Sunday, October 26, 2008

Parting Shots: "What Happened," Scott McClellan (2008)

I'll try and avoid too-painful analogies here, but the general tone of final-year memoirs taking shots at the departing Bush administration begs for the obvious one: the tell-some, tell-all memoirs from public culprits of this Administration are the work of rats deserting the very ship of state they helped to float. Even more painful is the fact that most thinking readers will already know more than these books reveal. Still, let's hope they'll be included in an annex of the Bush presidential library.

Scanning the index entries to Scott McClellan's book What Happened: Inside the Bush White House is a refresher course in the history in the Bush administration. Under McClellan's own name there are pages for anthrax attacks, Columbia tragedy, election 2000, election 2004, Florida recount, Hurricane Katrina, Iraq war, case for, Plame scandal, and (finally) September 11. Perhaps the nation's good times and Presidential accomplishments will come in a Karl Rove autobiography.

This is a sorry and selective roll call, and of his own choosing. It represents his view of recent American history since 2000 and his role in it, when Scott McClellan became involved in the Bush White House. For those of us outside the Bush administration, whose memories can recall the tumultuous events surrounding the names Osama bin Laden, Scooter Libby and Valerie Plame, Hurricane Katrina, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and Harriet Miers, reading What Happened itself is far more frustrating: Scott McClellan was there, and now he promises to tell us what happened. Well ... no. Here is McClellan describing his memories of the campaign trail in 2000 -- an election cycle marked with unprecedented venom and personal attacks:

My memories of the campaign trail were a whirlwind of plane rides, motorcades, press buses, hotel rooms, large rallies, and traveling media relations. I coordinated messages and responses on the road with Karen Hughes, the chief spokesman, and from the road with the communications team back at our headquarters at Austin -- including our national spokesman Ari Fleischer and rapid response director Dan Bartlett.

This appears on page 45. By the time McClellan -- who was with President Bush on Air Force One when the Twin Towers were attacked on September 11 -- is named press secretary in May of 2003, the writing hasn't improved much (but at least he's stopped Googling his own name and Wikipedia entries) and begins to take on aspects of a mystery novelist's flatfooted and generic prose:

During the return flight aboard Air Force One, he officially offered me the job. "I told everyone else there was no need to consider anyone else," the president said. "We had our man, as far as I was concerned." "I am honored, sir," I responded. "I will do my best to serve you and the country well." "You should feel honored," the president agreed. "There are not very many people who get to say they were White House press secretary. It is a pretty small fraternity."

Time and again, through many of the crises that shape his White House years, McClellan defaults on telling the reader many new details. Again, it's more instructive to read the index in the back of the book and note that the events of September 11 take up eight pages of a chapter --just as many as the decision to resign his position.

While he was not part of the decision-making process, McClellan met with President Bush daily before meeting with the press. The most telling bits of the book are the throw-away moments, as when he describes a morning meeting shortly after the Plame investigation begins to bring "the dark cloud of scandal" to the White House:

"Karl didn't do it," the president reflexively said, referring to his senior advisor and chief political strategist, Karl Rove. The "it" clearly meant disclosing Valerie Plame's identity to reporters. He was holding on to the armrests and leaning back in his chair behind his desk. He seemed to be in fairly good spirits.
"I know ... " I began, not realizing the president had more to say.
"He told me he didn't do it," the president continued, cutting me off midsentence. ...
Then the president glanced toward Andy, who had placed his hands above his waist and was now gesturing down with both to indicate he should keep quiet and stop talking about what was fast becoming a sensitive subject.
"What?" the president said, looking at Andy with a slight hint of irritation in his voice. "That's what Karl told me."
"I know," Andy said. "But you shouldn't be talking about it with anyone, not even me."

This kind of secrecy is at odds with the administration's 1999 promise to bring transparency and accountability back to government, a goal that seems thwarted on every page of What Happened. With meetings like this full of unstated facts and withheld information, it is no wonder that much of McClellan's book is speculation. From page 306:

Did the vice president specifically direct Libby to disclose Plame's identity? I don't know. ...

Was Bush aware of the disclosure of Plame's identity? I don't know. ...

Was an underlying crime committed by anyone in the administration by disclosing Plame's identity? I don't know. ...

Whether they committed a crime by revealing Plame's identity is something I don't know. ...

What McClellan can tell the reader with certainty are the color and weight of the "long, golden drapes that can stop bullets but not the cheery sunlight" in the Oval Office, that "the elegant desk was made from timbers of the HMS Resolute, the British Arctic exploration ship once recovered by an American whaler ... (and) used by every commander-in-chief since the British ... donated it to Rutherford B. Hayes."

And that his White House code name was Matrix.

What's the point to writing a memoir like this? Well, in McClellan's case it's to point accusing fingers at politics' new/old scapegoat, Washington's Culture of Deception. (It's even capitalized on the front cover in the subtitle. Another edition of the book simply refers to it as "What's Wrong With Washington" in the subtitle -- see book jacket, above -- but perhaps that became too broad a topic over the summer.)

If a reader would be extremely generous to McClellan, it would be easy to say that he was the unfortunate bearer of officially-sanctioned deception. This is what he claims, anyway. But if that is the case, why does he say upfront that "I still like and admire George W. Bush"? That is certainly naivete by halves, considering this book must have been written after McClellan left office. The key moment for McClellan comes when Bush admits that he authorized the leak of the National Intelligence Estimate in 2002 -- the exposure of Valerie Plame's identity.

"Yeah, I did," Bush tells McClellan, and those three words become the basis for McClellan's eventual resignation in early 2007. (it's unfortunate that this casual admission never became the basis for any presidential sanction.) It would be churlish to suggest that McClellan's innocence didn't change over his tenure as press secretary. What does seem deceptive is the insistence that Bush's errors in judgment, his poor decision-making, were part of a "permanent campaign" mindset. From a member of Bush's own team claiming to bring "personal responsibility" back to Washington, this claim seems to be McClellan wanting his cheese and eating it, too. A little ratty.

The final chapter in this book is a bit disingenuous, too. McClellan outlines a plan for changing Washington's partisan climate, a politics that would get away from the ideas of party loyalty and shielding from accountability. Again, I'll try to refrain from overworked analogies about the culture of Washington during the past eight years -- but for a man who had the President's ear for much of that time, McClellan did little to bring that change. When this book was written, and McClellan well out of the range of political recrimination, Obama's campaign was already on the rise and building momentum on that very theme of change. Perhaps McClellan saw the poster writing on the wall -- and even political appointees should be careful what they ask for. Especially at the end of every four years.

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