Scott McClellan: Cards to chest, voice to world

The press-secretary torch is passed - to a man who's been practicing since third grade.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

He is the White House's face to the world, the message-meister whose job is to engage in twice-daily verbal fencing matches with reporters - to reveal only so much and no more.

Now, after an even 300 press briefings, Ari Fleischer has handed off the epee to his deputy, Scott McClellan, the low-key Texan with no apparent desire for the limelight. But in the modern era, fame has become one of the perks (or perils) of the top White House press job. And since the arrival of television cameras in the briefing room under Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, combined with the rise of the Web, speaking for the president can produce a virtual cult of personality.

It can also make relations with the press difficult. Before briefings were televised, press secretaries could go off the record or on background before a crowd of scribes. This allowed them to speak more freely and perhaps impart a bit more information or nuance without the appearance of a full-throated announcement. Even the short, untelevised morning "gaggles," when the press secretary lays out the day's schedule and answers to morning headlines, invariably remain on the record, since the transcript is circulated through the White House.

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The Bush administration, with a president who doesn't hide his dislike of the fourth estate, has maintained famously frosty relations with the press. Journalists grouse about the lack of access to substantive policy people, and how, when they finally get to talk to someone, the exchanges often adhere to talking points.

For the cordial Mr. Fleischer, who served in the hot seat for 2-1/2 years, and now embarks on a stint of speeches and book-writing, the tone has been set from the top: President Bush runs a tight ship, and that includes management of information.

Mr. McClellan was the safe choice to replace Fleischer. He has known the president since he became a spokesman for the then-governor of Texas in 1999. He knows how the White House works and he knows the press corps.

"He also brings a knowledge of the campaign, what the issues were, what they're there for," says Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor at Towson University and regular observer in the briefing room since the Ford administration. "The challenge of any press secretary in the current period is the televised briefing, and then establishing ways of dealing with the press that are less formal."

McClellan takes over during what has arguably been one of the administration's worst weeks. The White House is still facing questions over Bush's false claim about Iraq's quest for weapons of mass destruction (WMD), American soldiers are dying almost daily in Iraq, and the US economy is floundering.

At Fleischer's last briefing, on Monday, he fielded a barrage of more than 60 questions on the Iraq WMD controversy. Even though he was greeted with applause when he entered the room and with a cake at the end of the grilling, Fleischer certainly had to be relieved he was done.

McClellan stood by throughout, betraying little emotion. "He will have a baptism by fire," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Tuesday morning, at his first gaggle in the top press spot, McClellan slipped seamlessly into the role, smiling almost imperceptibly, his words trailing off at times. A native of Austin, he doesn't have his boss's Midland twang, but his Texas roots are deep. His flamboyant mother, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, is Texas state comptroller and former mayor of Austin and state railroad commissioner. McClellan and his brothers, including Mark, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, learned politics at her knee. Scott remembers, as a third-grader, speaking into a loud-speaker, asking people to vote for his mom.

But those days behind the scenes are over: Now he's front and center.

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