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Honest Mistake

Scott McClellan, bad liar.

On the morning of February 10, the Bush administration released payroll records from President Bush's National Guard stint 30 years before. The records were far from conclusive, and they fell short of Bush's earlier promise to release all documents pertaining to his service. Having been starved of information on the subject--and then teased with the promise of a full meal, only to be tossed a few scraps--the White House press corps was ravenous and baying for more.

It was not, in other words, a good day to be White House press secretary. But it's hard to imagine how the day could have gone much worse than it did for Scott McClellan, Bush's chief spokesman.

The first question was not terribly hostile: Was Bush's attendance score--56 points, with 50 as the requirement--considered good? McClellan replied with a nonanswer, declaring, "These documents clearly show that the president fulfilled his duties." The next questioner, John Roberts of CBS News, followed up by asking about missing months on the payroll records. McClellan again replied that "these records verify that he met the requirements necessary to fulfill his duties." Roberts shot back, "That wasn't my question, Scott." McClellan began to repeat his mantra for the third time, and Roberts interrupted: "Scott, that wasn't my question, and you know it wasn't my question." McClellan stammered, "These records--these records I'm holding here clearly document the president fulfilling his duties in the National Guard." Roberts again demanded, "I asked a simple question; how about a simple answer?" McClellan continued his rote dodges: "We have provided you these documents that show clearly that the president of the United States fulfilled his duties." On and on the torment went. Reporters badgered McClellan with questions like, "Is that a yes? Is that a yes?" and "You have not answered that question." In response, he repeated some version of the line "these documents show the president fulfilled his duties" a remarkable 24 times. Needless to say, this didn't put the issue to rest.

Displays of this sort have grown increasingly frequent. For Bush's supporters, McClellan's briefings are a source of despair. "At best, Bush's aides respond defensively," lamented an editorial in The Weekly Standard last week. "At worst, their clumsiness turns a minor flap into a prolonged controversy." For Bush's critics, they offer a ripe comic target--routinely excerpted in such diverse venues as Joshua Marshall's Web log and "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. And yet even the most determined Bush haters will find that, as they watch the hapless McClellan beaten about the head almost every day by the White House press corps, their schadenfreude eventually gives way to pity. It doesn't matter whether you think the media's questioning is fully justified or, indeed, long overdue. You can't help but feel compassion for a man so plainly unequal to the competition.

McClellan's ineptitude is made all the more noticeable by the contrast it poses with Ari Fleischer, his syrup-tongued predecessor. Fleischer could spin elaborate webs of obfuscation, leaving the press corps mystified and docile, albeit somewhat resentful as well. Every sentence he uttered came out in the same bored affectation. The most outrageous lie sounded, in his telling, like a truism so obvious it barely deserved mentioning. Most people find such behavior deeply unnatural. When asked a direct question, our natural impulse is to answer it honestly. The capacity to do otherwise is useful for any press secretary but particularly so for the current administration, whose domestic agenda has never commanded popular support and which relies heavily upon secrecy and message discipline. Fleischer was in this sense the perfect Bush press secretary. His ability to prevaricate and dodge, without betraying himself through physical or verbal tics, represented a kind of genius. Alas, what came so easily to Fleischer utterly eludes McClellan. If the two of them ever sat down at a poker table, Fleischer would probably walk away with all of McClellan's money and the shirt off his back.

In a certain sense, this is to McClellan's credit: He's not a natural liar. Some of the best insight into the psychology of deceit can be found in the works of playwright and director David Mamet. In Mamet's 1983 play Glengarry Glen Ross, weak-willed insurance salesman George Aaronow tells consummate pro Ricky Roma, "When I talk to the police, I get nervous." "Yeah. You know who doesn't?" Roma replies. "Thieves." Fleischer had the soul of a thief. McClellan doesn't. Indeed, all the White House reporters I spoke with went out of their way to praise him as a human being, especially in contrast with Fleischer. "Scott is, at core, an honest man, and Fleischer is, at core, a dishonest man," one puts it. "[McClellan] has a real handicap in this [job] in that he's a decent guy."

McClellan is as effective as Fleischer when he's asked questions that can be answered honestly--about, say, where the president is traveling next or what he thinks of some foreign development or well-established domestic issue. But, when forced onto difficult terrain, he is the picture of discomfort. He averts his eyes from his questioners, often appearing to recite from prepared talking points on the podium. He shifts his weight from foot to foot, the frequency of these shifts depending upon his level of anxiety. (At the highest level, his rocking grows so violent that he steadies himself by gripping the podium with both hands, as if to keep from toppling over.) Like a bad card player, he overcompensates for his uncertainty with emphatic gestures--folding his lower lip, furrowing his brow. Indeed, McClellan is a near-perfect embodiment of the physical manifestations of dishonesty listed by high-profile jury screener Jo-Ellan Dimitrius in her book Reading People. The list begins:

Shifty or wandering eyes

Any type of fidgeting

Rapid speech

Change in voice

Shifting back and forth in one's feet or in a chair

Any signs of nervousness

An exaggerated version of the "sincere, furrowed-brow look"

McClellan signals his discomfort not only through his appearance but through the substance of his replies as well. While not exactly a skilled orator, in normal circumstances he's capable of stringing coherent thoughts together. In the middle of one exchange last month, for example, a reporter inquired about Bush's visit to nascar. McClellan offered up a garrulous peroration of 344 words. When he has to dissemble, though, his sentences become short and choppy, and he relies heavily upon pat phrases. Consider this exchange, again with CBS's Roberts, on gay marriage from a few weeks ago:

Q: Scott, on the day's other big announcement, four years ago in the South Carolina primary debate, the president was asked, "So, if a state were voting on gay marriage, you would suggest to that state not to approve it?" And the response of the president was, "The state can do what they want to do." When did the president change his mind that the issue of gay marriage was not a matter for states and, in fact, was a federal issue?

McClellan: John, the president has always firmly believed that marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. He has always held that view. And I think what you're referring to is that the president has talked about how states have the right to enter into their own legal arrangements. And that's what the president is referring to.

Q: The words in the question were "gay marriage," and I do realize that the president has opposed gay marriage, but when did he--

McClellan: The president's view was very well-known during the campaign of 2000, that he believes marriage is a sacred institution. And he supported efforts to protect and defend the sanctity of marriage.

Q: Which is what I just said. But, my question was, to go to the actual substance of my question, was, when did the president change his mind that this was not an issue for states and, in fact, was a federal issue?

McClellan: Again, I dispute the premise of your question. His views have always been well-known on this very issue.

Q: Yes, but he always described it as a state issue. Now he's describing it as a federal issue. When did he change his mind?

McClellan: No, no, he said that states have the right to enter into their own legal arrangements.

When Fleischer appeared similarly trapped, he would launch into answers so verbose and digressive that, by the end, reporters would have lost their train of thought altogether. Because McClellan can't filibuster as effectively, he allows his adversaries to badger him repetitively. And, where Fleischer's flights of illogic would baffle the press, McClellan's tend to trip him up instead. During another grilling on Bush's National Guard service, a reporter asked why Bush had failed to pass his physical exam in 1972. McClellan simultaneously argued that he had already answered the question and that it didn't merit answering: "I think this was all addressed previously. I think that, again, this goes to show that some are not interested in the facts of whether or not he served; they're interested in trolling for trash and using this issue for partisan political gain." The press immediately seized on McClellan's first argument: "What was the answer previous to this?" one reporter asked. McClellan tried to retreat to his second argument, explaining, "[T]here are some that want us to engage in gutter politics. I'm not going to engage in gutter politics." But he'd already hemmed himself in. "But you were suggesting that you'd answered the question previously," he was again told. McClellan proceeded to alternate between his arguments--"I put out a response to that question yesterday," "I'm not going to engage in gutter politics," "Well, we've been through these issues"--growing more exasperated with each iteration. Finally, visibly upset, he pleaded with the press corps, "No, we went through these--no, we went--we've already addressed this issue. We went through it previously. We went through it four years ago for sure."

As a matter of fact, Bush didn't go through anything like this four years ago. One reason may be that his chief spokesman back then wasn't Scott McClellan.