McClellan Leaving the White House Hot Seat

White House press secretary Scott McClellan announces his resignation. Being the presidential spokesman has meant household-name fame in the TV age. But it is also a position that can draw a lot of fire from the media.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Washington is witnessing a gradual changing of the guard at the White House. Earlier this week, the new chief of staff installed a new budget director and top trade negotiator. Yesterday, the president's spokesman, Scott McClellan resigned. And senior advisor Karl Rove trimmed his own list of responsibilities, to focus more on politics. Most expect Karl Rove to remain the force he's always been, while Scott McClellan joins the ranks of former White House front men.

NPR's David Greene reports on how some of those spokesmen have made their mark.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

The White House briefing room may look dignified on TV, with its royal blue backdrop and White House Seal. The reality is that it's a cramped and narrow space, jerrybuilt over what was once Franklin D. Roosevelt's swimming pool. It's crammed with camera equipment and clutter, littered with paper wrappings, and it smells of vending machine food. This is where the press secretary stands almost every day, like a human target.

Just last week, Scott McClellan was asked repeatedly to talk about the investigation into the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's identity. His answer was the same, over, and over, and over.

Mr. SCOTT MCCLELLAN (Spokesman, White House): As long as it's an ongoing legal proceeding investigation, we are not going to comment further on...

We are not going to comment on it while it's ongoing. It's a very...

Well, now you're getting into questions about an ongoing legal proceeding...

Now you're getting into a question that's relating to an ongoing legal proceeding. And I'm just not going to...

GREENE: There was a time when the job was more glamorous. Bill Moyers, one of Lyndon Johnson's press secretaries, became a news personality on commercial and then public TV. But around the time of Watergate, being press secretary got tougher, a lot tougher. There were investigations going on that reached far into the White House itself. Suddenly, it wasn't about being eloquent or artful. It was just about protecting the boss.

Here's Richard Nixon's press secretary Ron Ziegler, explaining away previous denials. And saying that, yes, his boss was now acknowledging serious inquiries and serious charges.

Mr. RONALD ZEIGLER (Former White House 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.

GREENE: Even before the Watergate era, one simple truth for the White House press operation, was that questions are never answered to the satisfaction of reporters. Certainly not in the case of Mike McCurry, who had the unenviable job of trying to explain Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Mr. MICHAEL MCCURRY (Former White House Press Secretary): There's not a room in the White House that's called the truth room, where you go unlock the door and it's all sitting there. You know, you have to go and collect this information, and ask people their memories, and assemble the kinds of records and materials that had been requested. And we've become pretty good at that now, because we have a lot of experience doing that.

GREENE: Around the time of the Lewinsky affair, NPR called Marlon Fitzwater, who had been a press secretary to both President Ronald Reagan and to the first President Bush. We asked him what it feels like to stand there, taking question after question and about a sensitive issue?

Mr. MARLON FITZWATER (Former White House Press Secretary): It is a terrible experience to go through. And you just know that it's going to take an hour out of your life, and 10 years off your life, every time you do it.

GREENE: Sometimes reporters seem more interested in a game gotcha. President Bush's first press secretary, Ari Fleischer, was pressed hard in March 2003 on whether Mr. Bush had been watching cable coverage of the attacks he ordered on Iraq's capital?

Unidentified Woman (reporter): Did the president not see the pictures on television this morning? The very dramatic pictures of the bombs and the explosions over Baghdad, he did not see those?

Mr. ARI FLEISCHER (Former White House Press Secretary): I was with the president just as the operation was beginning, at about one o'clock. And he was not watching TV at that time. I wasn't with him for the duration of it, so I couldn't answer in all instances about it. I probably shouldn't answer a question like this in this room. But the president does not watch a lot of TV.

GREENE: Press secretaries watch a lot of TV, and they can get mad when they don't like what they see. In his final days, McClellan was furious over news stories suggesting that President Bush knowingly lied in 2003, when he was insisting mobile labs used to produce biological weapons had been found in Iraq.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: You know, I saw some reporting about how this latest revelation--which is not something that is new, this is all old information that's being rehashed--was an embarrassment for the White House. No, it's an embarrassment for the media that is out there reporting this.

GREENE: McClellan officially announced his resignation yesterday. But inside the briefing room, in the days before, reporters who work with him got a sense it was coming.

Here he is on Monday.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Any White House goes through change. People decide to leave after they've served here for a while. It's hard work serving here at the White House.

GREENE: And for once, none of the reporters in the room tried to contradict him.

David Greene, NPR News, Washington.

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