Having read something under a dozen books on the Bush political dynasty, and having some interest in the administration of George W. Bush, I was interested to read Scott McClellan’s perspective of What Happened ”Inside the Bush White House and Washington‘s Culture of Deception” (Scott McClellan, What Happened. Public Affairs: NY, 2008, p. 134).
I discovered a self-professed conservative Democrat, which in a southern state like Texas, spells Republican, since Johnson‘s Civil Rights Act of 1964. His mother, the former mayor of Austin, TX, and former State Comptroller, is the daughter of the longtime, highly respected, Dean of the UT Law School, Page Keeton. His roots in Texas politics run deep.
Moreover, I found much to admire in this decent, a high-minded and idealistic young man. Rooted in politics, he has a penchant for journalism. His eye for detail comes through with almost boring detail, especially in the early chapters.
As a member of the Bush Administration, he proved staunchly loyal to the man he obviously admires greatly. He reveals Bush as a seemingly rather progressive governor, uniting both sides of the Texas aisle and achieving some noteworthy victories, in spite of the fact that I find the Texas death penalty rate almost barbaric.
Reading McClellan, one senses a slow change to a very different form of politics inside the Beltway, as he processes his way through the early years. I was especially interested in 9-1-1, the launching of the Iraq War, and the Valarie Plame conflict involving Scooter Libby and VP Cheney.
In his processing, he discusses other issues as well, not least of which are the changes that took place internally within McClellan, and his eventual exit from the White House Staff, courtesy of John Bolton, the new Chief of Staff. What I found of most interest in this book, aside from his conclusions at the end on improving Washington politics, is the following lengthy quote:
P.134: “…In the permanent campaign era it was all about manipulating sources of public opinion to the president’s advantage.
“Of course, I didn’t see it that way at the time. Like most if not all of those involved, I viewed it as the way things were done to advance the broader agenda - simply part of the way Washington governed. I didn’t pause to think about the potential consequences of our campaign to manipulate the public debate. When you are caught up in the intense day-to-day experience of the White House and Washington your focus is on winning the daily battles, which make it extremely difficult to step back and have a clear-eyed perspective on the broader meaning of it all.”
P135: “We were more focused on creating a sense of gravity and urgency about the threat of Saddam Hussein than governing on the basis of the truths of the situation.”
Others may read this differently, but I read it as a nice way of saying the Administration failed to practice the moral ethical standard they proclaimed. Said more simply, in the heat of political battle, the ends justified the means, even if they had to control the media and deceive the public.
Having admitted as much as he does, McClellan still finds it almost impossible within himself to hold the President responsible for ultimately allowing the practiced deception; or, as Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here!” And since McClellan was one of those primarily responsible for the multitude of photo-ops of the President, he never deals with his own part in the ultimate deception of some of them, such as the President landing on the Air Craft carrier.
Although failing in his protest, he did have the good judgement to protest the President’s flyover of New Orleans and Katrina, although he never dealt with the governmental role in a crisis of such magnitude. Of course, many of this administration do not consider the government as having anything more than a minimal role at such times.
I applaud McClellan’s recognition of the atmosphere of controlled media and deception within the Beltway. He acknowledges the vast majority of electees as good people, elected to unite, compromise, and “put our nation’s best interest above that of the party” (314).
“Once in office,” concludes McClellan, “the president must demonstrate an unyielding commitment to three important principles: (1) a high level of openness, forthrightness, and honesty when communicating with the American people; (2) a spirit of inclusiveness and unity, which reaches across partisan divisions and ideological differences to encourage cooperation among all groups and individuals; and (3) a readiness to consistently govern toward the center, seeking common ground from which to solve problems rather than appealing to a narrow base of opinion” (315).
Political rhetoric without supportive action is like religious ritual without walking the walk of faith. Thus, while McClellan concludes with constructive suggestions for changing the atmosphere of deception and partisan excesses, he does admit “President Bush is paying a heavy price for his failure to do so.”