WASHINGTON – Following tradition long-established by the media's savviest reporters, White House correspondents gathered Friday evening to bid farewell to one White House press secretary and to congratulate his replacement.
The cash bar and munchies event thrown two months after Press Secretary Scott McClellan (search) took the job is a courtesy that allows the feisty press corps to get a better feel for the man they plan to hound throughout his tenure as the White House's most visible spokesman, and to high-five his predecessor Ari Fleischer (search) for making it out alive.
The party, held at one of Washington, D.C.'s standard businesslike hotels, is another exercise for McClellan, the soft-spoken, less verbose face of the Bush administration, who, unlike Fleischer, appears somewhat uncomfortable in front of the cameras.
Confidence, however, will likely come with practice. Fleischer spent more than 3-½ years as Bush's chief spokesman, plenty of time to develop into the confident, fast talker who could give the same answer to repeated questions 100 different ways.
Still, the press corps is helping McClellan stretch his wings and make his own mark in the briefing room, and some say he seems to be hitting his stride.
"While a little hesitant at first, [McClellan's] answers are becoming crisper and his command of details and memory for previous policy is getting quite good," said Keith Koffler, a White House reporter for CongressDaily. "It's true, he doesn't engage in the verbal gymnastics of his predecessor, but that's not really his style, which probably goes down fine with a president who likes to be known as plain spoken."
But that doesn't mean McClellan isn't engaging the White House press corps.
"Scott has had good relations with reporters, he's an easy going guy and people like him," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a political science professor at Towson University who studies White House communications. "If he's not giving information, he's doing it in a pleasing manner."
Fleischer was press secretary for Sen. Pete Domenici (search), R-N.M., from 1989-1994 and later was spokesman for the House Ways and Means Committee. Prior to joining Bush's presidential campaign, he was communications director for Bush's primary opponent Elizabeth Dole.
Although Fleischer also had more experience in foreign policy arenas, McClellan, who served several Texas lawmakers before joining Bush's gubernatorial staff, understands the press corps' needs, has key access to Bush and knows the president well. He also has had considerable training as Fleischer's understudy.
"That is the most important kind of knowledge for a press secretary to have," Kumar said.
Fleischer was notorious — as are many in the Bush administration — for being tight-lipped with information; McClellan isn't much different.
"In one sense, Ari and Scott are remarkably similar," Koffler said. "They both have enormous message discipline. It's been nearly impossible during the briefings to get either of them to serve up news that they hadn't previously planned to give you."
That's not to say White House correspondents don't try to get him to reveal too much. McClellan experienced a baptism by fire when he took the podium on July 15, his first day in the new job. At the time, controversy was swirling over the 16 words in Bush's State of the Union address in which the president cited a British report suggesting that Iraq was seeking uranium from Africa for a nuclear weapons program.
Since Clinton Press Secretary Mike McCurry (search) brought live cameras into the White House briefing room for daily coverage, representatives of the president have had to demonstrate to the world both inside and outside the Beltway that they have control of the room.
According to some reporters, at the time of the speech controversy, McClellan appeared off his mark and struggling to grab a handle.
"I think that he just has a look that's a little more nervous looking … he sometimes looks like someone who's been caught in the headlights," said Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center and former White House correspondent for World Magazine. "It just seems to me he doesn't project the same confidence yet, maybe he will."
"I think he's more sure of himself now than he was in an earlier time," Kumar added.
But McClellan has made the room his own in some ways, and reporters have noticed.
Whereas Fleischer often called on reporters by row — which created a competitive environment for those trying to get assigned seats up front and their faces on camera when the networks tapped into briefings — McClellan picks reporters at random to ask questions. That allows him to answer a wider array of questions and gets more reporters into the discussion.
"It has the potential of satisfying more customers that way," Kumar said.
McClellan has also established himself as more sympathetic to reporters' needs and more in touch with reporters' interests.
In his first week on the job, the press secretary visited the Associated Press booth in the White House to find out what reporters were working on and interested in.
"I think those kinds of gestures are always welcomed by reporters," Kumar said. "Symbolically, he's saying he's willing to go out, to stretch out and find out what they want, what they're thinking … it wasn't that he came out to make news."
McClellan also brought into the briefing room for questioning Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, chairman of Bush's Corporate Fraud Task Force, and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman William Donaldson. That move scored points.
"It's not just the quality of information that he provides himself, but he can bring other people out who are useful and who have something to say that is of interest to reporters, and they did," Kumar said.
McClellan will need to save his points. With critical national security and economic issues headlining the daily briefings, McClellan needs to build a strong public persona and the know-how to dodge political fireballs.
"You really don't have to do anything fancy to avoid answering a question," Koffler said. "You can simply answer the question you wanted to get.
"If someone asks, 'What time is it?' you can always respond, 'cloudy with a chance of rain.' It happens every day in the briefing room, whether the briefer is Ari or Scott."