In my latest for The Guardian, I explore the odd staying power of Scott McClellan’s critique of the Bush administration, a phenomenon that has far more to do with who he was than it does with anything he has to say.
Tag: Scott McClellan
Given the ever-accelerating nature of the news cycle, I suppose this was bound to happen someday. Today is the official release date of former White House press secretary Scott McClellan’s book, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.” And, as a news story, it’s already over.
But since I gave up two and a half hours on Saturday night so I could skim through an advance copy I’d been able to buy (and you thought your social life was pathetic), I’m going to share a few of my thoughts before the book slips under the waves once and for all.
1. There is nothing in “What Happened” that is interesting beyond the identity of the person who wrote it. As press secretary, McClellan was the slow-talking, dull-witted stooge who knew little and said less. Unlike his predecessor, the sharp and disdainful Ari Fleischer, or his successor, the sharp and combative Tony Snow, McClellan’s very presence came across as a way of telling the media that they didn’t matter — to “de-certify” the press, as Jay Rosen has written.
Thus it is of passing interest that McClellan has come to see that he was used; that the cool kids he thought were his friends were snickering behind his back and lying to him, as he says Karl Rove and Scooter Libby did regarding their roles in the Valerie Plame matter. But his book — which should have been titled “What Happened?” — is simplistic and unoriginal in its analysis.
2. McClellan swallowed a lot for a long time. A number of observers have pointed to McClellan’s claim that George W. Bush, during the 2000 presidential campaign, said he couldn’t remember whether he’d ever snorted cocaine as evidence that McClellan had spent way too much time looking the other way. But I was struck by a different anecdote.
As a spokesman for then-Texas governor Bush in the late 1990s, McClellan says he had to defend Bush’s use of the death penalty, despite his own opposition to capital punishment. McClellan writes:
My thinking is grounded in a moral belief. I’m deeply troubled by the idea that even one innocent person could fall through the system and be put to death for a crime that he or she did not commit. [p. 42]
Trouble is, McClellan was flacking not just for a run-of-the-mill pro-death-penalty governor, but for the executioner-in-chief, a man who never met an inmate he didn’t want to kill. So memorably callous was Bush that, in 1999, he mocked the last moments of Karla Faye Tucker — who’d become a cause célèbre because of her born-again Christianity — in an interview with Tucker Carlson.
McClellan has a strong stomach, to say the least.
3. It’s all Bill Clinton’s fault. But of course. To the extent that “What Happened” has an idea behind it, it is that Bush allowed the “permanent campaign” — the subordination of governing to a state of constant political gamesmanship — to destroy the nation’s post-9/11 unity and to ram through support for the war in Iraq. (McClellan cites a 2000 book by Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann called “The Permanent Campaign and Its Future,” but does not mention Sidney Blumenthal’s better-known book, “The Permanent Campaign: Inside the World of Elite Political Operatives,” published some 20 years earlier.)
Amazingly, McClellan casts this as a matter of Bush’s failing to live up to his promise of not being like Clinton. McClellan:
Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery. If so, members of the Clinton administration should feel deeply flattered when they look at the Bush administration. In our own way, we built on the art form the Clinton White House established and took it to a higher level. [p. 311]
Thus does McClellan compare Clinton’s overly cautious but largely successful record of governance with the Bush-Cheney disaster. To point out the obvious: Clinton lied about his reprehensible personal life. By McClellan’s own telling, Bush lied about his reasons for going to war in Iraq, fearing the public would not support his misguidedly idealistic vision of forcing democracy on the Iraqis whether they wanted it or not. Not the same thing.
4. It doesn’t matter whether McClellan is being disloyal or not. No, McClellan is not a loyalist. Maximum loyalty would have required him to keep his mouth shut at least until after Bush had left office. This might make McClellan a dubious choice for a best friend. It does not make him an unreliable reporter. What Bob Dole said may be right, but it’s also beside the point.
On “Meet the Press” Sunday, Tim Russert was at his mindless worst. The entire interview consisted of observing that McClellan had said one thing then and another thing now. It’s bad enough when Russert does it to a politician whom he wants to portray as a flip-flopper. In McClellan’s case, though, it was ludicrous.
The entire point of “What Happened” is that McClellan believed one thing when he was press secretary, and has come, through the course of writing his book, to believe something else entirely. McClellan explains this well in the preface. If Russert had focused less on “you changed your mind” and more on “why did you change your mind,” it would have been a far more valuable exercise.
5. Just as we thought, he really was out of the loop. McClellan tells us that, as press secretary, he was excluded from Karl Rove’s “strategery” meetings (Rove’s comic term), National Security Council meetings, even the daily communications meetings with Bush, Rove, Dick Cheney, Andy Card, Condoleezza Rice, Karen Hughes and, later, Dan Bartlett. McClellan writes:
Over time, I realized that the reason the press secretary was treated this way had nothing to do with who occupied the position but rather was rooted in distrust of the national media. Neither the president nor most of those in his inner circle of advisers placed any great value on the national media, including the White House press corps. [p. 155]
Gee, you think?
There are numerous problems with craft and logic in “What Happened.” On page 121, for instance, McClellan writes that, in 2002, a majority of the public “erroneously” believed that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks, yet he fails to grapple fully with the administration’s own role in spreading that belief. There are numerous instances of re-created dialogue between him and Bush, some of it going back years.
McClellan also blames Rove and company for politicizing every issue they dealt with, yet he himself sees the failures of Katrina largely in political terms. McClellan dwells at absurd length on Rove’s less-than-brilliant idea to have Bush photographed while looking down on New Orleans from the luxury of Air Force One. A bad PR move? Sure. But it would have been quickly forgotten had Bush not so completely bungled the government’s response.
But enough. “What Happened” will be forgotten within days. What matters is that Scott McClellan, of all people, has turned truth-teller, at least to the extent that his limited abilities allow. The most poignant section in the book comes early:
I frequently stumbled along the way and failed in my duty to myself, to the president I served, and to the American people. I tried to play the Washington game according to the current rules and, at times, didn’t play it very well. Because I didn’t stay true to myself, I couldn’t stay true to others. The mistakes were mine, and I’ve suffered the consequences. [p. x]
McClellan couldn’t have prevented the mistakes of the past seven and a half years, but he could have spoken up earlier. He could have resigned as a matter of principle. Instead, he’s written a book that few will read, but that has considerable symbolic value nevertheless. That’s not only better than nothing. It’s also quite a bit more than we had reason to expect.
For several years now, Jay Rosen has been advancing the theory that former White House press secretary Scott McClellan was not just unusually inept and uninformed; rather, he was part of a deliberate strategy on the part of the Bush administration to “de-certify” the press. Forcing journalists to rely on someone as buffoonish and out of the loop as McClellan, Rosen argued, was a way of underscoring the media’s unimportance in the Bush-Cheney worldview.
In the end, it didn’t work, and the White House was eventually compelled to hire a more conventional press secretary, Tony Snow, and grant him the kind of access and influence that press secretaries traditionally have. But when President Bush was at the height of his political powers, the McClellan strategy worked just fine.
Now Rosen — like McClellan — is back. And what Rosen finds stunning is that McClellan himself seems to have adopted Rosen’s analysis. That is, McClellan now understands that he was a mere pawn in a much larger game. And despite his still-evident shortcomings, he has come to realize that he doesn’t like it one damn bit. After all, it was he who was transformed into a fool, along with the media. Journalists still don’t understand that (or maybe they do, given their hostile response to Stephen Colbert’s epic performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006). McClellan, though, understands it all too well. Rosen writes:
I never expected McClellan to write a book about being the jerk at the podium for Bush, or to make connections between his experience and the larger wreckage of the Bush presidency. He’s not only done that; he’s clearly ready to hit the circuit and explain himself.
Watching Keith Olbermann interview McClellan last night about McClellan’s book, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception,” it was striking to see McClellan’s self-awareness, something you never would have imagined when he was working for Bush. He is clearly in the midst of a sea change in his political thinking, as he told Olbermann he may even support Barack Obama for president this fall.
I wish I’d caught all of Olbermann’s interview, but I’m not going to miss McClellan’s appearance on “Meet the Press” this Sunday. Memo to Tim: Ditch the slides showing he said one thing then and another thing now. We already know that. The man’s got a story to tell. Let him tell it.