07/14/2005 05:44 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Little Sympathy for Scott McClellan

I know Democratic partisans are not supposed to get weepy watching the Bush team wilt under the hot lights of Plamegate, but allow me a little sympathy for Scott McClellan who gets sent out to roast every day from the hot breath of the White House press corps.

Been there, done that I would say. I was the press corps pinata for President Clinton during four zesty years that included l'affaire Monique. Sometimes it is the chosen assignment of the White House Press Secretary to go out and get whacked, over and over, to see if anything interesting will spill out.

Press secretaries suck it up and suck it in because sometimes the brief you are given to argue is pretty slim goings. I am familiar with the answer "we may not comment on that matter because it is the subject of an ongoing investigation." It happens to be the right answer when people face legal jeopardy and might go to jail. Or when there is a determined assault on the principle of executive privilege (not to mention attorney-client privilege) as we faced during the Clinton years at the hands of Judge Ken Starr.

I don't pretend to know much about Karl Rove's conversations or the machinations of the determined prosecutor this time around, Mr. Fitzgerald.

But it does seem to me that there must be something more to this than the conversation reported between Matt Cooper of Time and Rove. Rove was making a late week heads up call to the White House news magazine reporter and, believe me, that is not the time or place to dish major strategy. A two-minute call such as the one now reported is basically to get the signals straight -- green, yellow, red. Rove seems to have been telling Cooper that the yellowcake story was a flashing yellow and he needed to be cautious.

Unless conversations go well beyond what has been reported, there has to be some other explanation for the zeal with which this investigation is being pursued. Something consequential must have happened because of this leak that we have not yet read about. That's about all I can imagine, because otherwise the whole thing -- leak, story, investigation -- seems a little disproportionate. Maybe a major intelligence operation got botched. Or someone took a real hit somewhere in the world as a result.

We should keep our lasers focused on the real issues, not the summer theater in the White House press room. Why was there so much spin in and around the arguments about going to war, arguments that need to be (must be) solemn and deep? Why aren't we pressing the hard questions about the conduct of the war that's underway?

And another reminder: White House press secretaries and deputy chiefs of staff are hired hands. We serve only because it suits the President at that moment. In the end, questions about war and peace, questions about motive and action have to be answered by the President because he is the one who we elected. He is, as Harry Truman ruefully noted, the one who ultimately faces the heat in the kitchen. Maybe that is why President Bush, for the moment, seems to be biting his tongue too.