It took a few different stops along my vacation road trip route to find Scott McClellan's new book, What Happened. One bookseller noted that the first printing had sold out and that they were waiting on the publisher for another round. I take this as a good thing for Mr. McClellan - if you're going to write an insider's account of life in the George W. Bush White House that puts you in extreme disfavor with your former colleagues, political party, and the President himself, you might as well make sure you get a chunk of money for it. But for those of us who always found Mr. McClellan's role in the U.S. Government to be distasteful at best and outrageous on most days -- especially his part in selling the importance of invading Iraq to the world -- it's somewhat disgusting to see that he's now making money by telling the story of that role, even if he is expressing significant regret along the way.
It's certainly too little too late for someone who was often the public face of a government that we now know was actively misleading its own citizens about Iraq, wielding its power to practice malicious (not to mention illegal) personal attacks and then covering them up. If you believe in the power of the press and public opinion to help shape U.S. policies (or to at least hold the government accountable for its actions), and if you know how much the press regurgitated White House statements without critical evaluation or follow up in the last seven years, then you might say that Mr. McClellan is fairly directly responsible for a lot of unnecessary death in the world.
Even with the disgust and distaste in my mouth, I still appreciated reading his account of his years with George W. Bush, and his take on the problematic culture of "permanent campaigning" in Washington, and it reminded me of an important point: the federal government is just made up of individual people who are flawed, stubborn, vulnerable, scared, and fragile in the same kinds of ways all the rest of us are. (Unfortunately, as McClellan makes all too real in his account, when those personal flaws translate into the flawed foreign policy of a world superpower, or into the poor representation of a citizenry's actual needs and desires, the impact is at a whole new level of tragedy.)
McClellan writes more in the style of a college expository essay than a personal narrative, using "As I have shown in this book..." or "As I explained in Chapter such and such..." throughout. I was worried when I saw a few of the glossy pages in the center of the book with photos containing images from his childhood that he would (as some other tell-all writers have done) spend the first third of the 323 pages taking us on a tour of his upbringing, trying to connect statements he made as Press Secretary to the time when his uncle wouldn't let him have a candy bar he wanted, etc. But mercifully, he minimizes that kind of narrative and gets straight to the point of the book as it's been pitched: an insider's take on how the Bush White House does business.
There are few moments of stunning insight or reflection, but the book still manages to be shocking and noteworthy in the sense that it confirms what Bush administration critics have felt for many years: this is a Presidential administration that sets its own goals based on ideological self-confidence, and then make the facts and intelligence and talking points and various departments of the Executive Branch all fall in line behind those goals. It ignores public outcry, mass demonstrations, and personal appeals, and punishes those who are anything but 100% loyal and on message. It "stays the course" even when all other conventional wisdom and practical advice says otherwise. And it does all of this through the manipulative and agenda-driven personalities of a few individuals at the heart of the administration.
I suppose that the one area where I was surprised was in McClellan's own seemingly authentic contrition about his actions. He clearly knows the tradecraft of spin well enough that he could have manipulated the story into a narrative where he had no blame to share, or even where every actor involved was trying to do the right thing but the pressures and constraints of governing just didn't go as well as it could. But instead McClellan doesn't hesitate to say that he should have been paying better attention, he should have been more assertive, he shouldn't have believed some assurances he was given, he shouldn't have said the things he did. He also isn't afraid to point his finger at individuals within the administration and say "this person clearly didn't live up to the standards of their office" He stops short of personal attacks, but only because he seems conflicted about his relationships. For example, he vacillates back and forth between admiration of George W. Bush's personality and ideals, and sharing a candid disapproval of Bush's approach to being President and the significant personal flaws that this represents.
McClellan makes a few suggestions for how the Presidency could be repaired, and how George W. Bush should make amends with the American people. He even writes out a statement that the President could make about what happened in Iraq in the name of healing the country's deep divides:
An honest statement of the facts would have served Bush better -- something like, "We now know that Saddam was a less serious threat than we believed...What is important now is that we continue to work together on a consensus way forward to a successful outcome - one we can all agree on. That is how we, here at home, will best serve our troops fighting abroad and honor the sacrifices that so many of them have made and are making."
Of course this is a tad idealistic, since if the President and his advisers really valued a consensus process, political unity and solutions that serve all of us, many other things would be different too.
McClellan goes on to say that in order to move away from the permanent campaign mentality - where tactics used in trying to get elected are wrongly employed as a part of governance - new staff positions need to be created that separate politics from policy. In the context of the administrative structure we already have these ideas might be worth a try, but in the context of creating a governmental structure that serves the American people as best as possible, it's hard to imagine that a "Deputy Chief of Staff for Governing" and a few new support staff are going to fix the severely broken system in place now.
In the end, McClellan is clearly just another player in a bureaucratic and political nightmare that still continues to this day, and unless his book helps us to wake up from it, I'm not sure it has much to offer now beyond satisfying some morbid curiosity about the internal workings of the Bush Administration. But as someone who was tasked with the unique role of translating the White House's untenable positions into statements that the press could try to take back to the American people, to have McClellan admit several times that he was passing along lies and disinformation is still a big deal. In that sense, What Happened is at least one small act of penance in a Presidency that has so much to be sorry for.