McClellan's Regrets: What Didn't Happen
In 'What Happened,' McClellan remains a spokesman – an expert in not letting his opponents find gaps in his statements
What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deceptionby Scott McClellan
PublicAffairs, 341 pp., $27.95
What Happened is not the first book on the presidency by a McClellan. In 2003, Scott's father, Barr McClellan, wrote Blood, Money & Power: How L.B.J. Killed J.F.K., a conspiracy tome implicating President Johnson in the Kennedy assassination. Other than the familial connection, the only thing the two books have in common is that they're both printed on paper. Scott McClellan's tell-most is not a searing indictment of, nor an apology for, the presidency of George W. Bush. Instead it is a calm, measured tale of his own time in Texas politics and how he became the national mouthpiece for war. James Moore, author of two books on Karl Rove, calls it "the first summation of the Bush administration."
McClellan portrays a White House devoted to the permanent campaign and in which all policy decisions are filtered through the lens of the next election. That project was built not around the president but around what he calls "the Troika": presidential counselor Karen Hughes, Chief of Staff Andrew Card, and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove (interestingly, other writers have speculated about a Rove-Hughes-Dan Bartlett troika and a Rove-Condoleezza Rice-Dick Cheney troika). While they all had White House titles, they never became agents of governance, never pricked the campaign bubble, and treated every news briefing like the last speech in a bitter, winner-takes-all race.
The Bush administration did not invent the permanent campaign, McClellan argues, but it perfected it. Everything became a sales job, and that's where everything fell apart. As in any advertising campaign, the company's marketers exist only to sell the upside of the company's "product," and it is up to the opposition to sell its own "rival brand." The primary problem was that the product on the shelf was an illegal, pre-emptive war. Let the anti-war crowd talk about body counts and Plamegate, the White House concluded – our job is to talk about being liberators greeted with roses.
For McClellan, the tipping point came when the sales campaign went beyond selling the war on the strengths of its perceived benefits. Instead, the administration used any marketing information, no matter how unsubstantiated, that came its way. Meanwhile, the opposition that its campaign-style tactics were predicated upon never materialized in any substantive way. Browbeaten Democrats, terrified of being called pro-terrorist, rarely created a coherent, let alone effective, argument. A mostly uncritical media was too often beating the war drums.
McClellan has taken a drubbing for daring to say that the press was not dogged enough, or was actively complicit in perpetuating administration talking points and leaked bile. Most of the attacks have seemed like simple after-the-fact ass-covering. Yet McClellan endorses the notion of a "Liberal Media," saying there should be more of it – and that it should have done a better job. He argues that since the majority of postwar presidents have been somewhere on the political spectrum between deeply conservative and barely left-of-center, the Fourth Estate "can stand up for the interest of people and causes that get short shrift from conservative or mainstream politicians."
He does applaud some news outlets and journalists, in the abstract, but does not give them kudos by naming any, nor does he expressly shame the biggest loudspeakers for the war policy. That's one of the most frustrating elements of the book: McClellan sometimes does not name all names; e.g., he leaves anonymous the reporter he got into a screaming match with about whether the press should have been given a military transport after 9/11 closed the airports. That caution is reflected in his desire not to speculate: He remains a spokesman – an expert in not letting his opponents find gaps in his statements or overreaching claims of prescience. After all, that's his charge against the administration.
But what of McClellan's portrait of George Bush? The book provides no revolutionary or even surprising reinterpretation of Dubya. To McClellan, the president remains a well-intentioned idealist who follows his gut and likes freedom. But Bush's almost complete lack of intellectual curiosity – in a White House where senior staffers wouldn't even tell one another the unvarnished truth – has detached him from the complicated realities of politics and government. McClellan's greatest criticism may be reserved for National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – not for what she did but for what she didn't do. The White House's supposed international expert "complimented and re-enforced Bush's instincts rather than challenging or questioning them."
Finally, what does McClellan say about Scott McClellan? Like his doubts about Rice, his biggest self-criticism is over what he didn't do. There is as much a sense of personal guilt over his failure to put an end to fraternity hazing while a UT student as there is for failing to provide a White House counterbalance to the hawks and the Troika. He writes, "I fell far short of living up to the kind of public servant I wanted to be."
For Moore, the significance of What Happened is not what it says, but who wrote it: a member of the most inner of the inner circle, effectively confirming long-held suspicions of the American people. Moore said: "We knew we were being lied to; we just didn't have the proof. And now he's said, you're right."