Leave him alone. He wrote a book. It is true or untrue, accurately reported or not. If not, this will no doubt be revealed. It is honestly meant and presented, or not. Look to the assertions, argue them, weigh and ponder.
That’s my first thought. My second goes back to something William Safire, himself a memoirist of the Nixon years, said to me, a future memoirist of the Reagan years: “The one thing history needs more of is first-person testimony.” History needs data, detail, portraits, information; it needs eyewitness. “I was there, this is what I saw.” History will sift through, consider and try in its own way to produce something approximating truth.
In that sense one should always say of memoirs of those who hold or have held power: More, please.
Scott McClellan’s book is the focus of such heat, the target of denunciation, because it is a big story when a press secretary breaks with a president. This is like Jody Powell turning on Jimmy Carter, or Marlin Fitzwater turning on Reagan. That is, it’s pretty much unthinkable. And it’s a bigger story still when such a person breaks with his administration not over many small things but one big thing, in this case its central and defining endeavor, the Iraq war. The book can be seen as a grenade lobbed over the wall. Thus the explosive response. He is a traitor, turncoat, betrayer, sellout. If he’d had any guts he would have spoken up when he was in power.
I want to quote his defenders, but he doesn’t have any.
Those in the mainstream media who want to see the president unmasked, who want to see the administration revealed as something dark, do not want to be caught cheering on the unmasker.
The left, while embracing the book’s central assertions, will paint him as a weasel who belatedly ’fessed up. They’re big on omertà on the left. It’s part of how they survive.
The right will—already has—pummel him for disloyalty. But those damning him today would have damned him even more if he’d resigned on principle three years ago. They—and the administration—would have beaten him to a pulp, the former from rage, the latter as a lesson: This is what happens when you leave and talk.
And Americans in general have a visceral and instinctive dislike for what Drudge called a snitch. This is our tradition, and also human nature.
So Mr. McClellan defends himself in the same way he defended the administration, awkwardly. He could not speak earlier because he did not oppose earlier; he came to oppose with time and on reflection. He is trying, now, to tell the truth.
He is a man alone, “a pariah,” as Matt Lauer put it.
He does not appear to have written his book to bolster his reputation. He paints himself as a loser. “I didn’t stay true to myself”; he loved “the theatre of political power” and “found being part of the play exciting”; he tried to play “the Washington game” and “didn’t play it very well.” But soon the mea culpa becomes a you-a culpa.
He has nothing to say, really, about the world he entered, about what it was to be there. His thoughts present themselves as clichés. Working in the White House is “a wow.” Seeing it lit up at night “never got old.” He’ll never forget where he was on 9/11. He claims he was taught to “communicate” by Karen Hughes. This is all too believable. I did learn that the word visit—“Got a moment to visit?”—is apparently Texan for “I’m about to kill you” or “Let’s conspire.”
The book is not quite a kiss-and-tell, smooch-and-blab or buss-and-bitch. It is not gossipy, or fun, or lively. It is lumpy, uneven and, when he attempts to share his historical insights—the Constitution, he informs us, doesn’t mention the word “party”—embarrassing.
And yet the purpose of the book is a serious one. Mr. McClellan attempts to reveal and expose what he believes, what he came to see as, an inherent dishonesty and hypocrisy within a hardened administration. It is a real denunciation.
He believes the invasion of Iraq was “a serious strategic blunder,” that the decision to invade Iraq was “a fateful misstep” born in part of the shock of 9/11 but also of “an air of invincibility” sharpened by the surprisingly and “deceptively” quick initial military success in Afghanistan. He scores President Bush’s “certitude” and “self-deceit” and asserts the decision to invade Iraq was tied to the president’s lust for legacy, need for boldness, and grandiose notions as to what is possible in the Mideast. He argues that Mr. Bush did not try to change the culture of the capital, that he “chose to play the Washington game the way he found it” and turned “away from candor and honesty.”
Mr. McClellan dwells on a point that all in government know, that day-to-day governance now is focused on media manipulation, with a particular eye to “political blogs, popular web sites, paid advertising, talk radio” and news media in general. In the age of the permanent campaign, government has become merely an offshoot of campaigning. All is perception and spin. This mentality can “cripple” an administration as, he says, it crippled the Clinton administration, with which he draws constant parallels. “Like the Clinton administration, we had an elaborate campaign structure within the White House that drove much of what we did.”
His primary target is Karl Rove, whose role he says was “political manipulation, plain and simple.” He criticizes as destructive the 50-plus-1 strategy that focused on retaining power through appeals to the base at the expense of a larger approach to the nation. He blames Mr. Rove for sundering the brief post-9/11 bipartisan entente when he went before an open Republican National Committee meeting in Austin, four months after 9/11, and said the GOP would make the war on terror the top issue to win the Senate and keep the House in the 2002 campaign. By the spring the Democratic Party and the media were slamming back with charges the administration had been warned before 9/11 of terrorist plans and done nothing. That war has continued ever since.
Mr. McClellan’s portrait of Mr. Bush is weird and conflicted, though he does not seem to notice. The president is “charming” and “disarming,” humorous and politically gifted. He weeps when Mr. McClellan leaves. Mr. McClellan always puts quotes on his praise. But the implication of his assertions and anecdotes is that Mr. Bush is vain, narrow, out of his depth and coldly dismissive of doubt, of criticism and of critics.
If that’s what you think, say it. If it’s not, don’t suggest it.
When I finished the book I came out not admiring Mr. McClellan or liking him but, in terms of the larger arguments, believing him. One hopes more people who work or worked within the Bush White House will address the book’s themes and interpretations. What he says may be inconvenient, and it may be painful, but that’s not what matters. What matters is if it’s true. Let the debate on the issues commence.
What’s needed now? More memoirs, more data, more information, more testimony. More serious books, like Doug Feith’s. More “this is what I saw” and “this is what is true.” Feed history.