Scott McClellan's Rollercoaster Ride through Primetime

Scott McClellan's been busy lately. He spent his week on a relentless drive to sell books get Obama elected speak truth to power, traveling from the Today Show and Countdown with Keith Olbermann on Thursday to Anderson Cooper 360 on Friday. And that's just the beginning.

But almost as interesting to me (and newsgeeks like me) as the contents of McClellan's book is the way in which the anchors have handled their interviews. In this regard, Olbermann and Cooper represented the two distant ends of the spectrum, with Cooper coming out on the offensive and remaining so for almost a full half hour, and Olbermann giving the distinct impression that he wished there were some "i"s in Scott McClellan's name that he could dot with hearts.

I understand that McClellan's new book essentially validates everything Keith's been saying about the administration for the past several years. Clearly, the joy of having an insider cross over from the dark side (so to speak) and admit culpability on behalf of himself and his Bush cronies, coupled with the fact that said insider chose Countdown for the first primetime interview, was a virtually(?) orgasmic experience for Keith. Yet I wish the old sportscaster hadn't lobbed so incredibly many softballs. For those of you who haven't yet seen the interview, here's a choice few:

"Not to put words in your mouth or insult you," Keith said, carefully scrubbing all the harshness from his question, "but did you lie as White House press secretary at any point?"

To which McClellan answered shockingly straight, finishing with (and actually needing to step over Keith's attempt to move on to do so), "And--obviously other times, yes, I got caught up in the Washington game in terms of the spinning and obfuscation and secrecy and stone walling and things like that." Rather than follow this up with the obvious query about just what those other times were, Keith returned to script and said, "it seems [What Happened] is the Rosetta Stone for understanding the last seven years of American history."

A little later, lest McClellan not yet understand just how much effort it was taking Keith to restrain himself from playing footsie with him behind the anchor desk, he began a question with, "I think, actual poetry in [your book], and I don't mean to vainly flatter you here." Ah, it's so hard to be in love across the aisle.

But perhaps Keith's most egregious lapse of journalistic responsibility--and perhaps his sharpest contrast with Mr. Cooper's handling of the topic (more on that later)--came when Keith addressed the rampant criticism of why McClellan waited so very long to tell the truth. Said Scott, ". . . when I left the White House, I think I needed time to step back and take off that partisan hat and really reflect on this. I wanted to think through, why did things get so badly off track? And I did that. I spent a good bit of time thinking about this, writing the book. The book was actually supposed to be out a little bit sooner, but I wanted to make sure I got this right and that it reflected my views very clearly . . ."

Keith's follow-up? Rather than call shenanigans, he took Scott by the hand and tried to lead him to the idea that bringing his concerns to the president while he was still press secretary would have accomplished nothing, or worse, gotten him into serious trouble: "What would have happened to you if you had gone to somebody above you and said, 'we are misleading the American public about,' you know, just fill in the blank--Iraq, Valerie Plame, even 9/11? We're misleading--what would have happened to you and to the government?"

I know that by and large, Keith doesn't do face-to-face confrontation; his guests, charming as they are, are essentially an echo chorus and so there's rarely any need to get aggressive. But even keeping that in mind, I was terribly disappointed with his interview. It felt more like a book report than anything else, and I nearly expected Keith to ask Scott to sign his yearbook copy of What Happened at the end. So . . . sorry, Keith. Even if you weren't competing against Anderson Cooper for Favorite TV Boyfriend, you'd still have lost terribly after squandering your hour with McClellan like that. But I'm a forgiving gal; I promise I won't dump you just yet.

Anderson Cooper made significantly more of his time with McClellan, despite it being about half as long as Keith's interview. Some of his gems are so darn shiny you just have to see them for yourself.

Like this one, where Anderson pulled a quote directly from What Happened and confronted McClellan with the essence of it: that the Bush administration "manipulated and misused" intelligence. When Scott tried to sidestep by admitting he was wrong (and you know you've hit home when your ex Bush administration interviewee avoids answering you by apologizing), he called McClellan on it, and then called McClellan on his answer to that, and then called him on his answer to that, and finally--four excellent follow-ups in from his original point--hit McClellan with the true essence of his frustration, of all our frustrations, about how the Bush administration in general and McClellan in particular have acted: "But what does it say about you that you only get disillusioned when [the senior members of the Bush administration] lie to you, but when they're lying to everyone else and you're a part of it, that's okay?"

The other exchange you have to see for yourself involved Cooper practically reenacting a moment from his Hurricane Katrina coverage, and picked up idea-wise where the last clip left off: with an impassioned attempt to get a Bushie to admit his wrongdoing and his role in administration disasters and actually apologize for it. Again, we got not just the original question but a whopping six follow-ups when McClellan continuously avoided a straight, clear answer, and Anderson got McClellan to cop to things like "a breakdown at all levels of government"; that "sometimes you do try to deflect blame and responsibility"; and that during his tenure as press secretary, he had his "partisan hat on," and doing so was clearly wrong.

In the remaining 20+ minutes, Anderson questioned the veracity of several of McClellan's claims in the book ("You said that that's the president's real motivation [for war in Iraq]. That this desire to spread democracy in the Middle East. How do you actually know that?") and sought clarification beyond what was written in the text ("[The Bush administration] believed, you believed there were WMD. But the decision to focus on it, the decision to sell that as the reason to go to war, that's what you're saying was [the administration's] manipulation."). He unflinchingly pressed two of the central criticisms (among several others throughout the interview) that are currently being thrown at McClellan from all sides: "Why didn't you quit on principle? Why didn't you go to Ari Fleischer when he was your boss and express doubts?" He also addressed two potential ulterior motives McClellan may have had for writing the book: McClellan's current party affiliation and whether he was an Obama supporter (answer: sort of), and how big an advance he received from his publisher (answer: some unspecified number six figures or less). He managed, unlike Olbermann, to drive McClellan repeatedly from his talking points.

Perhaps most importantly, Anderson pressed what could well be considered the meta-issue of McClellan's book, one that other reporters have so far overlooked: "When people see you at the podium or Dana Perino or anyone speaking from the White House podium, should they believe what they say? Do you believe what the White House spokesperson says?" And he followed this up--as Keith routinely failed to do--three separate times.

And my personal favorite line of the night? "In the book, by your own admission, you say you didn't have all the facts. And yet it seemed like [during your tenure as press secretary] you had no problem acting like you had all the facts."

Throughout it all, Anderson pulled that brilliant Daily Show trick of actually playing old video of McClellan to hammer home points and prevent false denials. Also in Daily Show style--and this is remarkable, given how aggressive Anderson's questions were--he and McClellan remained almost effortlessly congenial, even teasing each other on occasion.

In fact, to McClellan's credit, he's remained cool, confident, and composed in all the interview's he's done so far, as if he had no idea of the size and fury of the controversy he's created. He's also given a genuine impression of honesty, or at least what passes for it from a master ex-professional spinner (sure, he has his talking points and his spin, but he's also been reasonably willing to talk beyond them when pushed). He's been comfortable under fire, and he remained so even when Anderson repeatedly forced the critical lens away from the nebulous "Bush administration" and directly onto McClellan himself. This is a huge evolution for McClellan, who, in his press secretary days, often gave the impression of wishing that a hole would open up beneath the podium and suck him straight to wherever it is that Bushies go when they've outlived their usefulness (nowhere good, I bet, but still better to him at the time than being in the same room with Helen Thomas and David Gregory). So what happened? It seems to me that his change in demeanor is simply the difference between knowing you're doing the wrong thing versus knowing you're doing the right thing; you don't squirm under the spotlight when there's no dirty deeds or deceptions for it to reveal.

To that end, I do believe that McClellan is a genuine convert--that this book isn't about ruining McCain's campaign or turning a quick buck. This is about righting wrongs inasmuch as he has the power to do so, all the while knowing that his efforts, as spectacular as they may be, can never, ever be enough. Still, I look forward to Scott's future discussions on the subject, and in particular to whatever new nuggets of truth an interviewer as skilled as Anderson Cooper might unearth from them.