters that he had felt no pressure to resign but, rather, had been mulling over the prospect of stepping down in the weeks since former White House chief of staff Andy Card left the building. Time's Mike Allen, however, blew that story to pieces fairly quickly:

Like [Josh] Bolten's predecessor, Andrew H. Card Jr., McClellan did not want to go. Although [McClellan] had talked to colleagues sporadically about departing as long as a year ago, he had planned to stay until after the midterm election. Friends said he had gotten the internal signal and wanted to get it over with, to short-circuit the craziness of having to refuse to speculate about himself from the podium.

So what does McClellan's departure mean? The White House no doubt sought to get some mileage out of the announcement, figuring it would provide support to the narrative that the administration is in the midst of a reshuffle. (A quick aside: Can we stop calling it a "shake-up"? Card was replaced by OMB director Bolten, who was replaced by the administration's chief trade negotiator, Rob Portman, who was replaced by his deputy, Susan Schwab. Karl Rove, moreover, was semi-demoted and replaced by Joel Kaplan, deputy White House budget director. Until someone from outside the administration gets appointed to something, this is all just an elaborate game of musical chairs.) But any hopes of pulling one over on White House watchers were quickly dashed. The New Republic's Michael Crowley, for instance, confidently proclaimed that McClellan's departure "will mean approximately zero for the course of human history," while NPR's Andrea Seabrook asked, "will anything change?" The real news yesterday, everyone agreed, was Karl Rove's move.

This reaction wasn't all that surprising. McClellan has been a favored punching bag for journalists, as well as critics of the administration, since practically the minute he took over from the hacktacular Ari Fleischer. McClellan stepped up to the podium in the White House briefing room every day and relentlessly pounded away at the administration's talking points ("we don't comment on ongoing investigations," "we're here to do the business of the American people," "September 11th," etc.); as Seabrook put it, he "had the job of being 'Washington Jerk No.1.' His whole raison d'etre was to obfuscate, squelch, conceal and mask the truths reporters sought." To make things even more embarrassing, he was never actually an integral part of crafting these talking points or the administration's broader media strategy -- tasks which were primarily carried out by Dan Bartlett and Rove. McClellan's lack of any real verbal dexterity, moreover, was striking; he was never all that comfortable in front of cameras, and the man simply did not have an easy way with words. Christopher Hitchens summed things up nicely several months ago: "I'm not the only person in Washington who wonders every day how that guy got that job. I mean, it's an insult to the intelligence of everyone who has to listen to him."

Was he really all that bad? For supporters of the administration, McClellan must have been a godsend: His affectless, near-catatonic stare was the perfect representation of the contempt with which the White House regards the press, and the less information he gave to them, the better. For those of us who hold the controversial position that the President (or his press secretary) has an obligation to be honest about what the country's leader is up to, McClellan was not much of an improvement over the supremely arrogant Fleischer. But to fully understand McClellan, you had to understand that this was a man who was fundamentally and consistently out of the loop. Yes, he was routinely sent to the briefing room with half-truths and lies, but McClellan's tragic earnestness revealed that, on most occasions, he actually bought the spin that the White House was putting out. Flawed and inept as McClellan was, his obliviousness was ultimately his most consistent feature.

Take, for instance, his statements -- those that will surely go down as his most memorable -- on Rove and Scooter Libby's involvement in the Valerie Plame scandal. In late 2003, McClellan repeatedly told the press corps that Rove and Libby had informed him that they had nothing to do with the leaking of Plame's identity. We now know the implications of those statements were flatly and embarrassingly wrong, but as Newsweek points out, McClellan "gave himself enough wiggle room to suggest later they had lied to him." Mike McCurry, one of President Clinton's press secretaries, believes that this is actually what occurred; he observed on NPR that once the true extent of Rove and Libby's involvement came to light, "You could tell from body language -- by the quotient of squirming -- that [McClellan] felt very uncomfortable, that he had not been given reliable information by people he worked with." McCurry knows a thing or two about being sent out to the press with unreliable information, and if McClellan had even a modicum of self-respect, he, not unlike McCurry, would have left after it became clear that his colleagues had lied to him.

Whereas Fleischer developed a well-earned reputation for deliberately delivering up falsehoods to the press, it was never all that clear whether McClellan was fully in on the administration's game plans. He had a much more complicated relationship with the truth -- namely, being unable to come in contact with it -- and this is ultimately, I suspect, what endeared him to the White House press corps. McClellan was so obviously on the outside of the bubble that ensconces the President that he couldn't really be blamed for all the nonsense he spouted in the briefing room. McClellan was unserious and pitiable -- a man with no greater skill in life than an ability to bore you to tears by repeating talking points (true or not, but mostly not) that were basically handed to him by the people doing the real and very ugly work of the Bush administration. While Fleischer lacked scruples, McClellan simply lacked self-respect. You just had to have sympathy for a guy who was so clueless and so apparently willing to be used by his superiors that he would endure almost unknown levels of public scorn and ridicule on literally a daily basis.

Ironically, we may eventually long for the days of McClellan's tenure. Judging by the names that are being tossed around as potential replacements, we could be in for Fleischer redux. While we may not have had an ally with McClellan, his successor could be much worse -- someone who possesses the self-awareness that makes him (or her) more than just another laughable White House hack but, rather, a legitimately effective liar.

UPDATE: In response to some of the commenters below, I just wanted to clear something up. My argument that we should feel bad for McClellan was along the lines of, "We should pity this poor, hapless fool," not that we should experience some genuine sympathy for him as he takes beatings for the absurd and undemocratic media strategy that this White House has employed. I certainly think he's culpable for being a part of that strategy, since he was an active and willing participant despite the fact that the limits on his access to Bush's inner circle ensured that he would never be even modestly successful in his position. I also just happen to find him a fairly dense and pathetic character who doesn't fully grasp what's taking place around him. It was that pathetic dimension to McClellan's tenure that I was trying to capture here, and to the extent that I did not adequately convey what my purpose in writing this post was, my sincere apologies. Thanks for all the comments, folks.