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Roberts: White House press job 'can eat you up'

CNN's John Roberts


On the Scene
Scott McClellan
Karl Rove
White House

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The man who has been the White House's most visible face in often contentious press briefings for the past two years announced his resignation Wednesday.

Scott McClellan, a longtime friend and aide to President Bush, will step down as press secretary. Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser, also has given up his duties as deputy chief of staff for policy.

John Roberts, CNN's senior national correspondent who covered the White House for more than six years, spoke Wednesday with anchor Daryn Kagan about the staff changes.

KAGAN: What do you make of all these moves? Do you think it's going to be buckle your seat belts for the next week or so?

ROBERTS: I think that you don't have to keep the seat belts really tight but just keep them sort of loosely fastened about your waist just in case we run into some turbulence.

Scott McClellan's exit was pretty much something that everybody expected was going to happen. Josh Bolten had made no secret of the fact that he believed there was a communications problem at the White House, and Scott being the public figure of the White House on a daily basis ... I don't know whether he'd been there too long or they figured his run was up, or they needed to get somebody else in there, but I think that Josh Bolten decided pretty early on, probably in the transition period between Andrew Card and himself, that they needed to make a change at the press secretary level.

... And on Scott's behalf, most press secretaries don't stay much longer than a couple of years. That's the amount of time that Ari Fleischer stayed. Joe Lockhart was press secretary [for President Clinton] for a little more than two years. Sorry, a little -- about two years. Mike McCurry [also for Clinton] about the same. So 24 months to 36 months is about as long as you can get as a press secretary. So perhaps it was time to leave.

This idea that Karl Rove is giving up some of his policy duties at the White House isn't really surprising. Some very senior and learned Republicans had been suggesting that as recent or as early as last November.

I remember talking to Ken Duberstein, who was one of the top folks for the Reagan White House, who said Karl Rove is just stretched too thin. He's being spread too far and wide across the White House. He needs to give up one of the jobs, and that we think he's so good on politics that he should give up the policy angle and focus on the politics.

I think you're going to probably see a few more moves. There's still this idea of getting a gray beard in there -- somebody who can sort of guide the White House and also help to foster better relations between Capitol Hill and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. There's still a chance that we might see somebody like that come along.

Josh Bolten is a pretty pragmatic manager. He's got a really good idea of how to run things, and I think you're going to see some of that exercised in the next week to 10 days.

KAGAN: John, give me some more perspective about the job of White House press secretary -- probably one of the most visible jobs, since you're in front of the camera every day. If this job was posted, let's say on, how would it be described?

ROBERTS: How would it be described? Willing to take fusillades of birdshot on a daily basis. Can you not melt under the heat?

You just have to really -- what the job is really all about is being able to faithfully articulate the policies and positions of President Bush and to stick to those through thick and thin.

But you also really need to have good fencing strategies, because you need to be able to thrust and parry with the White House press corps, a White House press corps that while it has been criticized in recent years for being more or less a lap dog in the face of this administration really has come out and learned to bite again.

... But Daryn, I think that this press secretary's job is something that just, it really can eat you up, and I think this is why people don't last very long in that job, and it's because -- it's the sort of job where it is such an intense type of thing. You are under attack all the time. Every time you open your mouth you know that it's going to be questioned on television programs, newscasts, talk show fests, newspapers across the country.

So you really have to have a pretty steel nerve and pretty thick hide, and eventually everybody just kind of gets tired of the job.

But if that's where the job listing were to be posted, on [], they would probably say be willing to take it full in the face every day.

And if I could just point out that there is a tradition among press secretaries that they pass along a flak jacket to each other when they change over. Scott got the flak jacket from Ari Fleischer. We'll see who gets it next.

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