The Perils of the Tell-All Book
Posted on June 2, 2008
(This first appeared in The Politico)
I don’t know Scott McClellan that well. I interacted with him every once in a while when he was President Bush’s press secretary and I held the same role for House Speaker Dennis Hastert. We had a cordial but distant relationship.
McClellan was one of the Texas guys, who didn’t care much for Washington folks like me. They had it all figured out and didn’t need any help on communications strategy from congressional types. When we held conference calls with the White House press team, they seemed to bristle any time we raised questions about Bush administration strategy.
By the time McClellan took over for Ari Fleischer, there really wasn’t much of a percentage in being candid with the White House press team. What did we know? We were only the Congress.
The leader of the Texas communicators was Karen Hughes, and she developed the rigid style that would come to typify this White House communications shop until former press secretary Tony Snow, current press secretary Dana Perino, Communications Director Kevin Sullivan and counselor to the president Ed Gillespie would ride to the rescue in the latter days of this administration.
The Hughes approach to media enforcement was simple: The media were all left-wing scum. Congress is irrelevant. Any leakers would be shot on sight. Discipline, discipline, discipline.
In those first years of the Bush White House, the talking points were pretty much all the same: George W. Bush is great. Congress is irrelevant. The Democrats are evil.
The press chafed at the talking points and soon turned on the White House. McClellan says in his book that the media was way too compliant in the run-up to the Iraq war, and certain elements of the press may have been. But my experience with the White House press corps is that they were getting increasingly frustrated with the Hughes communications model. In fact, more and more of them called me to get any morsel of information that didn’t say George W. Bush is great, Congress is irrelevant, the Democrats are evil.
Fleischer was a master at keeping the press at bay. With his distinct look and his glib answers, Fleischer's nonresponsiveness was entertaining.
But when McClellan took the reins, the press pounced. They had had enough of the Karen Hughes model of message enforcement. And McClellan was no Ari Fleischer. He got pounded day after day. He looked foolish. He was clearly in over his head. His inability to forcefully communicate (with credibility) the president’s message helped to stamp the Bush White House with one label it has not been able to overcome: incompetence.
Now McClellan is writing a tell-all book that has an unspoken message: “It’s not my fault.”
Well, it was not all his fault. That is for sure. But it was partly his fault. He took the flawed Hughes model and made it completely unworkable. He didn’t get himself in the loop when he needed to. He didn’t investigate deeper when he retold the story given to him by Karl Rove and Scooter Libby (and that wouldn’t have been too hard. Pretty much everybody in the press knew that McClellan was spreading untruths on this issue as soon as he opened his mouth).
The McClellan tenure at the press helm was the darkest period of the Bush White House. With Harriet Miers, Katrina and a host of other problems, chiefly in Iraq, effective communication was essential. But that essential element was missing.
Now McClellan is trying to set the record straight. He is trying to do the things now that he should have done then. He is trying to restore his credibility. But it is too late for that.
Being a press secretary is a hard business. You have to please two clients — the press and the boss — who have conflicting goals. The press wants to know what is going on while the boss doesn’t want to tell them. It is far easier to get deals done without press scrutiny. The effective press secretary not only makes the case for his boss to the media. He also makes the media’s case to the boss.
Maintaining credibility in this atmosphere is hard, but it is extraordinarily important. Mike McCurry was the best at this when he worked in the Clinton White House. McCurry ably served the president by always being truthful (if, as he put it, he spoke the truth slowly at times), and by maintaining both a sense of humor and a sense of self. In many ways, he was more an analyst than a corporate flack. Clinton avoided getting kicked out of office because of McCurry.
Bush’s problems, on the other hand, only got worse because of McClellan’s performances. McClellan’s inability to control the podium and control the message confirmed the media’s dim view of the White House.
It is hard to know what Scott McClellan’s motives are for writing this book. He is not the only one to jump ship and turn on his former client. Doug Feith, Jerry Bremer and a host of others have tried to shift the blame to others for failed policies in the Bush administration. One thing is certain: The Hughes model for message discipline has completely fallen apart.
The Texans have pretty much all departed the stage, and the White House press team is now in the able hands of Perino, Sullivan and Gillespie. But the damage has been done. And no matter how hard McClellan tries to rewrite history, he did a lot of the damage.
John Feehery worked for the House Republican leadership from 1989 to 2005. He is the founder of The Feehery Group, a strategic advocacy firm.