Scott McClellan's Tell All: When Bad Books Happen To Boring People
(Editor’s Note: Todays’s guest blogger is television producer Rob Rosen, who you may have seen reporting for Extra and Celebrity Justice. Rob is a graduate of Boston University, a former denizen of San Diego and a profound believer in the desirability of governmental gridlock.)
What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception by Scott McClellan (PublicAffairs 2008).
There is one major revelation in Scott McClellan’s tell-all What Happened which up until now has been largely ignored: boring people should not write books.
From 2003 to 2006, McClellan, a Bush loyalist from Texas, served as the mouthpiece for the Administration. If his function was to bore the media into submission and reveal as little information as possible, he excelled at his work. Now, he feels guilty about all of his tedious news conferences and has decided to make amends by writing a tedious book.
The first thing you need to know about What Happened is that at least half of its 323 pages is complete filler. McClellan spends a great deal of time regaling us with stories from his preppy, church-going, frat boy childhood. It’s as banal as it sounds. We are treated to gems like, “Grandmother McClellan, who volunteered at the church thrift store and taught Spanish to Kindergartners in San Antonio, liked to spoil us and let us have fun.”
Hmmm, that may explain why Scotty was only able to get a $75,000 advance for his book. Of course, a lack of navel-gazing served him well with his former boss, who views self reflection as an activity best left to feckless, liberal intelligentsia types. This leads us to the two major revelations in McClellan’s book, the two which have caused him to be permanently exiled from the neo-con inner circle.
The Permanent Campaign
It may seem like a lifetime ago, but, in 2000, then-Governor Bush was positioning himself as an Obama-like candidate, a Washington outsider who would refuse to play “politics as usual.” McClellan, and a shade under half of the American voters, found this message to be enormously appealing. Fatigue had set in after eight years of watching the Clinton war machine at work.
To the former press secretary’s dismay, this promise turned out to be nothing more than campaign rhetoric. McClellan argues that President Bush went into the permanent campaign mode the day he took office and has never stopped spinning and manipulating public opinion. Of course, with approval ratings hovering in the high 20s, Bush's efforts have been in vain.
McClellan argues that it didn’t have to be this way. Take the war in Iraq, which started the Administration on its credibility freefall. McClellan, who had access to inner circle staff meetings, claims the decision to invade was a foregone conclusion after 9/11, and that involving the UN was nothing more than a public relations charade.
“The permanent campaign mentality bears some of the blame. Throughout the campaign, building public support by making the strongest possible case for war was the top priority, regardless of whether or not it was the most intellectually honest approach to the issue of war and peace,” McClellan writes. “In the end, of course, President Bush bears ultimate responsibility for the invasion of Iraq. He made the decision to invade, and he signed off on a strategy for selling the war that was less than candid and honest.”
McClellan even tries to provide a solution to Washington’s permanent campaign crisis. He believes a new White House staff position should be created called the Deputy Chief of Staff for Governing. This person’s job would be to ensure the president rises above partisan politics and is “consistently committed to a high level of openness and forthrightness and transcending partisanship to achieve unity.” You know the political world has spun on its axis when Republican solutions to problems consist of creating new paper-shuffling bureaucracies. What’s next? A Deputy Chief of Staff for Kindness to make sure the ruling party treats the opposition with sensitivity and respect?
The Valerie Plame Scandal
McClellan goes into great length filling pages -- I mean, filling us in on the Valerie Plame scandal from his perspective. Let me boil 70 pages into one sentence: He claims Karl Rove and Scooter Libby lied to him about their involvement in outing the former CIA covert agent.
Make of that what you will, but what’s curious is how McClellan seems so pained about how this affected his credibility with the media. This is the same guy who admitted to being a mouthpiece for a dishonest war. He was a White House spokesman, an advocate, yet he acts as though he was seen as such a source of truth and impartiality that, by repeating Rove and Libby’s denials, he was compromised the way Colin Powell was by presenting false evidence to the United Nations. News flash to McClellan: Nobody really believes anything White House spokespeople say.
McClellan, the insider, doesn’t have a lot of new information on the Plame scandal so McClellan, the writer, tries to make small incidents seem far bigger than they are.
“There is only one moment during the leak episode I am reluctant to discuss,” McClellan writes. “However, since I am committed to telling the truth as I know it, and since the moment seems to be of some relevance given its timing and nature, I feel that full disclosure is the only option.”
Sounds juicy, right? Turns out this paragraph leads up to Rove asking Libby to come into his office after the scandal broke. The two closed the door, and McClellan has no idea what was discussed. I reread this passage three times to make sure I hadn’t missed something. This is what McClellan’s so “reluctant to discuss.” Really?
McClellan has taken a lot of heat, from the left and right, for his book. If he believed the White House was running a con job on the American people, why didn’t he speak out back then? Far be it from me to look deep into his soul, a la Bush with Russian president Vladimir Putin, but I don’t think credibility is at issue here. McClellan was a true believer who, like many of Bush’s original die-hard supporters, wanted to believe the best until overwhelming evidence forced him to reconsider his position. His book is also not a one-sided bashing of the president. For example, he makes a convincing defense of the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina.
The bigger problem with What Happened is McClellan’s mind. He is simply not a deep thinker, and, since he apparently lacked access to much sensational inside information, his book reads like one of those superficial, instant autobiographies from athletes.
The news here is not what McClellan reveals, but that yet another member of the inner circle has turned on the Administration. But you knew that from reading the headlines. Unfortunately, reading the book will give you no greater depth and insight.