mea culpa…or not.

September 10, 2008

Like I said, Scott McClellan’s “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception” is everything you might expect. And even worse.

His appearances on some of the news (fake or otherwise) shows that I watch made it sound like he does finally take some responsibility for his role in deceptions (willful or otherwise) carried out by the current US administration. But this is not the case.

Anytime he comes anywhere close to admitting personal responsibility, he: blames others; says he was “inside the White House bubble” (which I thought he would only use once, but it’s a running theme); tries to hedge what he did or said; or pleads ignorance, which I can’t buy because he also explains his long history in politics, and Texas politics, from a very young age.

The book is full of passages that contradict each other and his arguments, and the personal and systemic justifications he attempts to offer for his actions and those of the people around him are utterly unconvincing and also contradictory.  He might say Bush engages in self-deceit, but McClellan is king if he actually believes what he wrote.

Here are a series of highlights (or not):

“…But more than 8 in 10 Americans believed the regime of Saddam Hussein supported terrorist organizations intent on attacking America, and more than 9 in 10 believed it possessed or was developing WMD.  A majority also believed – erroneously – that Saddam Hussein had been involved in the 9/11 attacks.” (121).  My comment here? I like how he slips in “erroneously”, as though he had no part whatsoever in anyone thinking that…

“By overemphasizing conflict and controversy and by reducing complex and important issues to convenient, black and white storylines and seven-second sound bites, the media exacerbate the problem, thereby making it incredibly hard even for well-intentioned leaders to clarify and correct the misunderstandings and oversimplifications that dominate the political conversation.” (125).  The media are one of his favourite targets, and at the same time he suggests it’s their fault we missed important information in the lead-up to the Iraq war, he also criticizes some newspeople (Peter Jennings gets especial mention) for writing stories that indicated the conflict happening inside the White House over the war’s justification. Not their place, I guess.

He coins the term “coercive democracy” (129) to describe Bush’s vision for the middle east, and doesn’t seem to have any qualms about it.

On 144 he suggests that if Bush “could have foreseen the costs of war…he never would have made the decision to invade, despite what he might say or feel he has to say publicly today”, which is a nice story, and could be true, although someone who felt that deeply just might come up with something to say when asked whether he had made any mistakes. On the same page, McClellan describes how it was actually the responsibility of Bush’s advisors to keep him from making those mistakes, “seemingly more interested in accomodating the president’s instincts and ideas than in questioning them or educating him” (144). McClellan then writes:

“It goes to an important question that critics have raised about the president.  Is Bush intellectually incurious or, as some assert, actually stupid? …Bush is plenty smart to be president. But as I’ve noted, his leadership style is based more on instinct than on deep intellectual debate.  His intellectual curiosity tends to be centered on knowing what he needs in order to effectively articulate, advocate, and defend his policies.” (145).  I don’t know, but that sure sounds like someone who’s intellectually incurious to me. (And, as a secondary consideration, if effectively articulating his policies is what he concentrates on, why can’t he do it any better?)

“The biggest mistake I made as press secretary was in failing to challenge this kind of ingrained thinking within the Bush White House.  But in retrospect, it would have been exceedingly difficult for me to do so.  The cards I had to play were dealt even before I accepted the job, meaning that the unsatisfying outcome of my years as press secretary may have been preordained the moment I stepped to the podium for the first time that morning in July.” (163).  I love this, and it happens all the time throughout the book: “Here’s something that might have been my fault. Oh wait, no it wasn’t!”

“We at the White House referred to it simply as the ‘leak investigation’, while our critics called it ‘Plamegate’ in an effort to make it sound as sinister as the best-known political scandal of all.” (179). Since no Republican critics of Democratic presidents have ever used that tactic, before…

Here, I think, is a comment that sums it all up: “Caveats are deemphasized.  Contradictory information is downplayed, dismissed, or simply disregarded. Complex issues are too often oversimplified in the context of winners and losers, and portrayed in stark black and white terms.  The side that most effectively manipulates the narrative often prevails and is lifted up as being on the offensive – at times regardless of any nuances and the larger underlying truth.  Deception nudges truth to the side.” (70).  Exactly what I was thinking, Scott.

The fact that McClellan fails to recognize any responsibility on his part for anything that happened made me utterly uninterested in hearing his suggestions for “more principled leadership”, and I stopped reading at about page 200. I think that’s more than anyone should have to read, and I wanted to save you all the trouble of having to read it for yourselves. I apologize for what you were subjected to, here.

And, on to something much better. Real suggestions for “more principled leadership”.  I’m going back to JFK’s “Profiles in Courage”, something I’ve been meaning to read for a long time.

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