Scott McClellan, Prisoner of Conscience?
From media punching bag to media darling.
12:00 AM, May 29, 2008 • By JAIME SNEIDER
SCOTT McCLELLAN HAS LAUNCHED a scathing and unexpected attack on the Bush administration. The media's punching bag will soon be its darling. Much has already been made of McClellan's preposterous claim that the White House operated in "permanent campaign" mode. Alas, if the campaign had been run anything like the White House, it seems unlikely Bush would have won reelection.
In no sense was I a "senior advisor" during my brief tenure at the White House. At best, I was a junior staffer--if not a peon--within the Communications Office. But my experience suggests McClellan is completely off his rocker when he asserts the Bush White House operated like the Bush campaign.
Shortly after Bush won reelection, I helped start up the White House's first rapid response shop. The goal was a noble one--take what worked in the campaign's communications efforts, and transplant it into the White House. Makes you wonder, did the Bush administration ever consider responding rapidly during its first term? I soon learned the answer was a definitive no.
People often associate "rapid response" with the dark political art of digging through trash and peddling dirt on political enemies. In reality, this doesn't happen--at least not at the White House. Rapid response doesn't even mean waging a constant political battle. It just reflects the fact that the news cycle has changed, and if the media makes a mistake, there is only a brief opportunity to correct it before misconception becomes conventional wisdom. (For example, the media often reports the Bush administration has implemented restrictions or an outright ban on embryonic stem cell research. Such restrictions, however, only apply to the embryonic stem cell research eligible for government funding.)
This new reality about how news percolates down to the public is precisely why the Democrats launched an "Information Center" when they took control of the Senate, placing many more people in their rapid response shop than the White House ever employed for such work.
Despite everyone's best intentions, it became apparent to me that the Bush White House regarded safeguarding its image and communicating a message to the public as low on its list of priorities. This is not entirely to its discredit. After all, the White House is fighting a serious war against a determined enemy. But correcting outright errors in wire stories (including those about the war on terror) took hours, if not days. Any document to be circulated with the press frequently made it into the hands of dozens of staff-members who had to sign off on them. Often this included a list of a dozen senior staffers--Assistants to the President--who had more important things to do and often little expertise on the particular subject.
On a good day, this took 12 hours. Often it took two or three days to receive approval to circulate a response. By this time, the damage to the White House's message had been done. My interaction with McClellan's Press Office suggested it wasn't even interested in bothering with this thankless task, and in certain instances, one office or another simply rejected the notion we should respond at all. Of course, McClellan is right that the Bush administration's failures are not limited to messaging strategy. Sometimes news is just bad. McClellan was in a unique position to make that point to the president since he was among a select few who had routine physical access to the man. Instead, he waited until he was out of the administration and Bush was months away from leaving office to let loose.
Although I didn't work for the Bush campaign in either 2000 or 2004, I knew many people who did. Many of these communications operatives became so frustrated with the Kafkaesque requirements of navigating executive-branch bureaucracy that they simply quit. Makes you wonder, if Scott McClellan was so unhappy and self-aware, why didn't he?
Jaime Sneider was deputy associate director of White House Communications. He is a contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.