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Vindication for the Bush Critique

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, June 2, 2008 1:53 PM

As the response to former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's new book enters its second week, the focus has shifted to the messenger rather than his message.

McClellan is a flawed vessel for any serious communication. From behind the podium, he made a mockery of the press and the public's right to know, most notably by repeating non-responsive and sometimes ludicrous talking points. He has yet to persuasively explain his change of heart. And his insistence that self-deception rather than a conscious disregard for the truth was behind what he now describes as the White House's consistent lack of candor is spectacularly self-serving.

But the significance of McClellan's book is that his detailed recounting of what he saw from the inside vindicates pretty much all the central pillars of the Bush critique that have been chronicled here and elsewhere for many years now. Among them:

* That Bush and his top aides manipulated the country into embarking upon an unnecessary war on false pretenses;

* That Bush is an incurious man, happily protected from dissenting views inside the White House's bubble of self-delusion;

* That Karl Rove's huge influence on the Bush White House erased any distinction between policy and politics, so governing became about achieving partisan goals, not the common good;

* That Vice President Cheney manipulates the levers of power;

* That all those people who denied White House involvement in the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity were either lying or had been lied to;

* That the mainstream media were complicit enablers of the Bush White House and that its members didn't understand how badly they were being played.

By coming back again and again to the CIA leak story, McClellan also validates a key theme of the Bush critique: That the Plame case was a microcosm of much that was wrong with the way the Bush White House did business.

No one could have predicted that the Plame case would play such a central role in McClellan's personal conversion to Bush critic. But his eventual recognition that Rove and then-vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby had flatly lied to him when they denied any involvement in the leak, along with his sudden realization that Bush and Cheney declassified secrets when it was politically convenient, were evidently two major factors. (A third was his unceremonious firing by Chief of Staff Josh Bolten.)

McClellan's revelation that on Oct. 4, 2003, Bush and Cheney directed him to vouch for Libby's innocence once again raises the question of how the president and particularly the vice president have been able to avoid any kind of public accountability. McClellan even raises the possibility, repeatedly hinted at by special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, that Cheney directed Libby to disclose Plame's identity.

McClellan also makes clear how baldly Bush broke his original pledge to fire anyone involved in the leak. In an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press yesterday, McClellan told Tim Russert: "I think the president should have stood by the word that we said, which is if you were involved in this any way, then you would no longer be in this administration. And Karl was involved in it. . . .

"The president said he was going to restore honor, integrity. He said we were going to set the highest of standards. We didn't live up to that. When it became known that his top adviser had been involved, then the bar was moved. And the bar was moved to, 'If anyone is indicted, they would no longer be here.'"

A Bizarre Relationship With the Truth

McClellan also describes a bizarre relationship with the truth within the Bush White House. His central thesis -- which also serves as his own personal defense -- is that the persistent lack of candor that afflicted the White House regarding key initiatives such as the Iraq war just sort of happened. There wasn't any real intention to lie; it was just well-meaning people getting caught up in the political game that consumes modern-day Washington.

Here's how he explained his own experience it to Keith Olbermann on MSNBC's Countdown Thursday night: "I got caught up in the Washington game in terms of the spinning and obfuscation and secrecy and stone walling and things like that."

But when, time and again, the "lack of candor" conveniently furthers political goals, how are we not to conclude that it is, well, pretty much the same thing as lying?

Consider the way McClellan describes Bush in one particularly seminal case study. Recalling a conversation he overheard between Bush and a supporter in the 2000 race, when questions were being raised about Bush's possible cocaine use as a young man, McClellan quotes Bush as saying: "You know, the truth is I honestly don't remember whether I tried it or not. We had some pretty wild parties back in the day, and I just don't remember."

McClellan notes the absurdity of such a statement, then writes: "I know Bush, and I know he genuinely believes what he says. He isn't the kind of person to flat-out lie, particularly when speaking in private to a supporter or friend. So I think he meant what he said in that conversation about cocaine. It's 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. And his reason for doing so is fairly obvious: political convenience. . . .

"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. . . .

"Bush is certainly not the first or last politician to deceive himself, but the extent to which he resorts to self-deception beyond personal matters, which one can argue should be off-limits anyway, and the sincerity with which he embraces self-deluding beliefs amount to a personality trait that goes directly to larger issues of characters and leadership style and carry over into real issues of governance."

Saying something that you know "deep down" isn't true, for personal gain -- isn't that the definition of lying?

What McClellan Doesn't Know

McClellan repeatedly insists that Bush and his top aides were not actually liars (with the exception of Rove and Libby, of course). He writes near the end: "As I've detailed in this book, the campaign mentality at times led the president and his chief advisers to spin, hide, shade and exaggerate the truth, obscuring nuances and ignoring the caveats that should have accompanied their arguments. Rather than choosing to be forthright and candid, they chose to sell the war, and in so doing they did a disservice to the American people and to our democracy. However, this is not the same as saying they deliberately misled and lied."

And yet, as McClellan himself notes, most key decisions were made in secret by a small circle of advisers. Sometimes, he acknowledges, it wasn't even a circle: "Cheney had greater power and influence than any other vice president in history, and no one really knew how extensively he wielded it. Being shut out from his thinking and from the ways he advised the president left a large black hole in my understanding of what was really going on inside the administration."

Later, he writes: "[L]urking behind it all remained the magic man, Vice President Cheney. No one knew better how to orchestrate what was happening from behind the curtain while the grand production was playing out on stage. Quietly slipping in and out of internal deliberations, his influence and wand waving barely discernible to the outside world, Cheney rarely showed all his cards and never disclosed how he made things happen. Yet somehow, in every policy area he cared about, from the invasion of Iraq to expansion of presidential power to the treatment of detainees and the use of surveillance against terror suspects, Cheney always seemed to get his way."

Some Excerpts

From page 131: "Every president wants to achieve greatness but few do. As I have heard Bush say, only a wartime president is likely to achieve greatness, in part because the epochal upheavals of war provide the opportunity for the transformative change of the kind Bush hoped to achieve. In Iraq, Bush saw his opportunity to create a legacy of greatness."

Here is the book's preface: "As press secretary, I spent countless hours defending the administration from the podium in the White House briefing room. Although the things I said then were sincere, I have since come to realize that some of them were badly misguided. In these pages, I've tried to come to grips with some of the truths that life inside the White House bubble obscured.

"My friends and former colleagues who lived and worked or are still living and working inside that bubble may not be happy with the perspective I present here. Many of them, I'm sure, remain convinced that the Bush administration has been fundamentally correct in its most controversial policy judgments, and that the dis-esteem in which most Americans currently hold it is undeserved. Only time will tell. But I've become genuinely convinced otherwise. . . .

"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. But I promised reporters and the public that I would someday tell the whole story of what I knew. After leaving the White House, I realized that the story was meaningless without an appreciation of the personal, political, and institutional context in which it took place. So the story grew into a book. . . .

"Waging an unnecessary war is a grave mistake. But in reflecting on all that happened during the Bush administration, I've come to believe that an even more fundamental mistake was made -- a decision to turn away from candor and honesty when those qualities were most needed."

Here are some more excerpts from the Wall Street Journal: "The most obvious evidence that the Bush White House embraced the permanent campaign is the expansive political operation that was put in place from day one. Chief political strategist Karl Rove was given an enormous center of influence within the white House from the outset. This was only strengthened by Rove's force of personality and closeness to the president. . . .

"The permanent campaign also ensnares the media, who become complicit enablers of its polarizing effects. They emphasize conflict, controversy and negativity, focusing not on the real-world impact of policies and their larger, underlying truths but on the horse race aspects of politics -- who's winning, who's losing, and why."

On Bush's decision to go to war, which McClellan dates back all the way to November 2001: "[I]it's not asking too much that a well-considered understanding of the circumstances and history of Iraq and the Middle East should have been brought into the decision-making process. The responsibility to provide this understanding belonged to the president's advisers, and they failed to fulfill it. Secretary of State Colin Powell was apparently the only adviser who even tried to raise doubts about the wisdom of war. The rest of the foreign policy team seemed to be preoccupied with regime change or, in the case of Condi Rice, seemingly more interested in accommodating the president's instincts and ideas than in questioning them or educating him.

"An even more fundamental problem was the way his advisers decided to pursue a political propaganda campaign to sell the war to the American people. It was all part of the way the White House operated and Washington functioned, and no one seemed to see any problem with using such an approach on an issue as grave as war. A pro-war campaign might have been more acceptable had it been accompanied by a high level of candor and honesty, but it was not. "

Believe It or Not

A few of the laugh-out-loud absurdities from McClellan's book:

McClellan repeatedly claimed from behind the podium that "ongoing legal proceedings" precluded him from answering important questions, such as about the Plame case, even when this was an incredibly obvious dodge. (See, for instance, my April 10, 2006, column: Some Explaining To Do.)

Here's McClellan on page 260 of his book: "Eventually, long after leaving the White House, I came to see that standing in front of the speeding press bus in those days had much more to do with protecting the president and White house from further political embarrassment than respecting the sanctity of the investigation."

You don't say.

And McClellan also would like us to believe that he thinks Bush should have demanded an internal investigation into the CIA leak case early on, and "should have ordered the public release of as much information as possible as soon as it was known, to that the scandal would not take on a life of its own."

But McClellan seems to forget a key point: The stonewall that Bush ordered, that McClellan so dutifully enforced, and that the media largely accepted, arguably won Bush the 2004 election. The politically damaging truth -- that Rove and Libby were indeed involved, and that Cheney may have been as well -- remained obscured for years.

Analysis and Opinion

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "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.

Stanley Crouch writes in his New York Daily News opinion column: "McClellan's description of his years in the Bush White House will not surprise those who have paid attention and have watched as one more dirty trick after another was stripped of its cover until national policy became tantamount to a nudist colony trying to pass itself off as a center for high fashion. . . .

"To me he is one of those minor men who has become a hero because he was disturbed by what he saw and his own involvement in actions and deceptions that reduced the honor of our country. Any revelations about the abuse of power should always be welcomed. They help us know where we are and what has been done to us. For that, if no more, Scott McClellan should be saluted on both sides of the aisle."

Mike Lupica writes in his New York Daily News opinion column: "The hyenas Bush still has in the media will make this all about disloyalty. They won't just try to shoot the messenger - McClellan - they will try to shoot him out of a cannon. They will make him the issue. And when they are through with him, he won't just be a disgruntled former employee, he will be some kind of threat to national security and if you believe him, the terrorists win. . . .

"McClellan is no hero here, or even close. If he believed all these things when he stepped down as Bush's press secretary, nobody was stopping him from saying something as soon as he was out on Pennsylvania Ave. He said nothing at the time. No money there.

"So he is late in the church service finding religion, late having the stomach to tell the truth about the people that he worked with, looks as if he is only doing it to sell a book.

"But take a look at the ones coming after him hardest for the story he is selling this time around. It is those for whom he sold the war, and the ones who helped him do it."

Former McClellan deputy Trent Duffy writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "Was it the truth or a lie when you told me, during a series of personal discussions in your West Wing office in late 2005 and early 2006 (at the apex of what you now call your period of 'disillusionment' and 'dismay'), that you were happy in your job and proud to serve President Bush and that you had no intention of leaving soon? What about in April 2006, when rumors swirled about a change at the podium, and you again told me you wanted to stay? . . .

"The press was easy on us? How many times did you race up the ramp from the briefing room to your office after a raucous media cross-examination to complain how the press was unfair, naive, too tough and way too 'liberal.' Would any in the White House press corps agree they were softies?"

Michael D. Shear and Michael Abramowitz blogged for The Washington Post on Wednesday: "Karl Rove, the subject of many of McClellan's charges, said on Fox's Hannity & Colmes last night that . . . McClellan sounded like a liberal blogger.

"'First of all, this doesn't sound like Scott. It really doesn't,' Rove said. 'Not the Scott McClellan I've known for a long time. Second of all, it sounds like somebody else. It sounds like a left-wing blogger. Second of all, you're right. If he had these moral qualms, he should have spoken up about them.'"

But as Scarecrow, a contributor to the Firedoglake blog, writes: "Scottie didn't say anything that fits on a liberal-to-conservative continuum, unless one views truth as a liberal bias."

The Media Critique

One of the biggest surprises in McClellan's book is his ferocious criticism of the media -- for being lapdogs.

Here are some excerpts of his thoughts on the media:

"If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq. The collapse of the administration's rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should have never come as such a surprise. The public should have been made much more aware, before the fact, of the uncertainties, doubts, and caveats that underlay the intelligence about the regime of Saddam Hussein. The administration did little to convey those nuances to the people, the press should have picked up the slack but largely failed to do so because their focus was elsewhere -- on covering the march to war, instead of the necessity of war.

"In this case, the 'liberal media' didn't live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served."

For more on this subject, see my article last week on NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor.

Warren P. Strobel and Jonathan S. Landay, who as reporters for Knight-Ridder were almost alone in reporting skeptically about the campaign for war, blog for McClatchy Newspapers: "It's not news. At least not to some of us who've covered the story from the start. . . .

"The news media have been, if anything, even more craven than the administration has been in defending its failure to investigate Bush's case for war in Iraq before the war."

Michael Dobbs blogs for washingtonpost.com: "As a former operator of the White House 'propaganda machine', Scott McClellan lacks credibility as a critic of the press. But on the question of whether the American press did its job properly during the run-up to the Iraq war, it is difficult to argue with his conclusions. We failed you. . . .

"[T]he bottom line is that we spent too much time, as McClellan says, 'covering the march to war' rather than 'the necessity of war.' We devoted a lot of attention to the small questions -- the counting of votes in Congress and the United Nations, the procedural disputes over weapons inspectors, the selling of the war -- without addressing the big questions. Was the war necessary? Would it make us Americans, and the rest of the world, safer? How would it upset the balance of power in the Middle East between Shia and Sunni (terms that were unfamiliar to most Americans)?"

Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek: "Bush's own spokesman is acknowledging his error on Iraq. Why can't the media?"

Flashback

Press blogger Jay Rosen reminds us of the key role -- stooge -- that McClellan played in the White House's attack on the press: "It denied the whole theory of the 'fourth estate,' ridiculed the idea that the press is part of the system of checks and balances, told reporters they were a special interest group rather than a conduit to the public-at-large, wiped out all remaining distinctions between propaganda and public information, and welcomed the de-legitimizing of the news media by allies in the culture war.

"'Back 'em up, starve 'em down and drive up their negatives' is the way I summarized this approach. In July 2003 Bush took it further when he installed in the White House briefing room a stooge figure, a pathetic character who had no power, no in-in-the-loop knowledge, no respect from key players in the Administration, no talent for improvised explanation under the lights, and no problem being made to look like an ass in front of the country, the cameras and the rest of the world."

David Corn blogs for CQ: "Where's the apology? . . .

"[W]hen it counted there were a few of us in the media who were indeed arguing that the Bush White House was setting new records in presidential deception--especially when it came to Iraq. McClellan, though, was part of the White House's defense team, pushing back against media coverage that questioned Bush's rationale for the war and Bush's serial abuse of facts. Apparently McClellan has seen the light. Well, where's his plea for forgiveness? If he were truly contrite about his involvement in a deceptive, propaganda-wielding administration, McClellan could demonstrate his sincerity by pledging that all profits from his belated truth-telling will go to charities supporting the families of American soldiers killed or injured in Iraq. For history's sake, it is good that McClellan is confirming what most Americans (according to polls) have long known: the Bush administration trampled the truth to win public backing for the Iraq war. But as an enabler (witting or not) of that process, McClellan owes the public more than a for-sale account. He should not profit from this book, making bucks for correcting war-supporting falsehoods that he defended. He ought to be doing penance. True heart-felt confessions come free."

In his book, McClellan barely mentions torture, or his role in defending the indefensible. And yet he frequently went well beyond just parroting the administration's talking points when it came to attacking reporters who questioned the administration's tactics in its war on terror. See, for instance, my Nov. 9, 2005, column, which offers just one of many examples of the McClellan that McClellan would probably not want us to remember.

Cartoon Watch

Views of "What Happened" from Matt Davies, Mike Luckovich, Signe Wilkinson, Jim Morin, Ann Telnaes, Tom Toles, Nick Anderson, Rex Babin, Walt Handelsman, Kevin Siers, John Cole, Joel Pett, Jeff Danziger, Adam Zyglis, Ed Stein, Bruce Plante, Rob Rogers, Ben Sargent, Steve Sack, Bob Gorrell and Jack Ohman. Plus an Ann Telnaes animation.

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