By Dana Milbank
Saturday, June 21, 2008
The people's representatives set aside the hard work of governing yesterday and instead stretched their minds in the unfamiliar field of literary criticism.
"Welcome, everyone, to the Judiciary Committee's first Book of the Month Club meeting," declared Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the panel's ranking Republican, as he looked down from the dais at the lone witness for the day's hearing, White House press secretary turned kiss-and-tell author Scott McClellan.
"Today, it's Scott McClellan's 'What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception,' " Smith continued. "I propose that next time we consider Ann Coulter's book, 'How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must).' "
This being Congress, the literary salon quickly turned into a Wild West saloon. Republicans panned the author and his memoir detailing abuses in the Bush White House. Democrats gave him rave reviews. Inadvertently, both sides wound up proving the very point McClellan made in his book: "It is about restoring civility and bipartisanship and candor to our national political discourse. It is about putting our nation's interest above partisan goals."
But rising above party was anathema to the lawmakers on the panel. Putting the nation's interest above partisan goals? Right.
"Could you not have taken some of this to the grave with you and done this country a favor?" demanded Steve King (R-Iowa).
"Your book, quite frankly, is a political book, launched in the most political time!" thundered Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
"Do you recall if you've ever used illegal drugs?" inquired Ric Keller (R-Fla.).
And Smith likened McClellan to Judas, "selling out the president and his friends for a few pieces of silver."
The themes of betrayal, greed, revenge and sinister motives turned the hearing into an epic, so here are the CliffsNotes: Republicans, having trouble refuting the substantive points McClellan raised in his book, turned against their former ally's character with a fratricidal glee. Liberal Democrats, in turn, tried to turn him into a pawn in their bid to impeach Bush.
McClellan wasn't having any of it.
"These facts, and your testimony, Mr. McClellan, are more than enough, in my view, to open up impeachment hearings!" exulted Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), a top surrogate for Barack Obama.
"I am very proud of you as an American," gushed Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), before asking if "impeachment proceedings would be warranted."
No dice. "Congresswoman, I do not support impeachment based on what I know," McClellan replied.
He was equally quick to cut down the Republicans -- as when Smith portrayed McClellan as the plaything of a liberal publisher. "Mr. McClellan's project editor for the book, Karl Weber, has written venomous statements about the president; for example, calling him a, quote, 'clearly horrible person,' " Smith announced.
"Were you aware before you worked with him that he had called President Bush a clearly horrible person and said, quote, 'He's consciously manipulative and deceitful'?"
"No, I was not," McClellan said. Maybe that's because Weber had said no such thing. After a break, McClellan returned and reported to the committee that the line was written "by his daughter, and his daughter's name is on that post that is on the family blog site." The audience laughed. Smith did not.
The strain of the attacks from his former friends and colleagues showed in the puffy bags under his eyes, but McClellan dispatched with ease the ad hominem attacks. He had, after all, received much worse in the White House briefing room from reporters, with whom he smiled and chatted during breaks in the hearing.
Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) took a try at assigning McClellan financial motives. "Did this particular publisher offer you the most money? . . . Can you give me a rough estimate of the number of TV shows that you appeared on?"
But when Goodlatte charged that McClellan's allegations were "hyped to sell this book," McClellan's reply was calm.
"Which specific allegations?" he inquired.
Goodlatte was stumped. "Well, there are many allegations," he said.
McClellan simply smiled.
The harsh reviews from his fellow Republicans persisted. "If you felt that you were doing something wrong at the White House or misleading people," complained Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), "you should have spoken up at that time." Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) accused him of "inference and speculation and, in some cases, some innuendo."
But yesterday, Feeney was the one supplying the innuendo. He compared what McClellan did to a press secretary announcing the D-Day planning before the Normandy invasion. "The notion that we're going to share everything that we know with our enemies I find very disturbing," Feeney scolded.
"I don't make that suggestion," McClellan pointed out.
Feeney was flummoxed. "Well, anyway, thank you for your testimony," he said, then left the book club meeting for his son's Little League game.