In 1999, Scott McClellan accepted a job working for Texas Governor George W. Bush, who was getting ready to make a run for the White House. McClellan was an idealistic thirty-year-old Republican loyalist attracted to Bush’s candidacy because of the governor’s “compassionate Conservatism” and his charisma.
By July 2003, McClellan was a member of the Bush inner circle and was promoted to White House press secretary.
In April 2005, McClellan was gone, disillusioned and disappointed in an administration he said had gone terribly off-course. “What happened?” he wondered.
His recent book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, released two months ago, is McClellan’s attempt to offer an explanation—to himself and to the American public. The book is also McClellan’s act of contrition, his way of apologizing for his role in an administration that has tumbled down the tubes.
9/11 of course serves as the turning point, although McClellan didn’t realize at the time just how dramatic and permanent the change would become. The Bush White House that took shape during the crisis “resisted openness” and exhibited a “lack of candor and honesty” that frequently provoked “a partisan response from our opponents that, in its own way, further distorted and obscured a more nuanced reality.”
The media served as “complicit enablers.” The primary focus, he says, was to “cover the campaign to sell the war, rather than aggressively questioning the rationale for war or pursuing the truth behind it.” By emphasizing the conflict created by the sales pitch, the media disregarded the truth and accuracy of what was actually being pitched.
Rather than blame any one person McClellan points his finger at the culture in Washington. Bush had vowed to change that culture but fell victim to it instead.
Washington’s political culture is best personified by Bush insider Karl Rove. “Karl is a gifted, powerful practitioner of contemporary political warfare,” McClellan says, although he points to James Carville and Lee Atwater as “past masters” of the same kind of politics. The difference with Rove, says McClellan, is that “no political operative before [him] arguably had so much influence within a White House.” Although he is one of America’s most divisive political figures, the Rove that be-bops through McClellan’s book is strangely compelling.
Another influential character painted less clearly is Vice President Dick Cheney, who always seems to be coming in and out of one-on-one meetings with the president. Cheney lurks in shadow and operates in secret. His presence is troubling, even without any attempt by McClellan to outright say so.
Most interesting about the book is McClellan’s insights about President Bush. McClellan obviously likes the guy and paints a sympathetic-but-astray portrait of the man. McClellan was easily swept up by what he saw as the sincerity of Bush’s passion. “I believe freedom is the deepest hope of every human heart,” Bush tells McClellan—and McClellan makes his readers believe it.
Bush governs by gut, not by logic or analysis, which led to understandable but unwise leadership decisions. Bush was also “[i]ntoxicated by the influence and power of America” and saw in Iraq an “opportunity to create a legacy of greatness.”
As the book continues, there’s a growing sense of dismay from McClellan that things didn’t have to be this way.
“Bush’s team confused the political propaganda campaign with the realities of the war-making campaign,” McClellan says. “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.”
The resulting marketing campaign created an “enormous momentum for war.”
“[T]oday, as I look back on the campaign we waged to sell the Iraq war to the American people,” McClellan writes, “I see more clearly the downside of applying modern campaign tactics to matters of grave historical import.”
Critics of McClellan have accused him of everything from buyer’s remorse to selling his soul to outright lying. “This is not the Scott McClellan we knew,, the White House said when the book came out. Admittedly, it will be hard for anyone with strong political opinions to read What Happened without prejudging McClellan, thus putting a particular spin on everything he writes.
But I, for one, found much to appreciate about the book, which did answer for me some fundamental questions I had about the Bush presidency. Like McClellan I was once upon a time an idealistic young Republican who supported Bush and his “compassionate Conservatism.” And, like McClellan, I’ve grown increasingly disenfranchised and, at times, disgusted.
After reading McClellan’s book, at least I now I have a clearer sense of what happened.