What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception
by Scott McClellan
Culture of Deception
A review by Jonathan Yardley
"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."
A few pages later, McClellan puts it far more bluntly and damagingly. Bush was "a leader unable to acknowledge that he got it wrong, and unwilling to grow in office by learning from his mistake -- too stubborn to change and grow." McClellan explains this in several ways. "One was his fear of appearing weak," he says. "A more self-confident executive would be willing to acknowledge failure." Another "was the personal pain he would have suffered if he'd had to acknowledge that the war against Saddam may have been unnecessary." Bush "was not one to look back once a decision was made. Rather than suffer any sense of guilt and anguish, Bush chose not to go down the road of self-doubt or take on the difficult task of honest evaluation and reassessment." Yet "another motive for Bush to avoid acknowledging mistakes was his determination to win the political game at virtually any cost." Finally, "there was Bush's insistence on remaining true to his base....As far as Bush and his advisers (especially Karl Rove) were concerned, being open and forthright in such circumstances was a recipe for trouble."
Exactly what McClellan's opinion was while all this was going on, as opposed to where he is now, is a bit difficult to figure. He was a loyalist with ties going back to Bush's years as governor of Texas. He had admired the bipartisanship of Bush's gubernatorial leadership and expected him to continue it as president; it seems to have taken him a while to realize that in Washington, as opposed to Austin, Bush had surrounded himself with advisers to whom "bipartisan" was an invective. Having at the time no reason to believe otherwise, he accepted the WMD claim on its face and participated in the "spin and evasion" with which the case for the war was presented, though whether he knew at the time it was spin and evasion is, again, unclear.
By and large, though, McClellan is, or appears to be, honest in claiming that his views changed over time and that the process gave him little pleasure. Again and again he says in so many words that if he'd known then what he knows now, he wouldn't have done what he did, and he is quick to blame himself rather than others for things he said that eventually proved misleading or unfounded. In his own self-portrait he comes across as a decent, principled, loyal and rather irresolute man for whom a resignation on principle would have been an unthinkably bold act of self-assertion.
Instead, he went quietly, pushed out two years ago by the new presidential chief of staff, Josh Bolten. He was loyal to the end, telling the president publicly that "it has been an extraordinary honor and privilege to have served you."
At last, though, he seems to have decided to be loyal to himself and the principles in which he insists he believes. This means that in what must now be a tiny circle of diehard Bushies he will be excoriated as a traitor, but mostly these complaints are likely to fall on deaf ears. George W. Bush, as the direct consequence of his own character and actions, is the most unpopular president in American history, and the campaign now beginning in earnest will in great measure be a referendum on him and his record. What McClellan reports in this book is part of that record, and doubtless we will hear more about it as the campaign progresses.
The Washington in which the next president will hold sway is depicted herein as "broken and dominated by partisan warfare and the culture of deception it spawns." McClellan is right about this, and in his final chapter he offers some sensible suggestions for changing the atmosphere.
Since the candidates have sought to minimize negative campaigning in the coming five months, perhaps the winner will be more open to bipartisanship, cooperation and compromise than were his predecessors, Bush and Bill Clinton alike. But the poison here built up over a long time, and it's not going to vanish overnight.
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