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Culture of Deception

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, June 1, 2008

WHAT HAPPENED

Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception

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By Scott McClellan

PublicAffairs. 341 pp. $27.95

"I still like and admire George W. Bush," writes Scott McClellan, who served Bush for two years and nine months as White House press secretary.

"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." Yet the entire brunt of McClellan's book is precisely the opposite: that Bush and "his top advisers," by whom he was "terribly ill-served," systematically deceived the American public about their reasons for going to war in Iraq and about the effort to discredit a critic of the war, Joseph Wilson, by making public his wife's position at the Central Intelligence Agency.

McClellan says the "defining moment in my time working for the president, and one of the most painful experiences of my life," occurred in July 2005, when he discovered that what he had told the press two years earlier -- that Karl Rove and Lewis Libby were not involved in "the leaking of classified information" about Valerie Plame, Wilson's wife -- was untrue. "I had unknowingly passed along false information," he writes. "And five of the highest-ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, Vice President Cheney, the president's chief of staff Andrew Card, and the president himself." Upon learning this, he felt "constrained by my duties and loyalty to the president and unable to comment. But I promised reporters and the public that I would someday tell the whole story of what I knew."

What Happened is the result. "I've written it not to settle scores or enhance my own role," McClellan says, "but simply to record what I know and what I learned," and on the whole this seems to be the case. As a deputy in the White House press office and then as press secretary, McClellan did not participate in high-level decision-making, especially with regard to foreign policy, but attempted to explain presidential decisions to the public -- as those decisions had been explained to him -- through the various conduits provided by the press. It is the fate of the presidential press secretary to be among an administration's most visible public faces yet to be comparatively impotent within the circles of real power. McClellan struggled with this as did all press secretaries before him, but it was his misfortune to be the spokesman for an administration in which deceit and prevarication were commonplace.

If McClellan feels betrayed, he doesn't say so. Instead, in the self-effacing manner that characterizes his book (and renders it somewhat limp), he merely says, "I blame myself. I allowed myself to be deceived," and then blandly adds, "But the behavior of the president and his key advisers was even more disappointing." Well, yes. The top people in the offices of the president and vice president looked the press secretary in the eye and told him they hadn't done what in fact they had -- leaked Joseph Wilson's CIA connection to selected members of the press -- and then instructed him to tell that to the American people. It may be gentlemanly of McClellan to blame himself for the deception, but this is either disingenuous or false humility. He believed in the good faith of the people whose activities he sought to explain to the public, and they abused his loyalty. It's as simple, and as damning, as that.

In light of this betrayal of trust, it is not surprising that McClellan's portrait of the president is rather more negative than he probably meant it to be. At the outset he describes Bush as "a man of personal charm, wit, and enormous political skill," and he repeats that characterization several times, but darker colors soon are painted in. He tells us about Bush's claim during the 2000 presidential campaign that "I honestly don't remember" whether he'd used cocaine as a young man. At the time McClellan wondered: "How can that be? How can someone simply not remember whether or not they used an illegal substance like cocaine?" It was, he says, "the first time when I felt I was witnessing Bush convincing himself to believe something that probably was not true and that, deep down, he knew was not true. . . . In the years to come, as I worked closely with President Bush, I would come to believe that sometimes he convinces himself to believe what suits his needs at the moment."

Thus, of course, most famously, the war in Iraq and the misinformation about weapons of mass destruction that was so central to the argument for waging it. McClellan tells about Bush being asked by Tim Russert of NBC in February 2004: "In light of not finding the weapons of mass destruction, do you believe the war in Iraq is a war of choice or a war of necessity?" Bush replied that it was the latter, but "seemed puzzled" by the question.

McClellan writes: "This, in turn, puzzled me. Surely this distinction between a necessary, unavoidable war and a war that the United States could have avoided but chose to wage was an obvious one that Bush must have thought about in the months before the invasion. Evidently it wasn't obvious to the president, nor did his national security team make sure it was. He set the policy early on and then his team focused his attention on how to sell it. It strikes me today as an indication of his lack of inquisitiveness and his detrimental resistance to reflection, something his advisers needed to compensate for better than they did."


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