When I read the transcript of today’s White House press briefing with Scott McClellan, I knew someone was going to pull this “McClellan’s a rhetorical genius” bit. Nonsense. People did the same thing with Ari F., and I call foul. Dogged question avoidance does not make one the second coming of Cicero.
In fact, from The New Republic last March (subscription required):
Fleischer was in this sense the perfect Bush press secretary. His ability to prevaricate and dodge, without betraying himself through physical or verbal tics, represented a kind of genius. Alas, what came so easily to Fleischer utterly eludes McClellan. If the two of them ever sat down at a poker table, Fleischer would probably walk away with all of McClellan’s money and the shirt off his back.
Again, nonsense. In many of Fleischer’s most heated press exchanges, he reverted to the exact same rote repetition thing McClellan does here. Both men do a perfectly functional and transparent job of stonewalling the White House press corps. Wouldn’t a true rhetorical genius be so slick and insinuating about his point that you wouldn’t even recognize it was just the same thing with different wrapping paper?
Once you’ve decided, like McClellan did today, that your rhetorical strategy is going to be repeating some jumbled combination of the phrases “question relates” “ongoing investigation” and “no comment,” how much intellectual energy does it take to do that over and over? I mean, come on. A competent AI programmer, given a vocabulary of approximately 40 words, could have made a digital Scott McClellan in 10 minutes flat.
Actual McClellan responses:
- Again, David, this is a question relating to a ongoing investigation, and you have my response related to the investigation. And I don’t think you should read anything into it other than: We’re going to continue not to comment on it while it’s ongoing.
- And if you will recall, I said that, as part of helping the investigators move forward on the investigation, we’re not going to get into commenting on it. That was something I stated back near that time as well.
- Well, those overseeing the investigation expressed a preference to us that we not get into commenting on the investigation while it’s ongoing. And that was what they requested of the White House. And so I think in order to be helpful to that investigation, we are following their direction.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
P.S.: None of this is to knock Messirs McClellan or Fleischer, by the way. I’m sure they’re both perfectly fine men. And they may even be rhetorical geniuses in the right context. But the skill of the White House press secretary, it seems to me, isn’t rhetoric. It’s message discipline. Completely different ballgame.