Some hot political stories have the lifespan of a fruit-fly. Something seems important, there’s some talk, and then the item disappears. Something else comes up. Whatever it was that was so important is buried by the next important story, which itself is buried by the next.
Oh, there are exceptions now and then – on June 17, 1972, there was that break-in at the Watergate complex, a bunch of guys caught messing around at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. It didn’t seem like much at the time, but that story ended with Nixon resigning. It made heroes of the two guys at the Washington Post metro desk, Woodward and Bernstein, who were actually allowed to run with it, and transformed journalism, for a time. Yeah, now we’re back to he-said, she-said stenography as incisive reporting – but for a brief time finding out what actually happened was all the rage. And of course that break-in at the Watergate complex also led to all sorts of arguments about presidential power and privileges, and spawned a whole generation of Republicans like Dick Cheney, seething that any other branch of government, much less the press, seemed to think they had the right to limit any claims of executive power. Well, conservatism has always been about respect for legitimate authority, so the leap to the idea that an Imperial Presidency was a good thing and not bad at all, was the next step. But it was just a break-in.
And sometimes, it’s just a book:
In a shocking turnabout, the press secretary most known for defending President Bush on Iraq, Katrina and a host of other controversial issues produced a memoir damning of his old boss on nearly every level – from too much secrecy to a less-than-honest selling of the war to a lack of personal candor and an unwillingness to admit mistakes.
In the first major insider account of the Bush White House, one-time spokesman Scott McClellan calls the operation “insular, secretive and combative” and says it veered irretrievably off course as a result.
The White House responded angrily Wednesday to McClellan’s confessional memoir, calling it self-serving sour grapes.
Self-serving sour grapes – is that a concept in healthy fast food? No, and this was not the first major insider account of the Bush White House. Paul O’Neill was first, six years ago talking about Bush’s boredom with and disdain for “analytical rigor, sound information-gathering techniques and real, cost-benefit analysis.” Then there was John DiIulio, Larry Wilkerson, Richard Clarke, David Kuo, Paul Pillar, and Matthew Dowd. Scott McClellan is a first only in a special way – he really was the ultimate insider, one of the original Texas crew from way back when. He wasn’t an add-on, and he had been press secretary through the most difficult times – he explained, he defended, he spoke for the president. He was a trusted and trustworthy old friend. The cable news shows, but for those on Fox, were endlessly showing the sappy going-away thing when McClellan retired – the president with his arm around McClellan saying one day they’d sit on the porch down in Texas and reminisce about the glory days, two old men sipping lemonade, remembering the good times.
That won’t happen – he turned. Politico had excerpted from McClellan’s new memoir, What Happened – and it was a scoop. The book wasn’t yet published and the contents under embargo, but they just bought a copy at a Washington bookstore, where someone had copies right there. It wasn’t the latest Harry Potter, after all.
And it was full of odd charges, or at least odd coming from this guy – the administration’s use of pure propaganda to coax the country into war in Iraq, a war that could not be justified, its deceptions about the Plame affair, and its “state of denial” after Hurricane Katrina.
The White House was not pleased. See Bush: What Happened to the Flack I Loved?
“He is puzzled, and he doesn’t recognize this as the Scott McClellan that he hired and confided in and worked with for so many years,” said Dana Perino. Will the White House rebut his facts? “I don’t think it’s necessary to do that for this situation,” she says.
Well, Dana Perino has his job now, and she says McClellan is just “disgruntled” – and another who held the job, Ari Fleischer, said “I’m heartbroken” – and former White House counsel Dan Bartlett said this seemed to him like “an out of body experience” – aliens from outer space must now have control of McClellan’s body or something. On Fox News, Karl Rove, Fox’s new political analyst, told Sean Hannity that McClellan now sounded like a left wing blogger, and he didn’t mean that as a compliment. Heads were exploding, as they say. It was all attack and smear. This couldn’t be, and it couldn’t stand.
Over at the Swamp, Mark Silva wasn’t surprised by the book:
Of course, this is the McClellan who had to stand at the press podium of the West Wing and assert that Rove, the president’s former deputy chief of staff, had no knowledge of the leaking of the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to the press after her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, publicly accused the Bush administration of manipulating intelligence to make its case for the invasion of Iraq. Seems like suitable cause for resentment.
Yeah, well, what did they really expect? They had jerked him around, and used him.
But there was really no joy in Liberal Town at all this. Bill at Daily Kos was not impressed:
Once again, we come face to face with a White House official who could’ve done the right thing … but instead decided that the lives of American troops, Iraqi civilians, Katrina victims, and a network of covert CIA operatives were worth less than the luster of his master’s lapel pin. When our country needed him to tell it straight, he hid behind propaganda and spin and bogus talking points and outright bamboozlement.
Also see David Corn at Congressional Quarterly Politics with this suggestion for McClellan:
If he were truly contrite about his involvement in a deceptive, propaganda-wielding administration, McClellan could demonstrate his sincerity by pledging that all profits from his belated truth-telling will go to charities supporting the families of American soldiers killed or injured in Iraq.
On the other hand, Jason Zengerle at the New Republic’s Plank offers this – “So kudos to McClellan. His book displays a calculating mind that was never much in evidence in the White House press room.”
The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes offered no kudos, saying McClelland had always been somewhat of a dim bulb and everyone already knew that:
Ask fifty Washington reporters for an assessment of Scott McClellan and forty-nine of them will give you some version of this: He’s a nice guy who was in way over his head. (Most of them will be tougher in their analysis of his intellect.)
Conservatives were unsurprisingly unimpressed. James Joyner at Outside the Beltway tells us that McClellan “was a Bush confidante, dutifully passed on the administration’s talking points, and participated in all the things he’s now saying were so awful.” And there’s only one way to look at this – “So he was either lying to us then or he’s lying to us now. Why should we take him at his word? Either a man has integrity or he doesn’t.”
Jules Crittenden agrees – “There’s always a demand for a professional liar. There’s always a demand for professional saps who will swallow and spit up whatever you want. The thing is, you want your hired gun to stay bought.”
And so it went – it was mildly amusing to watch the spin, but pointless. This too will pass.
But there was a passage in the memoir about the media’s acquiescence to the Bush war plan for Iraq – the “liberal media” had failed America by not seeing through all the crap that McClelland was shoveling out all day, every single day, for years. He did his job, the shoveling, but they didn’t do their job, which seems to have been, perhaps, to laugh at him and find out what was really going on. In 2003, Eric Alterman wrote an interesting book – What Liberal Media? These days, given corporate ownership and the need to turn a profit with higher and higher ratings, the whole concept is absurd, save for, perhaps, Keith Olbermann on MSNBC. In Salon, Glenn Greenwald argues that the new McClellan book pretty much proves that – in fact, it should “forever slay the single most ludicrous myth in our political culture: The ‘Liberal Media.'”
Duncan Black agrees:
It’s true that these days Olbermann stands out on MSNBC for his “liberalism,” but it’s also important to note that his actual expressed liberalism is pretty narrow. He has a dislike and distrust of the Bush administration, which is shared by 70% of the public. He objects to overreach of executive powers, a subject largely ignored by the rest of the media. And… that’s it. It’s not the nightly “abortion, gay marriage, and give money to poor people” hour. Keith isn’t advocating, or even covering, a large set of what I would consider to be “liberal issues.” He approaches the daily news with a somewhat liberal sensibility, but that’s it.
Seventy percent of the country doesn’t like George Bush, and one hour per night five days per week is about the only time that perspective is on the teevee [sic], except perhaps a few curmudgeonly outbursts by Jack Cafferty and those precious seconds when Pat Buchanan isn’t talking over Rachel Maddow.
And there has been massive manipulation of the press. See Chris Matthews finally cover that, instead of cheerleading for whatever bright, shiny object last captured his mercurial and quite limited attention.
This could be a big deal, but over at Media Bistro’s Fishbowl DC you see this might really be so, and they are “sure that McClellan means what he says, but lots of Washingtonians think poorly of their successors but bite their tongue and play the role of a good soldier. So why didn’t McClellan do this? Simple: Speaking out against the Bush administration in such harsh tones is simply a smart career move by McClellan.”
It’s just another book. And it probably won’t sell that well. There’s nothing new here – just who is saying these things.
In Slate, John Dickerson covers it all in Flack Attack, with some good points:
Now he tells us. Scott McClellan’s memoir offers more candor in a chapter than he let loose during his three years as the president’s spokesman. Often kept in the dark by his boss and, at least in one case, deliberately sent out to mislead the public by his superiors, McClellan writes as if he went home after he left the White House in 2006 and purged. Disgorged onto the pages of What Happened, due out next week, are all of the emotions, regret, and doubt that apparently bottled up even as he eternally presented a sunny, largely unflappable demeanor while on the job selling the president’s policies.
So, do you want to be shocked by the consummate team player getting angry? That’s interesting, but we learn nothing new. He was angry at Karl Rove and Scooter Libby for using him to spread the lie that they had no role in the CIA leak case. Big deal – he was late to the realization and said this – “Top White House officials who knew the truth – including Rove, Libby, and possibly Vice President Cheney – allowed me, even encouraged me, to repeat a lie.”
That’s no big deal – old news. Dickerson does, however, suggest there is more to it:
… the denunciation expands from there, and it’s that breadth I never thought that his memoir would offer. McClellan outlines the “obfuscation, dissembling, and lack of intellectual honesty that helped take our country into the war in Iraq.” He suggests the president and his aides were in permanent campaign mode, putting politics above principle, and chronicles how a “state of denial” led to the mishandling of the response to Hurricane Katrina. (He also includes a critique of the press, which he says acted as “deferential, complicit enablers” of Bush administration “propaganda.”)
Dickerson also sees complexity:
In small ways, McClellan still seems at times like he’s working for Bush, correcting misperceptions about the president’s smarts and absolving him of intentional wrongdoing in the leak matter. But on all the major fronts, the president is still his biggest target. McClellan had worked for Bush since the president was Texas governor, and so he can show us how the scales gradually fell from his eyes over time. In one bizarre episode, during the period of Bush’s presidential campaign when the press was constantly chasing rumors about his possible cocaine use, McClellan hears a conversation in which Bush tells a friend that he can’t remember if he tried cocaine when he was younger. At the time, McClellan wonders how the then-governor could not remember such a thing but portrays it now as the first inkling of Bush’s penchant for self-deception.
Ah, it’s a Bildungsroman – like Dickens’ Great Expectations, with Bush as Miss Havisham and Scott McClellan as Pip, or something. No, that won’t work.
Still, McClellan describes President Bush as someone who lacks inquisitiveness and is deceitfully self-delusional, so that might work:
As I worked closely with President Bush, I would come to believe that sometimes he convinces himself to believe what suits his needs at the moment. It is not unlike a witness in court who does not want to implicate himself in wrongdoing, but is also concerned about perjuring himself. So he says, “I do not recall.” The witness knows no one can get into his head and prove it is not true, so this seems like a much safer course than actually lying. Bush, similarly, has a way of falling back on the hazy memory defense to protect himself from potential political embarrassment. Bush rationalizes it as being acceptable because he is not stating unequivocally anything that could be proven false. If something later is uncovered to show what he knew, then he can deny lying in his own mind.
It’s not the crazy old lady in the dark house with the clocks all stopped, but it will do.
Dickerson has much more, but he ends with this:
It’s hard to feel great sympathy for McClellan. If he felt strongly that the president was deceiving the country, or that he had been deceived by Karl Rove, he should have left his job. That’s what former press secretary Jerald terHorst did when he disagreed with Ford’s pardon of Nixon, a minor offense compared with what McClellan says are the deceptions that led to an unnecessary war. It’s also hard to feel bad for the treatment McClellan is getting when he said this about Richard Clarke’s tell-all book in 2006: “Why, all of a sudden, if he had all these grave concerns, did he not raise these sooner? This is one-and-a-half years after he left the administration. And now, all of a sudden, he’s raising these grave concerns that he claims he had. And I think you have to look at some of the facts. One, he is bringing this up in the heat of a presidential campaign. He has written a book and he certainly wants to go out there and promote that book.”
And yet, I do feel a certain compassion for McClellan after reading a book that is full of regret, soul-searching, and shame. McClellan certainly isn’t presenting himself as a hero for finally coming out against policies he once advocated. If he’d left in the middle of the CIA leak scandal, he would have given an enormous gift to the president’s political opponents. It would have been the right thing to do. But I can imagine when you’re in the thick of political combat, your bosses are keeping you in the dark, and you are constantly being praised for your loyalty, it can be hard to find your way to the right thing. In the end, though, that the author of this book stayed, given his strong views, still seems as puzzling as Bush’s claims that he couldn’t remember whether he’d once used cocaine.
Andrew Sullivan would not focus on McClellan, as that misses the point:
It would be easy to think of Scott McClellan’s new book as a piece of dish, designed for sales, pitched for controversy, packed with juicy detail. And it is that, of course. But it is also something more. It is an argument by a man very, very close to the president, and deputed to be his spokesman for many years, that the president deliberately deceived the country about the reasons for going to war. We’re not talking mistakes here; we’re talking about a deliberate shading of the truth to hide the real motivation for risking the lives of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.
Sullivan hones in on this summary:
In Iraq, McClellan added, Bush saw “his opportunity to create a legacy of greatness,” something McClellan said Bush has said he believes is only available to wartime presidents.
The president’s real motivation for the war, he said, was to transform the Middle East to ensure an enduring peace in the region. But the White House effort to sell the war as necessary due to the stated threat posed by Saddam Hussein was needed because “Bush and his advisers knew that the American people would almost certainly not support a war launched primarily for the ambitions purpose of transforming the Middle East,” McClellan wrote.
“Rather than open this Pandora’s Box, the administration chose a different path – not employing out-and-out deception, but shading the truth,” he wrote of the effort to convince the world that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, an effort he said used “innuendo and implication” and “intentional ignoring of intelligence to the contrary.”
“President Bush managed the crisis in a way that almost guaranteed that the use of force would become the only feasible option,” McClellan concluded, noting, “The lack of candor underlying the campaign for war would severely undermine the president’s entire second term in office.”
Sullivan – “If this is true, if the president intentionally ignored data refuting the existence of Saddam’s WMDs, he should be impeached.”
It’s too late for that. And anyway, getting things straight, finally, is not what we do. At Politico, Ben Smith considers some random survey data, showing Americans just don’t do that getting-things-straight thing:
22 percent believe President Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance.
30 percent believe Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
23 percent believe they’ve been in the presence of a ghost.
18 percent believe the sun revolves around the Earth.
And ten percent of Americans believe Obama is a Muslim. The administration is safe. This is a fruit-fly story.