What Happened: Inside the Bush White House
and Washington's Culture of Deception
By Scott McClellan
Public Affairs, 341 pp., $27.95
Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, whose career took off after he was hired by Texas Governor George W. Bush, became so good over the years at spinning facts, shaping them into narratives that best served his boss and now best serve himself, that he seems to have no definable core. His new, controversial book has made headlines but doesn't make clear McClellan's own beliefs.
What does he really think behind the verbal smoke screens weaving through his narrative? Should we believe what he said then or now? "What Happened" is a confusing blend of self-justification and blame-gaming.
In his book, McClellan seems eager to walk away from his prominent role in the Bush administration, especially regarding the Iraq War. He begins his narrative with an obligatory invocation of God: "Through contrition we find the truth and the freedom that comes with it, even as we improve ourselves and grow closer to the image that God our Creator has in mind for us to become."
But McClellan knows now, and knew then, that he was protecting an administration that misled the American public on several issues, from the justifications for the Iraq War to the leaking of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity. Yet McClellan wants readers to view him as an innocent bystander caught in a dangerous game. "I didn't fully understand what I was getting myself into," writes McClellan regarding his job as White House press secretary. McClellan later contends that he couldn't have changed anything anyway (not that he tried): "The cards I had to play were dealt even before I accepted the job" and the results "may have been preordained." Yet he provided much of the cover.
McClellan admits he participated in the White House Iraq Group, which effectively sold the Iraq War to the American public with highly questionable, ever-shifting rationales. Yet he always points the blame elsewhere. Condi Rice "should have stood up to those more experienced, strong-viewed advisers [pushing for war] rather than deferring to them." Yet Rice, like McClellan himself, chose loyalty to the president above raising critical questions.
During the investigation into who had leaked Plame's identity to the press as part of an administration smear campaign against Plame's husband, McClellan defended administration officials Karl Rove and Scooter Libby. Both men had assured McClellan that they'd had nothing to do with the leak, and he said he believed them. As the ongoing investigation would reveal, both Rove and Libby were deeply involved. McClellan's credibility was decimated. "When words I uttered, believing them to be true, were exposed as false, I was constrained by my duties and loyalty to the president and unable to comment."
McClellan's blame gaming extends to the press. He blames it for not getting to the truth behind the administration's dubious claims about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction: "The national press was probably too deferential to the White House . . . the press should have picked up the slack but largely failed to do so." McClellan goes so far as to deem the press "complicit enablers" who "would neglect their watchdog role." The press did not do a good job in the runup to the Iraq War, but who provided it with much of the bad information? At such moments of supreme chutzpah, readers may want to toss "What Happened" out the nearest window.
What McClellan says about the administration's poor response to Hurricane Katrina could easily extend to the Iraq War, and even to this book: "The disconnect between the reassuring, upbeat message we wanted to convey and the bitter realities on the ground was simply too wide and too obvious." McClellan, like his former boss, continues to have a credibility problem that blame gaming can't solve. To paraphrase Harry Truman, the buck has to stop somewhere.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.