Looking Back at White House Press Relations
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The controversy surrounding Karl Rove has highlighted the often volatile relationship between the White House and its press corps.
Unidentified Reporter #1: I mean, this is ridiculous. The notion that you're going to stand before us, after having commented with that level of detail, and tell...
MONTAGNE: On Monday, press secretary Scott McClellan was grilled by reporters.
Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Press Secretary): ...and I will be glad to talk about it at the appropriate time. The appropriate time is when the investigation...
Unidentified Reporter #2: ...(Unintelligible) when it's appropriate, when it's inappropriate?
Mr. McCLELLAN: If you'll let me finish...
Unidentified Reporter #2: No, you're not finishing. You're not saying anything.
MONTAGNE: McClellan's moment under the hot TV lights was familiar to Washington veterans who've seen it all before. There was Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler during Watergate...
Mr. RON ZIEGLER (Nixon Press Secretary): This is the operative statement. The way to assess the previous comments is to assess it on the basis that they were made on the information available at that time. The president refers to the fact that there is new material. Therefore, this is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.
MONTAGNE: ...and Bill Clinton's defender, Mike McCurry, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Mr. MIKE McCURRY (Clinton Press Secretary): And I don't want to get into, you know, the description of different permutations on what is very clearly an unambiguous statement. Bill.
(Soundbite of reporters all talking at once)
MONTAGNE: Ann Compton of ABC News has covered the White House for more than 30 years, and she joins us now.
Ms. ANN COMPTON (ABC News): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: We've been hearing the old Watergate words again this week: stonewalling, statements that are inoperative. What has to happen to get the press corps to go after the press secretary of the president like this?
Ms. COMPTON: The president and the press secretary both know that when it comes to accusations of not upholding the public trust, whether it's a president or his staff, that the questions begin to flood, the original offense or accusation is often lost, however, in the blizzard of questions, and it often becomes a question of cover-up. For instance, with Karl Rove, he told the White House and the White House told us that he had absolutely no role in mentioning to reporters the identity of the wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson. Now his own lawyer admits that he did, indeed, discuss it. So the focus is switched from what exactly Karl said to what did Karl Rove do after this came under investigation? That is where Washington investigations often end up. It is the cover-up. It is the handling of a scandal, not the original act, that now the White House press corps is zoning right in on.
MONTAGNE: Is there a ritual quality to these events? The White House reporters have to keep pressing, even though there's no chance they're going to get the press secretary to answer.
Ms. COMPTON: There's always a chance you're going to get the press secretary to answer. You have to set the question and frame the facts of the case in a way in which the press secretary has an opening to walk in and tell you what the facts are from the White House point of view. But there are several weapons in the arsenal of a White House press secretary, and we've seen them all come before. The press secretary can say, `I cannot address anything that's under active investigation,' which is sometimes true, sometimes not.
He can also just spit back the usual administration line. Scott McClellan is very careful to stick very close to the talking points agreed on by the White House staff. One weapon that the administration and the press secretary does not have, and that is not showing up for a briefing, because they know they're going to get a lot of heated questions.
MONTAGNE: Does it matter if the press corps actually likes the press secretary?
Ms. COMPTON: You work really on two levels. Personally, most of us like Scott McClellan. He's a very nice man. I liked Ari Fleischer. I liked Mike McCurry. I've known him for years and years. But White House reporters sitting in that briefing room have one basic responsibility: to ask intelligence questions based on fact. A press secretary has one responsibility, and that is to stand there and truthfully explain the administration's position.
MONTAGNE: Just a final question. Do any of these grillings that you've witnessed over three decades of covering the White House--do any of these grillings stand out for you?
Ms. COMPTON: The most difficult moments are when we're dealing not with policy but with human failings, and I think the darkest months that I covered this White House was the beginning of the second term for Bill Clinton. President Clinton was accused of engaging in behavior with an intern, and how offensive many people found it and the fact that it later turned out the president lied to the country and lied to federal prosecutors made that the darkest, most unhappy time I've ever covered here.
MONTAGNE: Ann Compton is a White House correspondent for ABC News. Thanks for speaking with us.
Ms. COMPTON: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.