For Future White House Aides, Required Reading

After the release of his inflammatory book "What Happened," former White House press secretary Scott McClellan talks with Katie Couric about his allegations against the Bush administration. Video by
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 30, 2008

The people who should sit down and read Scott McClellan's blockbuster new book are the people least likely to take the time to do so right now. They are the aides to Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Clinton -- and perhaps the candidates themselves.

The Washington buzz over the book is predictable. Few things are juicier than a relentlessly critical portrait of a president and his administration by a supposedly loyal ex-adviser, and McClellan has delivered the goods in stunning fashion. "What Happened" is indeed the question people are asking about the man who seemed least likely to dish and tell.

The former White House press secretary is now under attack from those with whom he served -- for what they see as his disloyalty to the president, his failure to speak up in a timely fashion, his failure to share his doubts with others as events were unfolding, his decision to give Bush's enemies new ammunition and his apparent personality change since being pushed out of the White House.

They, of course, overlook or underplay what the Valerie Plame Wilson episode did to McClellan. His boiling anger at being hung out to lie about the incident is understandable. One wonders whether this book would have been written were it not for the deep resentment he harbors toward those involved, particularly Karl Rove and Scooter Libby but also the president and vice president, for allowing -- even encouraging -- him to stand in the White House briefing room and unknowingly give out false information.

That painful affair is the spine of this tale, but the book is also much, much more, though in many ways it is more surprising than revelatory. McClellan's portrayal of President Bush -- as intellectually incurious, politically shrewd, occasionally dense, sometimes disingenuous, often charming and always cocksure -- matches that of other critics, including a few ex-administration officials such as former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill. But it is devastating nonetheless.

His critique of how the administration went to war in Iraq squares with what is now a widely accepted analysis, which is that there was a rush to war and that the administration marshaled the evidence based on faulty intelligence. What makes it sting is that McClellan attaches words and phrases such as "propaganda" and "manipulate" and "cycle of deception" to describe the public relations campaign of which he was a part.

But at heart, his book is the story of a modest and perhaps naïve political operative caught between personal loyalty and ambition on the one hand, and a crisis of conscience that did not fully flower until after he put distance between himself and his White House days. Critics will easily see this as a combination of cowardice and cashing in, but McClellan offers an explanation that, if not fully plausible, goes some way in accounting for what he has written.

As he writes at one point, his views, particularly on Iraq, reflect those of many Americans, who may have had initial doubts about how anxious the administration seemed about going to war but who trusted the wisdom and judgment of the president and an experienced team of advisers. Over time, his -- and the country's -- trust and confidence in Bush and his team have been shattered by what has happened in Iraq.

McClellan is honest enough to admit that. If only others in the administration, in real time, had stepped back to ask, and answer, the question: What happened?

Why should this book be required reading in the headquarters of the campaigns? The simple reason is that many of the people now staffing the candidates' campaigns share the qualities and traits of a younger Scott McClellan -- caught up in the excitement of a great cause (to elect their candidate president) and now fully knowing what will await if they end up in the next White House as aides to the 44th president of the United States.

McClellan's subtext is how the permanent campaign continues to define and sometimes destroy the governing process. His warning is that, having gone through the experience of a hard-fought campaign (and he admits that he has no reservations about the way campaigns are waged), it is virtually impossible for a new administration to set aside those tactics in the White House.

This will be a particular challenge if either Obama or McCain becomes president. They have preached a new style of politics (albeit from different perspectives), but can either of them and their advisers break out of campaign mode if they end up in the White House?

McClellan points to the critical early decisions of the Bush team, in which the organization and techniques of the campaign were transferred into setting up the White House. Over the next five months, the Obama and McCain campaigns will be organized for combat, with war rooms, rapid response teams, over-the-top rhetoric and the magnification of sometimes trivial mistakes or differences. Will they not adopt similar techniques for selling the next administration's initiatives?

Another way these advisers can profit from McClellan's book is by recognizing that a White House post means serving both the president and the public, and that the two sometimes come into conflict.

No president is without flaws. Bush's are, by now, well known, but so were those of his predecessors and so, too, will be those of his successor. Certainly all the candidates have them. How do those around a president confront those flaws -- or compensate for them? Where is their loyalty owed?

The easy answer is to say that when the two come into conflict, resignation is the only answer. But that is generally for extreme cases, when an adviser fundamentally disagrees with a major policy decision. How will those around the next president organize themselves to protect against the very mistakes McClellan admits he and others made?

The euphoria of winning in November will cloud the minds of those heading into the next White House. They will feel like Masters of the Universe. Instead, they should remember the McClellan experience and the very human story he tells.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company