McClellan’s ‘Matrix’ moment

Mark Dery is a cultural critic who teaches in the department of journalism at New York University.

Scott McClellan is having a “Matrix” moment -- the moment when you wake up, with a jolt, from the reassuring fictions of the media dream world to the face-slapping reality of unspun fact.

In “The Matrix,” Laurence Fishburne parts the veil of illusion -- the computer-generated simulation that humanity experiences as reality -- to reveal the movie’s post-apocalyptic world as an irradiated slag heap.

“Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” he says, a riff on the postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s pronouncement, in his book “Simulations,” that we live in a “desert of the real” -- an ever more virtual reality where fact and firsthand experience are displaced by media fictions. Baudrillard’s example is tailor-made for the Bush presidency: “Propaganda and advertising fuse in the same marketing and merchandising of objects and ideologies,” he wrote.


This, in a word, is life in the Bush administration’s Ministry of Truth, as described by McClellan in his frag ‘em-and-run memoir. The former White House press secretary -- whose Secret Service code name, I kid you not, was “Matrix” -- recounts how he and the rest of Team Dubya got caught up in a “permanent campaign,” a nonstop propaganda war whose weapons were “the manipulation of shades of truth, partial truths, twisting of the truth and spin,” and whose goal was to stage-manage the media narrative and thus public opinion.

Now that McClellan has broken free from what he calls the “Washington bubble,” he can see the “massive marketing campaign” to sell the war in Iraq for the steaming heap of dookie it was: a public relations operation characterized by an, er, “lack of candor and honesty,” as the author so masterfully understates it.

Of course, McClellan knows perfectly well that “shaping the narrative before it shapes you” is how you win hearts and minds (and, not incidentally, sell books). Watching McClellan stay relentlessly on message as he makes the talk-show rounds, one can’t help but wonder: Is the man still spinning? The White House and its flying monkeys in the right-wing blogosphere and at Fox News think so. They’ve launched a counterspin offensive, Richard Clarke-ing him as a prevaricator who will do anything to boost his sales. (No. 1 on Amazon as we speak.)

But there’s a deeper meaning to this story. Like no administration before it, the Bush administration has mastered what the media critic Walter Lippmann called “the manufacture of consent” -- the use of “psychological research, coupled with the modern means of communication,” to muster mass support for elite agendas. Staging photo-ops whose choreographed drama and camera-ready visuals (“Mission Accomplished”) are intended to play to the emotions and overrule objections; reducing complicated geopolitical issues to black-or-white dualisms (Team America: World Police versus the Axis of Evil!); stonewalling the media, cherry-picking intelligence and parroting Karl Rove-approved talking points -- the Bush administration represents the apotheosis of government by spin control.

Among the many egregious examples of this were the administration’s willingness to pay $240,000 to a prominent conservative columnist to promote the No Child Left Behind program, and the Pentagon’s secret, multimillion-dollar program to plant paid propaganda in Iraqi newspapers.

Sure, sure, truth is the first casualty of war, and politics is just war with a smile and a starched collar. But the burgeoning genre of Bush administration tell-alls, of which McClellan’s is only the latest, paints a portrait of a White House utterly unconcerned with facts yet fervently attentive to public opinion polls. It is a White House whose solution to every unhappy turn of events -- the Iraqi insurgency, Hurricane Katrina, a moribund economy -- is to treat it not as a real-world problem requiring a real-world solution but as a glitch in the Matrix, “a perception problem” to be handled with the Message of the Day and the Theme of the Week.

The deeper story here is the shift from the Enlightenment worldview, whose commitment to reasoned debate and empirical truth used to be the cornerstone of our little experiment in democracy, to the faith-based worldview of fundamentalism -- not just the fundamentalism of the religious right but fundamentalisms of every sort. The Iraq war came about, in large part, through a harmonic convergence of personal passions, political agendas and ideological crusades, all faith-based rather than fact-driven. Bush, McClellan tells us, is a man who “convinces himself to believe what suits his needs at the moment” and who “to this day ... seems unbothered by the disconnect between the chief rationale for war and the driving motivation behind it, and unconcerned about how the case was packaged.”

Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and other saber-rattling superhawks were on a Mission From God to democratize the Middle East, police the globe and, not incidentally, found a star-spangled imperium. And Karl Rove’s psy-ops team, of which McClellan was a part, intuitively embraced the postmodern proposition that the story shapes the reality.

As an unnamed Bush aide put it in a 2004 New York Times Magazine article by Ron Suskind, there are those who still live in “what we call the reality-based community,” people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality,” and then there are those who understand that “that’s not the way the world really works anymore. ... We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

Of course, somewhere outside the Matrix-like White House “bubble” of media spin and public perception, in what we used to call the Real World (isn’t that a reality TV show?), there may be collateral damage. About two-thirds of the way through “What Happened,” McClellan recounts a wrenching scene, one of the few times a shadow of self-doubt flickered across Bush’s mind. During one of his visits with wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in a dimly lit room, the president meets a woman and her 7-year-old son sitting beside their husband and father, a veteran with a brain injury so severe he is “clearly not aware of his surroundings.” Bush hugs the mother, tells the boy his dad is “a very brave man” and whispers in the shattered soldier’s ear, “God bless you.” McClellan writes:

“Then [the president] turned and walked toward the door. Looking straight ahead, he moved his right hand to wipe away a tear. In that moment, I could see the doubt in his eyes and the vivid realization of the irrevocable consequences of his decision.”

Welcome to the Desert of the Real, guys.