Bush shuffles White House pack in bid to rescue presidency

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The biggest White House shake-up of the Bush presidency continued yesterday, with the departure of the press secretary Scott McClellan and the return of Karl Rove to what he does best - plotting how to win elections.

Mr McClellan's resignation, after three hard years as George Bush's spokesman, was no surprise once Josh Bolten had taken over as chief of staff last week vowing swift action to re-invigorate the White House operation and, by extension, Mr Bush's ever more troubled presidency.

The announcement, made as Mr Bush prepared to leave for a visit to Alabama, was as warmly worded as to be expected for a loyal retainer from Texas who has been at Mr Bush's side since his days in the Governor's mansion in Austin.

Mr McClellan had performed "with class and integrity", the President said. "It's going to be hard to replace Scott, but nevertheless he made the decision and I accepted it. One of these days, he and I are going to be rocking in chairs in Texas and talking about the good old days."

Just how fond the reminiscences will be is, however, open to question. Mr McClellan took over as press secretary from Ari Fleischer in July 2003 as the shine began to wear off the invasion of Iraq and Saddam Hussein's touted weapons of mass destruction obstinately refused to appear.

Since then the most high-profile White House job barring that of the President himself, has only got more difficult, amid scandals, the mounting disorder in Iraq, and the President's plummeting approval ratings - all of which have emboldened a previously docile White House press corps.

Mr Bush said Mr McClellan had faced "a challenging assignment". Of late, his role has seemed to be little more than to serve as a public punchbag.

Although personally liked by journalists, he got off on the wrong foot. He told reporters, as the CIA leak scandal broke, that he had been assured that neither Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice-President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, nor Mr Rove were involved in revealing the name of the undercover agent Valerie Plame, only for both to figure prominently in the inquiry by the special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

Most recently, journalists have pummelled Mr McClellan over domestic electronic eavesdropping by the National Security Agency, secretly authorised by Mr Bush. Mr Libby has been indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice in the Plame case, while Mr Rove's part in proceedings is still under investigation - a consideration which may have been a factor in the decision to curtail his role.

Mr Rove remains deputy chief of staff - but as one of three people with that title, instead of two previously. Joel Kaplan, who has been a close aide of Mr Bolten for a long time, becomes deputy chief of staff in charge of policy. Mr Rove will return to his original role of political strategist, ahead of the vital mid-term elections in six months' time.

The feeling had been that his double involvement, in policy as well as politics, had stretched Mr Rove's talents too thin. The man publicly lauded by Mr Bush as "the architect" of his re-election in 2004 will now be devoting all his energies to the Republican fight to keep control of both House and Senate in November. The loss of either would allow a Democratic majority to launch the serious congressional examination of the Iraq war and other controversial Bush enterprises that the administration has escaped thus far. Last night, Democrats predictably likened the reshuffle to "rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic".

Mr McClellan is expected to return to Texas once a successor is announced. Although he leaves under something of a cloud, with his boss's poll rating at an all-time low of barely 35 per cent, the fault is not his. Critics have grumbled he is a lacklustre salesman for the administration - forgetting that its policies have been a hard sell indeed. In fact his tenure in one of the most gruelling jobs in Washington will have been longer than that of Mr Fleischer, who had the huge advantage of being spokesman when the country was united behind Mr Bush after the 11 September attacks and the President's approval ratings were more than double what they are now.

"I have given it my all, sir, and I have given you my all, sir, and I will continue to do so as we transition to a new press secretary," Mr McClellan said with Mr Bush at his side. But, true to the miserable times at this White House, even that exit was botched. After the announcement, the two men walked across the South Lawn to board Marine One. But a problem with the radio of the presidential helicopter kept it grounded. Mr Bush, Mr McClellan and the rest of the entourage were forced to take a motorcade to Andrews Air Force Base and the waiting Air Force One.

All the Presidents' press men

White House press spokesmen come in many guises, from the stolid Mr McClellan and the genial Marlin Fitzwater (right), to the the hapless Ron Ziegler (above), the icily robotic Ari Fleischer (below), and the charming Mike McCurry - who had to explain away the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Most infamous perhaps is Mr Ziegler, press secretary to Richard Nixon, who described the Watergate break-in as "a third-rate burglary". As the Nixon team repeatedly had to adjust its Watergate story, Mr Ziegler would immortally describe previous erroneous statements as "inoperative". Another less than universally beloved figure was Larry Speakes, Ronald Reagan's press secretary after James Brady was seriously wounded in the March 1981 assassination attempt on Mr Reagan. Mr Speakes possessed a rare ability to conduct separate unpleasant exchanges with two reporters simultaneously. He also famously inquired "What's Aids?" in reply to a question about the illness at a 1982 briefing. After being told, he said to the reporter, "I don't have it. Do you?" Best liked perhaps was Marlin Fitzwater. Hispopularity helped him extricate the White House from some messy situations, such as when he received a beeper message - "President barfed" - after the elder Bush threw up at an official dinner during a 1992 visit to Japan. George Stephanopoulos was a conspicuously unsuccessful press secretary for Bill Clinton in 1993. More accomplished, but little loved, was Mr Fleischer - who wa dubbed "Comical Ari" for his performances during the Iraq war. After 11 September, he issued an Orwellian warning - "people have to watch what they say". All would surely agree with Mr Speakes that "this job has probably got the most screwing-up potential in the world."