Twilight Zone in the briefing room

Presented for your consideration: A bizarre and chilling fantasy in which Bush's Fox-y new press secretary suddenly tells the truth.

By Walter Shapiro
April 27, 2006 3:37PM (UTC)
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The appointment of Tony Snow as George W. Bush's third presidential press secretary to replace the hapless Scott McClellan is an event whose seismic reverberations may reach as far as, well, maybe the sixth row of the White House press briefing room. What is significant in the anointment of Snow is that for the first time since the Ford administration a president has picked a veteran TV talking head to take a job that requires constantly talking on camera. In short, the job description ("TV experience required -- Fox News pedigree a plus") has finally caught up with the changed nature of the press secretary's responsibilities in an era of daily televised food fights, er ... briefings.

This is not to deny that the atmospherics of the daily briefings are likely to change with an adult (Snow, who was a speechwriter in the first Bush White House) rather than an amiable munchkin (McClellan) at the microphone. As a well-known conservative, Snow has an independent post-Bush reputation to protect in Washington, which is apt to prevent him from turning completely into a robotic figure like McClellan or even Joe Lockhart under Clinton. Snow may even have the internal clout to slightly liberalize the ssshhh-we're-deciding-here culture of secrecy that has dominated the White House since the early days of information czar Karen Hughes.


But what neither Snow nor rain or sleet can change is the peculiar definition of honesty that comes with the job of press secretary in any administration. Only in Washington could a public figure be known as a truth-teller because he does not utter out-and-out lies. Sadly, that is about as much as reporters can hope for from any presidential press secretary. Under the permissive definition of truth that applies to the White House briefing room, it is fair game to mislead the press with a series of narrow factual statements that all point to the wrong conclusion, or to becloud even the simplest question with a fog of irrelevant pieties.

Just imagine -- and I know it defies credulity -- if a presidential press secretary swore off snow jobs and decided to answer questions like a human being instead of a trained public-relations flak. To invoke this father-I-cannot-tell-a-lie spirit of George Washington and the cherry tree, here are some real-life questions that reporters asked Scott McClellan at Tuesday's and Wednesday's briefings. The truth-serum answers are completely invented, though they are a lot less fictional than what was actually said from behind the lectern in the White House briefing room.

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Question: Karl Rove is making his fifth appearance in front of the grand jury today. And I'm wondering how you would characterize its effect on the administration? Is it a disruption, a distraction?

Press Secretary: Actually, it's a great tension release mechanism around here. We all have a great laugh imagining Karl sharing a cell with Tom DeLay and Kenny Lay. Of course, we try not to make those jokes when Karl's around. But then we don't see much of him, since he's constantly with his lawyers or sitting in a darkened office muttering about running off to Tahiti to write a McKinley biography.

Question: What do you think the impact is going to be at the gas pump of relaxing environmental rules, and how soon do you think that will show up?


Press Secretary: Is the Twelfth of Never soon enough for you? If the inky-dinky spider fell down the water spout, we'd use that as an excuse to relax environmental rules. But seriously, no president -- Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative -- can do much about gas prices in the short run. It's like King Canute trying to command the tides.

Question: Has the president been briefed at all on the CIA's firing of Mary McCarthy for allegedly leaking classified information? Does he have any reaction to this?


Press Secretary: Look, it's not coincidental that the most leak-obsessed president in history has named the most leak-obsessed CIA director. It's also not coincidental that the first victim of this internal investigation happens to be somebody who donated $2,000 to John Kerry in 2004. As far as the president is concerned personally, he's totally in favor of finding out the truth. As long as it doesn't come too close to the Oval Office.

Question: How would the president assess his final 1,000 days in office?

Press Secretary: Like a prison sentence.


Question: Does the president support Senator Clinton's move to have the generals who are calling for Secretary Rumsfeld's ouster testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee?

Press Secretary: This administration rarely supports Hillary Clinton on anything, of course. But we would even let Laura and Barbara Bush testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee if it would convince Don Rumsfeld to quit. In case you haven't noticed, we are at an impasse here. One of President Bush's most admirable human qualities is his reluctance to fire anyone. One of Secretary Rumsfeld's least admirable qualities is his refusal to take a hint. I'll let all of you in the press room connect the dots.

Question: What does the president plan to do differently between now and November to get Republicans elected or reelected?


Press Secretary: Raise money in private for any Republican who asks and avoid appearing in public with any Republican who has serious opposition. If you've got another strategic idea for us, please call Karl. That is, if you can find him.

Question: The president made a phone call to Canadian Prime Minister Harper on the weekend? Can you tell us the contents of that call?

Press Secretary: About all I know is that the conversation was short. Very short. With all the problems facing President Bush, do you think he cares about the mood of Moose Jaw?

Question: Just a personal question, just wondering how you're feeling today with this transition, what your plans are for the future? What do you want to do when you grow up?


Press Secretary: I feel envious of my predecessor Ari Fleischer for so wisely getting out in time. I feel pity for my successor who doesn't fully understand how hard it is in this White House to be allowed to say anything publicly. I feel a trifle bitter that the president I have so loyally served set me up to fail in this job. I feel hopeful that I will be rewarded in the private sector for all the abuse I have taken in this room. And, most of all, I feel sorry for all of you in the press corps who somehow cling to the illusion that asking a White House press secretary -- any press secretary -- a snarky question at a televised briefing is an exercise in uncovering the truth.

Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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