McClellan and McCain

The biggest bombshell in former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s new tell-all is something that should have been abundantly clear to everybody by 2004 at the latest: The Bush administration deceived the American people with a misleading sales pitch for its war in Iraq. In the book, appropriately titled “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception,” McClellan concludes, “What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary.”

White House officials said McClellan never voiced such moral qualms while serving as Bush’s spokesman from 2003 to 2006. They were reportedly puzzled and angry at the betrayal by a Texan of Bush’s inner circle. We’re puzzled too, but over something else: Why has it taken McClellan so long to admit he was duped? It is also remarkable that McClellan faults the White House press corps for being too soft on Bush in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when McClellan himself was a champion stonewaller and enforcer of the White House’s “message discipline.” Nevertheless, we salute McClellan’s courage in admitting not only that he allowed himself to be misled but that he helped orchestrate a propaganda campaign. Such honesty, however belated, is a prerequisite for political change.

That is why the person who needs to respond to McClellan’s charges is not George W. Bush but John McCain. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee has consistently said that he agreed with the decision to invade Iraq, even while faulting the inept conduct of the prewar planning and the occupation. As McClellan’s disclosures make clear, that’s no longer good enough. McCain’s ideas on how and when to end the war matter more now than his vote to give the president the power to wage it. But voters should know whether he believes the invasion was a strategic mistake.

If McCain wants to be taken seriously as a more honest, competent and moderate Republican than Bush, he’s going to have to answer some of the questions he has avoided. To wit: Does he believe the administration “spun” the public to justify the overthrow of Saddam Hussein? Does he agree with McClellan that it was “a political propaganda campaign?” And, more important, how would he run his White House to ensure that dissenters and those with moral qualms do not wait years to speak out? That’s a question McCain’s rivals should ponder as well.