Saturday, November 24, 2007

A World Made More Opaque: Why Scott McClellan Had His Job

Jay Rosen

Scott McClellan deserves to be remembered, not as the greatest but as one of the most effective stooge figures in the Bush Administration. (The greatest: Alberto Gonzalez.) This week's news from his publisher--that the stooge says he had unknowingly passed along false information provided to him by Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, Dick Cheney, Andrew Card, "and the president himself"--would seem to suggest that McClellan may be waking up a bit to what his actual role was during the three years he served as White House press secretary.

But I wouldn't count on this awareness reaching very far. In fact, by seizing on a case where an outright falsehood was passed along to the press, we may overlook the meaning of McClellan's tenure as the jerk at the podium, which is what I called him in my April, 2006 retrospective. You can read that post for the full interpretation; here's the gist of what I want you to appreciate about McClellan, because it's worse than lying.

Athough he stood at the podium and managed the briefings, McClellan was not there to brief the press. He was there to frustrate, and belittle it, and provoke journalists into discrediting themselves on television. Choosing him to be the president's spokesman was a brazen act because it contradicted at least 40 years of received wisdom on how to manage White House communications.

From the the time of John Kennedy until Bush the younger, it was assumed that the President's powers were not only the formal ones in the Constitution but the far greater powers granted by the modern media: the power to dominate the news agenda, to persuade the nation when Congress wouldn't go along, to influence world opinion from stages like the White House briefing room, and to present an image of a man in charge when others have to act through clumsy institutions.

Power like that is actually kind of frightening because it obeys no constitutional logic. To make it less scary--and to add legitimacy to the imbalance in media power that favors the executive over other actors in the system--we came to assume that the president, who clearly dominates the political stage, should occasionally have interlocutors on that stage. And so instead of just declaiming like a dictator, "this is the way it is," the White House makes announcements, and then officials speaking for the president answer questions-- or the man himself does. Thus, the briefing room is a stage for both projecting presidential power and making it appear more reasoned, more legitimate, more subject to an essentially democratic back-and-forth.

Okay, now consider: Al Qaeda makes announcements, and like the president's they instantly travel around the world. But Al Qaeda doesn't have to answer questions. That gives Osama and company an edge. You have to start with something like that in understanding Scott McClellan. Because that is where Cheney started, and he influenced Bush in a direction Bush wanted to go anyway to conceal his own weaknesses.

Cheney and company had a different view of presidential power. They equated it not with the outsized political presence the president gains with his command of the cameras and the public stage, but with the "absence of constraint," as former insider Jack Goldsmith has written in his book, The Terror Presidency. One of the constraints that Cheney and Bush wanted to obliterate was the interlocutor. (Thus: rollback.) The whole idea that the executive ought to be questioned--by Congress, by the press, by allies, by members of his own cabinet, by the American people--was something they dared to question.

They had a different idea, a truly radical one, which Goldsmith grasped only after David Addington, Cheney's chief-of-staff, explained it to him. "We're going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop." Under this theory when the president is elected that is all the legitimacy he will ever need. His powers rightly overawe everyone's unless the White House errs and grants legitimacy to those who would "check" and question him or seek elucidation.

McClellan's specialty was not lying, or the traditional art of spin but what I have called "strategic non-communication." Lying we understand, spin we have to come to grasp. Non-communication we still do not appreciate; its purpose is to make executive power less legible. Only a stooge figure would be willing to suffer the very public humiliations that such a policy requires of the man in the briefing room.

McClellan was often described as "robotic" because he would mindlessly repeat some empty formula he had concocted in anticipation of reporters' questions. The point here was to underline how pointless it was even to ask questions of the Bush White House. And reporters got that point, though they missed the larger picture I am describing. Many times they wondered what they were doing there.

I will tell you: they were a constraint being made more absent with every exchange they had with the thick-headed and graceless McClellan. In this sense they were part of the Terror Presidency. The agenda was not to get the White House message out; it was not to explain the president's policies. At both of these (common sense) tasks McClellan was simply awful, his performance a non-starter. No, he was part of something larger and far more disturbing; and it would have been disturbing even to loyal Republicans if they had bothered to understand it.

The goal, I think, was to make the American presidency more opaque, so that no one could see in. No self-respecting man would take that job aware of what he was going to be asked to do. McClellan was unaware. He remains so. But he's not the only one.
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Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University and writes the blog, PressThink. He is also co-publisher with Arianna Huffington of Huff Post's OffTheBus.

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