A Press Secretary's Final Answer

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Chatting with reporters in blazing heat outside Club Renaissance at a Florida retirement community, Scott McClellan was beaming. It's a real change for McClellan, who's been doing a lot of it lately, and it's easy to see why.

Next Tuesday, he'll be doing it as a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. This week, as President Bush ended three days in Florida by talking Medicare in Orlando and then riding Air Force One back to Andrews Air Force base, was McClellan's final swing. He has given 502 formal briefings and traveling gaggles as the President's second White House Press Secretary, along with hundreds of informal gaggles at the White House and dozens more as Ari Fleischer's deputy before that. McClellan said he joked to the traveling staff: "If at any point you don't see me on this trip, don't worry about it. I'm fine."

The disciplined and loyal McClellan wound up resisting a spontaneous vacation, however tempting it must have seemed after enduring months of questions about leaks and polls and insurgencies. He's been talking about liberation ever since Tony Snow was named as his successor April 26.

And after all those tense years of saying he doesn't want to move the goalposts or go down rabbit holes or speculate, McClellan's last few colloquies have been good-natured and rowdy. At one point last week, asked to comment on such matters as why the President was commemorating Cinco de Mayo on May 4, McClellan joked that things were getting a little out of hand. "The end is near," someone said down front. But McClellan saw it differently. "No," he replied mischievously, "the beginning."

After starting for Bush in the Texas Governor's office and then riding his "Great Expectations" campaign plane as the traveling press secretary, McClellan became White House Press Secretary in July 2003, with the President calling him "a good man" he had known for a long time. That was just in time for a barrage of questions about the President's State of the Union reference to British intelligence that Saddam Hussein had "recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."

Snow will inherit an imbroglio of his own: The Secret Service is about to release records of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff's visits to the White House, something that Bush aides had considered, then rejected, doing months ago. In one of his final briefings, McClellan cautioned that the records could not necessarily be viewed "as a complete historical record."

McClellan kept his game face to the end. Asked if he would do anything differently knowing what he knows now, he replied with a smile, "I wouldn't tell you anyway."

"My job has been to help the President advance his agenda, to work with you all to make sure that the American people are getting accurate information," he elaborated. "I think you all know that I have always tried to provide you with accurate information and tell you what I believe to be true." He drew laughter by saying, "I will miss you all in this room, too — individually, at least."

After McClellan cleaned out his office over the weekend, Snow arrived at his West Wing desk on Monday to find a ceremonial flak jacket holding a chain of secret notes from his predecessor, a tradition going back to Ron Nessen, press secretary to President Gerald R. Ford. Snow's first televised briefing will be Monday.

On McClellan's final flight, he was saluted with speeches at the front of the plane, and he walked through the cabins bearing a heaping platter of chocolate chip and caramel brownies made by his wife, Jill. Even the President helped himself. "He's had Jill's before," McClellan said with a grin. He went out Saturday and bought his own BlackBerry and has lined up his first paid speaking engagement, on May 22. Characteristically, he won't say where it is. "It's out West," he said.

The send-offs for McClellan have been both grand and casual, including a farewell in the Roosevelt Room that was attended by First Lady Laura Bush and the President, who simultaneously embraced McClellan and his wife Jill, who have four cats and two dogs. Last Friday, after McClellan’s last formal briefing, he was feted by the small group of reporters whose work spaces are in the White House basement. They have their own informal civic association, and busted out the seven-layer dip, champagne and cookies that said "Scott."

The festivities were delayed for the Oval Office announcement of the resignation of CIA Director Porter Goss. That gave McClellan one last bombshell. Seven minutes into the briefing, he had suddenly mentioned that the President would have "a pool coverage announcement" on "a personnel-related matter" 50 minutes hence.

When the party got under way, Ken Herman of Cox Newspapers, a Texan who has known McClellan more than 15 years, read a fake briefing as if he were McClellan. "As part of our new openness policy, I wanted to announce that we will be allowing the press to get an up-close, personal and full immersion view of our secret prisons in Eastern Europe," Herman said with McClellanesque matter-of-factness. "That will be pool only. The poolers will be Helen Thomas and David Gregory." Then, referring to persistent questioner Raghubir Goyal of the India Globe, he added, "I wanted to get back to you with answers to some questions I left hanging. Goyal, the president thinks India is a wonderful, wonderful country."

The basement had been decorated with "One Tough Grandma" bumper stickers, lawn signs and T-shirts from the independent gubernatorial campaign of McClellan's mother, Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. In her folksy lilt, Strayhorn had recorded a farewell greeting in which she said she had an urgent assignment for her son.

"Never mind 'the President this’ and ‘the President that,'" she said. "This is your Mama talking and I don't want to hear, 'I can't comment on an ongoing investigation.' I don't want to hear, 'I’ve already answered that question,' and 'We've already covered that.' You get Jill and gather up that ragamuffin menagerie of rescued animals and get back to Texas... You think dealing with the White House press corps is tough? Wait'll you have your own kiddos, and that's the business I'm talking about. Wait'll you have your own kiddos firin’ questions at you. You'll wish you were back in front of the lights and cameras and recorders, armed with talking points and today’s message."

Indeed, McClellan plans to eventually go back to Texas, but says he’s "not rushing off." He's not sure what he’s going to do, but has a variety of offers. "There have been a couple of book opportunities that I've been approached about," he said. "The speaking circuit sounds pretty interesting, too, and I'm exploring that."

Then he allowed himself the briefest of pitches for a new client — himself. "People like to hear about the White House, and I've been here at the center of a lot of history," he said. "The President and myself and this team have been through a lot together over the last five and a half-plus years." Now, at long last, he can enjoy it.