In many ways, the story of the rise, fall and reemergence of Scott McClellan elucidates the principal problems which have plagued the presidency of George W. Bush.
Here, we see the president’s lack of concern for an aggressive public relations strategy to promote his policies, his tapping mediocrities for positions of responsibility merely because of their loyalty to him and his stubbornness in keeping staffers and other officials on long after they have demonstrated their incompetence (or keeping on those who, while once effective, had lost the stuff which once defined their success).
Long before the president asked McClellan to step down as White House Press Secretary, conservative pundits and bloggers had been calling for his ouster. Bill Kristol defined his stance in press conferences as a “defensive crouch.” Robert Novak points out that many of his colleagues thought McClellan was “unqualified” for the job of press secretary. In an excellent piece which really gets at the president’s personnel problems, David Frum noted that in his “televised confrontatations with the savage White House press corps,” McClellan looked “frightened, like a schoolboy trying to retrieve his mittens from a persecuting gang of bullies.”
Only someone indifferent to public relations would tap such an individuals as his chief spokesman.
The President elevated McClellan to Press Secretary because this Texan had been a loyal supporter from his days as chief executive of the Lone Star State. Frum finds that except for Karl Rove, “these Texans were a strikingly inadequate bunch:”
hat early team was recruited with one paramount consideration in mind: loyalty. Theoretically, it should be possible to combine loyalty with talent. But that did not happen often with the Bush team.
Bush demanded a very personal kind of loyalty, a loyalty not to a cause or an idea, but to him and his own career.
But, even as it became obvious to anyone who followed the news that McClellan was not up to the task of handling a hostile White House press corps, the president stood by his longtime supporter. Just as he kept on Alberto Gonzales who, while certainly a competent attorney, had repeatedly demonstrated that he could not withstand the political pressures of the Attorney General’s office.
Frum also suggests that if the president had wanted to attract strong personalities to serve on his staff, he needed “demand something more than personal loyalty” and offer a more “compelling vision and ideal.” While the president has generally offered a compelling vision when he has spoken out on the War on Terror, he did fail to hire staffers able to make a compelling case to the news media and American public. Had he better appreciated the power of public relations, he would certainly have recognized the necessity to tap individuals whose qualification was not their loyalty to him, but their ability to communicate.
His predecessor showed he recognized as much when he hired Mike McCurry even though that spokesman had once worked for one of his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, Bob Kerrey. Bush also plucked a press secretary from the campaign of a partisan rival. McClellan’s predecessor, Ari Fleischer, got his start in presidential politics when he signed on as Communications Director for Elizabeth Dole’s 2000 presidential campaign when she was running against George W. Bush, Fleischer’s future employer.
Fleischer got good marks for his performance both from the media and conservatives. From this example, the president should have learned that personal loyalty alone does not a good spokesman make. Communications skills matter far more.