WHATEVER qualities George W. Bush brought to the presidency, the ability to inspire loyalty in others obviously was not among them.
The evidence seems to suggest, in fact, that you’d probably have to go back to the Borgia court to find anything close to the miasma of feral self-interest that must hang in the air during one of this administration’s staff or cabinet meetings. If you worked with this crew, you’d want to wear a Kevlar undershirt to the office.
“What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception” by Scott McClellan -- the second of Bush’s four press secretaries -- is the latest tell-all sensation in a series that actually began during the president’s first term. Truth to tell, though, there’s never been anything in presidential history quite like the stream of self-justifying memoirs this administration already has generated. Departed secretaries of State and Treasury have had their says, as has a director of Central Intelligence and an attorney general and assorted speech writers, political aides and the military commander of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions.
McClellan, who went to work for the then-governor of Texas when he was 30, is the first of Bush’s Austin-based inner circle to turn on his former boss. Though his book doesn’t formally go on sale until Monday, a week’s worth of non-stop media reports have made its major allegations fairly well known. According to McClellan:
The president went to war against Iraq to secure his place in history and to spread democracy in the Middle East. Because he and his aides knew the case for war couldn’t be sold to the American people on that basis, the president deliberately oversold and misrepresented intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s links to international terrorism and his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in what amounted to a “propaganda campaign.”
Presidential political advisor Karl Rove and former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby lied to McClellan about their roles in the Valerie Plame affair, leading him -- in turn -- to lie to the media.
Rove’s influence led Bush to give politics primacy over policy, even when dealing with national security, and played a particularly strong role in the administration’s abominable response to the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.
Vice President Dick Cheney “always seemed to get his way” and “simply could not contain his deep seated certitude, even arrogance, to the detriment of the president.”
The White House and its surrogates deny all this, stressing that as the deputy press secretary during the run-up to the war, McClellan wasn’t in a position to have firsthand knowledge concerning some of the issues he discusses in this book.
McClellan sheds interesting new light on the president’s obviously pivotal relationship with former national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, whom the former press aide describes as “fully trusted and sometimes too accommodating.” McClellan now decries her appointment as secretary of State because her predecessor, Colin L. Powell -- whom the author clearly admires -- acted as “a moderate voice to counter the more hawkish views of Cheney and Rumsfeld.” Rice, according to McClellan, was charged with curbing the independence of the State Department bureaucracy, something Powell had declined to do.
More important, Rice had qualities that allowed her to survive and prosper in the claustrophobic emotional atmosphere that seems to have characterized the Bush White House. “Condi Rice,” McClellan writes, “is hard to get to know. She plays her cards close to the vest, usually saving her views for private discussions with Bush. Over time, however, I was struck by how deft she is at protecting her reputation. No matter what went wrong, she was somehow able to keep her hands clean, even when the problems related to matters under her direct purview. . . . And in private, she complemented and reinforced Bush’s instincts rather than challenging or questioning them. As far as I could tell from internal meetings and discussions, Condi invariably fell in line with Bush’s thinking.”
If Rice has been Bush’s closest advisor on national security and foreign affairs, as Rove has been his most intimate political advisor and Cheney his strongest overall influence, McClellan’s up-close-and personal appraisal of the president’s character looms even larger: “a leader unable to acknowledge that he got it wrong, and unwilling to grow in office by learning from his mistakes -- too stubborn to change and grow.” Although the author says he continues to regard Bush as basically a good and decent man -- and rejects the suspicion that the chief executive simply is stupid -- he does adjudge him incurious and utterly lacking in an inclination for reflection or self-scrutiny. He is, according to McClellan, particularly prone to denial and self-deception, personally insular and unable to acknowledge error for “fear of appearing weak.”
McClellan, for example, recounts several instances during Bush’s first presidential campaign during which the candidate virtually willed himself into forgetting incidents involving youthful cocaine and alcohol use that might have proved politically embarrassing. “Self-deceit is a human quality, and we all engage in it at times,” the former press aide writes. “Bush is certainly not the first or the last politician to deceive himself, but the extent to which he resorts to self-deception beyond personal matters, which one can argue should be off-limits anyway, and the sincerity with which he embraces self-deluding beliefs amount to a personality trait that goes directly to larger issues of character and leadership style and carry over into real issues of governance.”
On an operational level, according to McClellan, Bush also has been, from the start, obsessed with avoiding the political mistakes he believes led his father to be a one-term president.
Take a president with those personal traits -- and McClellan, who has served Bush since his days in the Texas statehouse, seems entitled to a presumption of credibility on at least this score -- and lock him in the Oval Office with the self-seeking but sycophantic Rove-Rice-Cheney troika and any reasonable outsider looking in would be entitled to conclude that they were seeing a disaster looking for a place to happen.
McClellan is hardly alone in his view that disaster is precisely what occurred in Iraq and New Orleans, as well as in several other venues. The novel ideas he brings to the historical postmortem already underway are the notions that a supine media and what he rather unoriginally calls Washington’s atmosphere of permanent campaign played critical roles in those failures.
He should be granted part of the point on the press -- though only part. The news media, no less than the nation, endured a wrenching trauma on 9/11 and no less than any other institution in society felt the moral obligation to demonstrate solidarity with a country under deadly threat. In that situation, not giving the administration the benefit of the doubt, when it presented “facts” it said were based on the best and most sensitive intelligence available from the CIA and other spy agencies, would have been mindlessly adversarial. Moreover, since the media lacked the ability to do original reporting on the ground in Iraq, what basis would there have been for contradicting the administration’s assessment of Saddam Hussein’s aims?
Where the press failed badly was in the way a handful of high-profile reporters accepted leaks of the most sensational alleged intelligence and breathlessly hurried them into print, thereby making it harder to critically evaluate the case the White House was making from its “facts.”
As far as the villainous effect of the permanent campaign -- by which one presumes McClellan means politics -- goes, suffice to say that Washington has been coping with its political demands for at least a generation now and never before did it impel an administration to take the country into an “unnecessary war.”
At one point McClellan writes that he undertook his confessional memoir, in part, to square his conscience with his Christianity. Even so, “the devil made me do it” just won’t wash as an explanation for this administration’s eight years of misgovernment.