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Scott McClellan: Cards to chest, voice to world

The press-secretary torch is passed - to a man who's been practicing since third grade.

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He is the White House's face to the world, the message-meister whose job is to engage in twice-daily verbal fencing matches with reporters - to reveal only so much and no more.

Now, after an even 300 press briefings, Ari Fleischer has handed off the epee to his deputy, Scott McClellan, the low-key Texan with no apparent desire for the limelight. But in the modern era, fame has become one of the perks (or perils) of the top White House press job. And since the arrival of television cameras in the briefing room under Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, combined with the rise of the Web, speaking for the president can produce a virtual cult of personality.

It can also make relations with the press difficult. Before briefings were televised, press secretaries could go off the record or on background before a crowd of scribes. This allowed them to speak more freely and perhaps impart a bit more information or nuance without the appearance of a full-throated announcement. Even the short, untelevised morning "gaggles," when the press secretary lays out the day's schedule and answers to morning headlines, invariably remain on the record, since the transcript is circulated through the White House.

The Bush administration, with a president who doesn't hide his dislike of the fourth estate, has maintained famously frosty relations with the press. Journalists grouse about the lack of access to substantive policy people, and how, when they finally get to talk to someone, the exchanges often adhere to talking points.

For the cordial Mr. Fleischer, who served in the hot seat for 2-1/2 years, and now embarks on a stint of speeches and book-writing, the tone has been set from the top: President Bush runs a tight ship, and that includes management of information.

Mr. McClellan was the safe choice to replace Fleischer. He has known the president since he became a spokesman for the then-governor of Texas in 1999. He knows how the White House works and he knows the press corps.


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