Accuracy in Media

Scott McClellan’s book What Happened spans a range of events
that occurred during the Bush years, including the 9/11 and Katrina
catastrophes, the Plame scandal, and the controversial Iraq War. McClellan also
provides scathing profiles of the star-studded White House, criticizing Karl
Rove, Condi Rice, Dick Cheney
, and George W. Bush, among others.

McClellan joined the Bush team when George W. was governor of Texas and
planning on running for presidential office. Following Bush’s ascent to
presidency, McClellan worked under Ari Fleischer as the principal deputy
press secretary; after Fleischer’s resignation, he became the chief press
secretary for the Bush administration. The purpose of What Happened is
twofold: to describe the events that happened during his tenure, and to attempt
to salvage his reputation and credibility.

PERMANENT CAMPAIGN

Despite his involvement in politics at a young age, McClellan expects his
readers to accept his image as a naïve and idealistic young Texan thrust
into—and burned by—the high-power Washington political machine. The
disillusionment he claims throughout What Happened largely stems from his
description of the “permanent campaign” run by the White House and its
prevalence in modern politics. He writes:

“Like the Clinton administration, we had an elaborate campaign structure
within the White House that drove most of what we did. We were always focused on
how to control the agenda, shape the media narrative, and build public support
for our policies—the same things Democratic leaders in Washington sought to do.
Bush had promised to change the way things were done in Washington. But how
could he change the game if his administration continued to play by the very
same rules? At the time, I didn’t recognize the contradiction, and neither, I
think, did most of my colleagues.” McClellan spends much of the book bemoaning
the political atmosphere of the White House and the “permanent campaign” that
dictated their approach to justifying both the war in Iraq and the Plame
scandal
.

WAR IN IRAQ

McClellan defines the pattern of thinking in the Oval Office about the war in
Iraq, asserting that Bush’s viewpoint on the necessity of removing Saddam
stemmed from the President’s understanding of the U.S. as a world leader and its
subsequent responsibility to promote democracy and freedom by removing
repressive regimes. McClellan, apparently also an expert on preparing for war,
writes the following:

“And that is the spirit in which the Bush administration approached the
campaign for war. The goal was to win the debate, to get Congress and the public
to support the decision to confront Saddam. In the pursuit of that goal,
embracing a high level of candor and honesty about the potential war—its larger
objectives, its likely costs, and its possible risks—came a distant second…
Today, the fatal flaws of the administration’s strategy are apparent. Bush’s
team confused the political propaganda campaign with the realities of the
war-making campaign. We were more focused on creating a sense of gravity and
urgency about the threat from Saddam Hussein than governing on the basis of the
truths of the situation.”

He suggests the gravity of Saddam and Iraq was exaggerated by the White House
elite who were in the habit of distorting reality to support their political
agenda. McClellan also criticizes Bush’s handling of the war:

“Bush’s way of managing the problems in Iraq was proving inadequate to the
task. He received regular updates and held frequent meetings as he sought to
improve the situation through personal persuasion and pressure on Iraqi leaders.
But he was insulated from the reality of events on the ground and consequently
began falling into the trap of believing his own spin. He failed to spend enough
time seeking independent input from a broad range of outside experts, those
beyond the White House bubble who had firsthand experience on the ground in
Iraq, and—perhaps most important—those with differing points of view, including
those who disagreed with his policies.”

PLAME SCANDAL

McClellan’s coverage of the Valerie Plame scandal has garnered the most
attention from the media due to the controversial information he presents.
McClellan spends a significant amount of time agonizing over his lost reputation
and credibility, as well as maintaining the victimization of his character by
his superiors. His recollections focus on Libby and Cheney’s involvement in the
affair as well as his unease with his orders to publicly clear their names to
the press when originally questioned. Also uneasy are his attempts to downplay
the actual source of the Plame leak.

He writes the following about the conclusion of the investigation:

“Some have defended Libby and Rove, saying they weren’t the ones who leaked
Plame’s identity to Novak. In fact, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage
was the first to do so. But before Novak publicly disclosed Plame’s identity,
Libby and Rove did tell other reporters about her—and Rove became Novak’s second
confirming source for his article…”

He writes,

“Was an underlying crime committed by anyone in the administration by
disclosing Plame’s identity? I don’t know. Armitage was Robert Novak’s initial
source concerning Plame’s identity, and prosecutors seemed to believe that it
was unintended on Armitage’s part. But it’s false to assert that he was the only
one who disclosed Plame’s identity. We now know that Libby, Rove, and Ari
Fleischer also disclosed her identity to reporters before Novak reported
it… Rove was being too cute by half when he told CNN and later ABC News back
in 2004, ‘I did not know her name. I did not leak her name.’ He did not have to
know Plame’s name to leak her identity, as he did to Time magazine White
House correspondent Matt Cooper and as he confirmed for Bob Novak. So both Rove
and Libby deliberately allowed me to tell the public falsehoods on their
behalf—a clear abuse of the White House press secretary’s role… It’s also clear
to me that Scooter Libby was guilty of the perjury and obstruction crimes for
which he was convicted.”

CONCLUSION

McClellan, also an expert on ethical politics, spends a significant portion
of What Happened pontificating on the decrepit political culture of the
White House and dramatically moralizing on the degradation of values in
politics:

“Unfortunately, the Sun Tzu approach has become the norm in politics, as
deception is considered vital today for defeating campaign opponents and for
governing. This ‘all’s fair’ attitude now permeates political campaigns and has
crossed excessively into governing, especially when the stakes are high.
Washington, as a result, has become a breeding ground for deception and a
killing field for truth.”

His relentless moralizing, however, does not hamper his shrill criticisms of
the elite in the Bush administration, nor is his malevolent tongue tempered by
ethical stipulation. At the very least, however, his book What Happened provides an interesting view through the closed doors of the White House.




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