ABOUT THE UNRAVELING OF A WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY
Until recently, I thought the only thing that could be stupider than hiring your sister to be your publicist -- a la Tom Cruise -- would be hiring your mom to be your masseuse. Or, possibly, commissioning your cat to design your Web site.
But nope, if you're truly boneheaded, you hire Scott McClellan to be White House press secretary.
Sheesh, his beat-down over Rovegate by the White House press corps was something to see. The excerpts and sound bites from the endless S&M session simply don't do it justice, so fortunately there are multiple unedited videos of the exchange, originally broadcast in full on C-SPAN, floating around online, including this one here -- http://movies.crooksandliars.com/Scotty_Rove.mov -- which is totally worth watching in the same way that, say, the torture scene in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs is totally worth watching. Mr. McClellan, meet the suddenly rabid White House press pack, wielding verbatim transcripts of your own previous prevarications like switchblades. Cue "Stuck in the Middle With You" by Stealer's Wheel. Watch your ears, Scotty.
You could see McClellan kind of losing it -- emotionally falling down, unable to get up, thinking, "I hate this job more than life itself," as his lips and tongue shaped and slithered themselves around sentences like "I appreciate the question" and "I think I've responded" and "I'm not going to get into commenting based on reports or anything of that nature." Not to mention "You've heard my response" and "I already responded to these questions."
For ... an ... interminable ... mind-numbing ... 30 ... minutes.
C'mon! When the White House is engaging in a coverup, the press secretary's supposed to put out more than that -- engage in a little verbal jujitsu, kick up a breeze with the old bob-and-weave. Show a pulse, fat boy!
Of course, there's a particular kind of tragic beauty to the spectacle of a guy like McClellan lying down on the job for all to see. A great American theatrical beauty of the Death of a Salesman sort. When a guy can no longer sell -- worse, can't even give away -- exactly what he's devoted his life to selling, it's illuminating. All this time, the White House fog machine has been humming along nicely and journalists have mostly been wandering around aimlessly in the soupy air, bumping into one another and saying, "Oh, excuse me." But then, one day, the mighty fog machine suddenly ... stops. Grinds to a halt. Because of its own stripped gears. Somebody forgot to renew the service contract. (D'oh! Damn you, Rummy!) Voila: accidental transparency.
The lesson is, if you're trying to pull down some sinister stuff and get away with it, make sure your spokesperson knows the job description is "BS artist," not "BS platter." Someone who knows the job is to serve, not get served.
But back to The Publicist-Sister, who has a bit part in the other massive marketing fiasco everyone's obsessed with these days: the failure of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes to convince us that their love is true. If the McClellan video is a must-watch, then Rob Haskell's brief profile of Katie Holmes in the August W is a must-read. Because there are eerie similarities between the two, which both feature an endless string of non-answers delivered with a certain soul-dead vacancy. Some samples:
Haskell: "Is there anything you guys don't have in common?"
Holmes: "You know, we appreciate each other."
Haskell: "Isn't it an adjustment to move in with someone -- after only a month?
Holmes: "He's the man of my dreams."
Haskell, somewhat astonishingly, makes it pretty clear between the lines that he thinks Holmes has basically been brainwashed and abducted into a creepy cult. (The coverline for the issue actually reads "Cult Classic: The Actress Enters a Weird World Called TomKat.")
Hey, couldn't publicist-sister Lee Anne DeVette have anticipated the downside of allowing a Scientologist chaperone to sit in on the interview? (Haskell notes that three days after he interviewed Holmes, she announced her conversion to Scientology.)
When Haskell writes, "If Holmes were actually answering the questions posed, rather than simply reciting the same mantra-like love letter ..." I think of Scotty McClellan and his zoned-out, autopilot answers, and I sort of wish he had a Scientologist chaperone, too. Because I'd really like to hear him say, "Karl Rove is the man of my dreams."
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The Media Guy's column appears weekly on AdAge.com and in the print edition of Advertising Age. E-mail him at [email protected]