HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 7 & 14, 2008
What Happened:
Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception
The mea culpa of former White House press secretary Scott McClellan

John R. Guthrie
Scott McClellan writes "I still like and admire George W. Bush. I consider him a fundamentally decent person, and I do not believe he or his White House deliberately or consciously sought to deceive the American people."  Then in a remarkable reversal, he uses a great deal of his book painting a picture of an administration that is furtive, secretive, and deceptive.

McClellan’s served as President Bush’s press secretary, replacing Ari Fleischer in July 2003 and served until replaced by Tony Snow on April 26, 2006. His book is multi-faceted, and can be interpreted in a number of ways. One such way is to say that it is the tale of McClellan, who comes through as generally a decent man, struggling to give vent to his better impulses.

McClellan was fed misinformation about the casus belli for attacking Iraq and faithfully relayed it to the press and to the American public. He notes that President Bush didn’t exactly lie about these issues. Bush was often “protected from guilty knowledge.” Never mind the legal truism that one in such a position “knew or should have known…,” a phrase that many a lesser person had heard as he was marched off to the slammer.  McClellan assures the reader that Bush is not stupid, and characterizes him an affable and decent fellow who is simply not of an inquisitive nature.

In the conduct of the war in Iraq, Bush “…was insulated from the reality of events on the ground, and began falling into the trap of believing his own spin. He failed to spend enough time seeking a broad range of opinion s from outside experts,  those beyond the White House bubble who had first hand experience eon the ground in Iraq, and -- perhaps most important -- those with different points of view including those who disagreed with his policies.”

Vice President Cheney “pushed the envelope” … by “bringing up the fearful scenario of a mad man, Sadaam Hussein, who was “A man of great evil….and he is actively pursuing nuclear weapons at this time.” (CIA reports up through 2002 had consistently shown no evidence of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program.)

What Happened provides a particularly finely detailed discussion of the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame. In one fascinating passage, Bush admits to McClellan that he personally authorized the leak of classified information to the press concerning the identity of Plame.

McClellan gradually became aware that he had been, to put it politely, “misled” by such factotums as Karl Rove and Lewis Libby. Though he is ever protective of Bush, McClellan is appalled that Lewis Libby never served a day of his two and a half year prison sentence. Libby’s sentence was commuted by President Bush. McClellan recalls that this is the president who was big on “accountability” and in restoring “honor and dignity” to the White House. While attempting to explain how he misrepresented policy related issues to the public, in a feeble attempt to deflect blame, McClellan fairly frequently recalls what he considers to be the failings of the Clinton administration, e.g., permanent campaigning and Monica Lewinsky. Ultimately, and apparently untruthfully, “CIA Director George Tenet publicly took the blame for the intelligence failure – at the request of the White House.”

The tragic mishandling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is also dealt with in considerable detail. FEMA’s inept response was a public relations disaster for the administration. The photographs of the president viewing the wrecked city of New Orleans from Air Force One, and another snapshot of him strumming a guitar became symbolic to a significant proportion of the citizenry of an uninvolved and uncaring president. This is probably an unfair characterization. It’s not that George W. Bush didn’t care, but that he and his administration proved incompetent in responding to the challenge.

In an apt simile, McClellan refers a number of times to “the White House Bubble” in which he worked. White House Staffers from the president on down become so assured of their own importance and uniqueness that they feel free to “create their own reality.”

While What Happened is valuable in that it confirms what well-informed people already knew.

I’ve made it a point to get opinions of the book from friends and family of different political persuasions as well as reading critical comments in different publications. They are generally of a “shoot the messenger” variety, many of them by people who haven’t read the book.

“McLellan is a traitor!” MSNBC’s Kevin Corke noted that “White House officials, on background, went even further, calling McClellan a ‘traitor’ and likening him to Benedict Arnold.” Shades of Joe McCarthy. Sensible people know that even Mafiosi sometimes come clean and give valuable testimony that serves to better society. Openness is a measure of the health of our democracy. In dictatorships the truth is hidden from the public, but in our country the government is supposed to be made up of public servants who work for the taxpayers. And if we are bitter at those who have deceived us, so be it--they should be held accountable for abuse of power and the public trust.

“He did it for the money!” OK, OK, so he’s a capitalist.

“”He should have done it at the time!” Maybe one should attempt to put themselves in McClellan’s place. He's very obviously a loyal Bush supporter. He’d worked for him for years. Sometimes in the midst of chaos, it’s difficult to see things clearly. It situations that complex, it takes time to form accurate conclusions. It is quite possible that this GOP loyalist did the best he could in the secretive and furtive environment in which he found himself.

There is, though, one so hoary that its essential wisdom may be forgotten, but on that Scott McClellan should take to heart; “Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas.” And a staggering two or three trillion dollars in debt for our children and grandchildren. And unparalleled suffering on the part of those we “liberated.” And bombs. And death. And destruction.


What Happened: Inside the Bush White House
and Washington’s Culture of Deception.
By Scott McClellan
Hardcover: 368 pages, $27.95
Publisher: PublicAffairs;
1st. edition May 28, 2008
ISBN-13: 978-1586485566


John R. Guthrie is a former Marine infantry rifleman. He then garnered a formal education to include medical school and became the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy Reserve Shock Surgical Group before going into private practice in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Appalachia. He is the editor and publisher of the monthly webzine The Chickasaw Plum: Politics and the Arts Online. (Link)


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