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The Nation

Pentagon's Civilian Voice Steps Down

June 17, 2003|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon spokeswoman who transformed the way the media cover the military by pushing to "embed" 600 reporters with American troops in Iraq, is stepping down.

Clarke, who said she is leaving for personal reasons, helped showcase Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the man President Bush calls the "matinee idol" of his administration. In nearly two years, she raised eyebrows with her brightly colored, unconventional wardrobe that stood in stark contrast with the often somber messages she delivered from the Pentagon.

The exodus of the Pentagon's highest-ranking civilian woman further depletes the ranks of senior working mothers whose arrival was celebrated in the administration. White House communications chief Karen Hughes and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman both retired recently to spend time with family. Clarke had been rumored to be in the running to replace outgoing White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

"I will take care of some issues on the home front for the foreseeable future -- and that could be weeks or months -- and then I'll see what's next in terms of a job," Clarke said. "But there's nothing in the pipeline."

In a news release, Rumsfeld called Clarke "a gifted communicator." Her resignation takes effect Friday.

Lawrence DiRita, Rumsfeld's special assistant, will temporarily replace Clarke as assistant secretary of Defense for public affairs. A permanent spokesman must be appointed by the president and approved by the Senate. DiRita, a key policy advisor and frequent squash partner of Rumsfeld, served as Rumsfeld's liaison to the post-war U.S. civilian administration in Iraq.

Clarke, 44, is the mother of two boys, 5 and 8, and a daughter, 6. She will be remembered for the awkwardly named but critically praised "embedment" program that put reporters with troops in Iraq, and for putting Rumsfeld frequently in front of briefing-room cameras, said Kenneth H. Bacon, who preceded Clarke as the Pentagon's public face from 1994 to 2001.

The embedment program gave reporters a soldiers'-eye view of the war, often without the mobility to speak with civilians during the fast-moving war, which some outside observers said was the positive message the Pentagon wanted to send.

"She's developed a new standard for working with the press," Bacon said. "The decision that she and Rumsfeld made to have Secretary Rumsfeld do a large number of the briefings was a good one because I think when soldiers are sent to war the people who sent them there ought to be accountable to the American public and ought to be briefing on the progress."

The 6-foot Clarke stands out among uniformed co-workers and predecessors. Unlike many of the former journalists -- nearly all male -- and military policy wonks who have held the job, Clarke is an image-maker with a background in public relations and political campaigns. She served as a campaign aide to the first President Bush, a spokeswoman for a beleaguered cable industry and an aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Clarke said she is proudest of "ensuring that more people both in the United States and around the world saw how incredible the men and the women of the U.S. military were."

Rumsfeld said Clarke "developed countless new methods to tell the story of our fighting forces, and bring their courage, dedication and professionalism into sharp focus for all Americans."

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