McClellatron in Vanity Fair


A kind of daily Socratic dialogue, or at least an attempt at one, continues to take place in the briefing room in a method of inquiry initiated by Joseph Tumulty, Woodrow Wilson's primary aide and, effectively, the nation's first press secretary: a ritual Q&A that leads to both what the White House wants you to know and away from what it doesn't want you to know. Only, now the dialogue is led by something of a knuckleheaded Socrates, each day struggling and failing to talk his way out of a paper bag.

It's this verbal haplessness that has made Scott McClellan—a pleasant, low-wattage, old-before-his-time young fellow, with, at 38, a wife, no children, and "two dogs and four cats"—the living symbol of this White House's profound and, perhaps, mortal problem with language and meaning. McClellan himself, as though having some terrible social disability, has, standing miserably in the press briefing room every day, become a kick-me archetype. He's Piggy in Lord of the Flies: a living victim, whose reason for being is, apparently, to shoulder public ridicule and pain (or, come to think of it, he's Squealer from Animal Farm). He's the person nobody would ever choose to be.
(Read the whole thing.)

Funny. But I don’t think McClellan is Piggy. Piggy was a pitiable character, whose wretched desperation without his glasses was excruciatingly sad; I felt bad for Piggy, even as I wanted to smack him in the head and tell him to get with the program for his own good. If a giant rock fell on McClellan’s head, I’d probably have as much sympathy as I would at the sight of any other crushed robot programmed to lie to me on a daily basis.

I understand the impulse, though. There was a time I almost had some compassion for McClellan. He reminds me of a doughy freshman waterboy, who didn’t mind that the football players snapped his ass with wet towels and put their stinky jockstraps on his head for a laugh, because at least he got to be near them. He seemed hopeful of being cool by association, without, seemingly, the faintest notion that the coolness to which he aspired was not really cool at all, but a bombastic cruelty masking the chronic insecurity of vapid cowards, in spite of their undeserved privilege. I remember seeing such kids when I was of that age, kids about whom I’d think, “You’re so much more interesting than the cads you adore, or would be, if you stopped adoring them.” It was a posture that has always made me blanch, even as it has evoked my sympathy.

Those kids went one of two ways, after spending some amount of time swallowing their pride as their unworthy idols heaped abuse upon them for a passing amusement. Either they eventually wised up, and when a nicer, if not so popular, group of kids extended a tacit invitation to become part of their peer group, they gladly, and with some relief, accepted—or they never learned, internalizing the bullying, and, instead of extricating themselves from the group of nonfriends, lashed out at anyone who had the distinct misfortune of being even more vulnerable than they were. The hopeless wannabes, insistent on standing their ground and fueled by a gossamer promise of social elevation that would never come to fruition, were, in the end, the meanest of the lot. They were the ones who would pick on the cripples, the retards, the fags, the fat kids, the kid with the lazy eye. They’d serve as court jester to the kings by teasing a Downs classmate with a game of keepaway, hating him only because they refused to admit they hated themselves.

McClellan’s stuck with it. The captain of the team stays the course, and, by god, so does he. I can precisely imagine his being greeted after a tough Q&A by having his behind snapped with a GWB-monogrammed towel. And every day he waits on the sidelines and watches the team captain with all his pals—Big Time, Turd Blossom, Tangent Man, Guru, Fredo—and he wonders when he’ll get a nickname, too. Because that would be just so cool. And it’s the least he deserves after defending the whole lot of them every single day, after being so loyal for oh so long.

I don’t know if McClellan read Lord of the Flies when he was in high school, or Animal Farm, or whether he was too busy lugging water around. It certainly seems like he read Emerson though: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” I just don’t think he got it. It wasn’t designed as a recommendation.

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