Washington, July 16 (AFP): President George W. Bush’s new chief spokesman, Scott McClellan, joked easily yesterday with reporters asking him how his first day on the job went, and whether he had faced any unexpected questions.
“There are some members of the press corps that you can never predict,” said McClellan, a twinkle in his eye as he parried the question with humour, drawing a knowing laugh from journalists familiar with the eccentrics in their midst.
McClellan, a long-time Bush aide, took over the formidable duties of White House press secretary yesterday after Ari Fleischer, the familiar face of the administration for two and-a-half years, gave his last briefing on Monday. The affable 35-year-old, who enjoys a reputation among reporters as a genial straight-talker fiercely loyal to the president, has been with Bush since 1994, when he was still governor of Texas.
He served as Fleischer’s deputy after Bush took office in January 2001, often handling the two regular daily encounters with reporters, the off-camera gaggle in the morning and its better known cousin, the mid-day briefing.
“It’s certainly been an exciting day, (though) I had an understanding of what I was getting into,” McClellan said in Fleischer’s prized former office in the West Wing, steps away from Bush’s Oval Office. Asked how old he is, the Austin, Texas, native didn’t miss a beat: “Thirty-five. And ageing.”
New responsibilities included more meetings with the president and sitting in on Bush's face-to-face with the Czech prime minister, he told AFP in a brief interview.
McClellan hadn't had much time to re-decorate, and the high-ceilinged office, looked a bit spare, though the bank of television screens showing all-news networks and internal White House video feeds flickered like the fire frequently lighted in the fireplace during the winter months.
Above the mantle hung a long digital clock showing the time in Washington, London, Paris, Tel Aviv, Doha, Baghdad, Moscow and Beijing.
Asked how old he is, the Austin, Texas native didn't miss a beat: "Thirty-five. And aging." But he only laughed when asked whether his new duties are speeding up that process.
As per a longstanding custom, Fleischer left McClellan a flak jacket passed press secretary to press secretary as well as a handwritten note welcoming him to his new duties.
The 42-year-old Fleischer had announced on May 19 his plans to leave, citing a desire to spend more time with wife Becki. He also aims to open a private communications office and write a book about his time in the White House.
McClellan was the point man during at least two notable crises: The collision that brought down a US spy plane in China in 2001; and the February 2003 disintegration of the US space shuttle Columbia on reentry.
While many reporters found his handling of the former a bit shaky, he won near unanimous praise for his smooth approach to the latter, when he provided frequent updates on the situation.