Here’s what we learned:
Ok. That statement is a bit disingenuous. The revelations contained therein are nothing that the reality-based community did not already know or infer. Most of the book is concerned with three main issues that he dealt with as press secretary.
First, we hear that the administration oversold the case for war. Well aware. Thanks.
Second, we learned that Scooter Libby certainly and Karl Rove probably blew the cover of CIA agent Valerie Plame. This was almost definitely retaliation against Joe Wilson (Plame’s husband) for his questioning of the administration’s rationale for going to war. Yup. Knew that, too. The only real revelation was that Andy Card directed McClellan to exonerate the guy who has the most ridiculous nickname in the history of politics. McClellan seems most upset that Libby and probably Rove lied to him about their involvement in leaking Plame’s identity to the press.
Third, we find that the government really screwed up the response to Hurricane Katrina. We heard about that, too. In one minor revelation, readers did learn that McClellan objected to Bush’s infamous “fly-over” because it might make Bush look detached and unconcerned about the problem. Rove convinced Bush to proceed. Guess what? It made Bush look detached and unconcerned about the drowning city. Imagine that.
There is no case for impeachment against Our Fearless Leader or Darth Cheney in What Happened. It is more of a mea culpa by the former White House spokesman than an indictment of the Administration. It is also a critique of the media’s performance between 2003 and 2006 when McClellan was press secretary. McClellan even exonerates his former boss, noting several times that Bush’s style is to make a broad decision and leave it to his surrogates to work out the details. The advantage of this is that the underlings can take the role of the fall guys while insulating the president from any wrongdoing on their parts.
Instead, McClellan uses these major examples and a few other minor episodes to illustrate the underlying problems with modern politics within the executive branch. The overarching problem is hyper-partisanship (i.e., hate the opposition because they are the opposition rather than on the basis of policy positions). McClellan offers three factors that feed this atmosphere of hyper-partisanship. And yes, Democrats are just as guilty as Republicans. The three factors are:
- The permanent campaign
- A culture of scandal
- Viewing politics as war that is a zero-sum game.
The permanent campaign was identified in 1976. Basically, it means that the party in power attempts to shape public opinion on a policy and silence critics in order to get that policy implemented. This is in contrast to the much more democratic strategy of floating a policy idea and then refining the policy in response to public opinion and input from the opposition. The larger goal is on winning the next election. Influencing public opinion is the point of campaigning, but not the point of governing. This is a situation where governing (theoretically altruistic and non-partisan) becomes secondary to campaigning (necessarily self-serving and partisan) rather than campaigning being secondary to governing.
McClellan decries this strategy by the Bush people, but does correctly point out that it was Bill Clinton’s people who really perfected it. Bush came into office promising to change the Washington game and then proceeded to play it even better than his predecessor. His major case-in-point was the disastrous decision to invade Iraq with shaky evidence. He never says that the administration lied. Instead, they selected the evidence most supportive of their case and disregarded contrary information.
The culture of scandal is nothing new to Washington. Granted corruption and the resulting scandal are inherent in any political system. Arguably, the modern era of the scandal commenced when Ron Ziegler dismissed the Watergate break-in as a “third-rate burglary.” While he was technically correct (those guys were certainly not criminal masterminds), it was the cover-up that ultimately brought down Nixon. The same holds true for Clinton’s Monica-gate. McClellan accepts that notion.
However, McClellan would prefer (at least now) to address scandal when it erupts in a true, open government way. He reasons that the short-term damage of providing the public with all relevant information is less significant than the long-term damage of a cover-up. He accuses the administration of a lack of candor and forthrightness in issues like the war and Plame episode. I tend to agree, but the media will disagree. Ongoing scandal is ratings gold, so they don’t have an interest in resolving any given scandal quickly.
The zero-sum game of war politics is probably the most damaging of these three factors. In a zero-sum game, one side can only win if the other side loses. That means utterly destroying your opponent. This is fine in a game of chess, but is unnecessarily destructive in the game of politics. As the governor of Texas, Bush gained a reputation for working with the Democrats to establish sound policy. The result was that both sides compromised to establish policy that was good for the whole state.
Something must have happened on the airplane ride from Austin to Washington because bi-partisanship was a main theme of Bush’s 2004 campaign. It probably did not help that Washington was already in full partisan mode in early 2001. The Republican Congressional revolution was still strong as was Democrat resentment over the Florida recount. After 9/11, Bush and the Republicans got wide public latitude, especially in regards to national security and foreign policy. When the Republicans controlled the White House and both houses in Congress, they could and did implement policy with little to no opposition input. Even in 2008, the Congressional Democrats are still not fighting back on key issues. Case-in-point: FISA.
McClellan’s solution: a permanent presidential advisor that every future president will be required to retain. This person would essentially be an ombudsman for the administration. This person would have the responsibility for ensuring that the administration is telling the truth and the whole truth while also legitimately working with the opposition party and tending to govern to the center. This person would almost be required to butt heads with the president and senior advisors. I would offer that the person either be from the opposition party (good) or a dedicated and vetted non-partisan (even better).
The second part of the solution is a media the White House does not cow that and that are willing to ask the tough questions. McClellan calls for a return to real investigative journalism rather than a press corps that more resembles a group of stenographers who get to travel the country and world with the president. The problem, Scott, is that mouthpieces like you are so busy constructing the current message and so obsessed with staying on message combined with a secretive administration that it is nearly impossible for journalists to do their jobs. In fairness, McClellan makes a fair mea culpa on this point too, though he likes to think he would have been more forthright if he had all of the information.
To conclude, I offer this stunningly shortsighted paraphrase from Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). He asked McClellan why he could not take his story to the grave and do a favor for this country. The answer, of course, is “not a chance.” Rep. King, the air of secrecy compounds the problems that McClellan is identifying. Your attitude seems to be that we should just sweep it all under the rug as usual.