By: Deb Riechmann, Associated Press Writer
(AP) First day on the job, Scott McClellan showed he’ll be a cautious White House press secretary, eager to establish rapport with reporters but careful not to let secrets slip from his lips.
Asked Tuesday to disclose when President Bush would decide about sending U.S. peacekeepers in Liberia, McClellan replied, coyly: “I want to finish my first day.”
McClellan, a 35-year-old easygoing Texan, is President Bush’s new affable but tough spokesman true to the style of the tightlipped Bush White House. While he often discusses issues more expansively than some of his colleagues, McClellan also can frustrate reporters by sticking to the administration’s “talking points” — talking around an issue and leaving questions essentially unanswered.
He used that tactic at his first briefing when reporters dogged him with questions about the president’s miscue in his State of the Union address when he claimed Iraq had tried to acquire uranium from Africa. No fewer than nine times, McClellan replied by saying: “I think we’ve addressed this issue,” “This has been addressed,” or This has been addressed over the last few days.”
“This question hasn’t been answered!” one reporter shot back.
McClellan offered a little more, then held his ground, closing out his answer with the mantra: “I mean, this has been addressed.” Asked about it later, McClellan defended his answer saying, “I wanted to make the point that we HAVE addressed it.”
Later in the briefing when a reporter got overzealous about getting McClellan to call on him, he calmly explained why he was taking a question from another reporter first. “I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
A few hours after the formal briefing, McClellan strolled back to the press corps’ quarters in the West Wing to chat.
“I think it’s been a fairly busy, somewhat routine day,” he said, summing up his first day.
He said he wasn’t sure whether the president had listened to any of his White House briefing debut. Nonetheless, at a meeting later, McClellan said Bush told him “Good job.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that,” McClellan said he told Bush.
There were more in-house niceties. A tradition among press secretaries since the 1970s, his predecessor Ari Fleischer left his successor a handwritten note. The collection of notes are tucked in a bulletproof vest that hangs in a closet in the press secretary’s office. Bulky bulletproof material sewn inside the dressy black vest, with a blue flower pattern, makes it hang heavy on its hanger.
It’s tradition too not to disclose the contents. “It was a very nice note” was all McClellan would say.
For the past two years, McClellan has been the No. 2 White House spokesman, watching Fleischer’s daily briefings from the sidelines and occasionally filling in. He joined Bush’s statehouse office in Texas in early 1999 and soon became then Gov. Bush’s deputy communications director. He was the traveling press secretary for the Bush 2000 presidential campaign.
His mother, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, has served as mayor of Austin and as Texas railroad commissioner and is currently the state’s comptroller. He was campaign manager for his mother three times, each effort a success. McClellan’s brother, Mark, is commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.