Tuesday, 26 May 2009

“What Happened”, by Scott McClellan (Public Affairs)


“Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception”

Following the tumult of the Plame affair, new White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan started to take a closer look at the political culture in which he was operating.

“As I reflected on this leak episode – one of the defining episodes of my tenure as press secretary – my view of Washington began to crystallize as never before. What I witnessed and have come to realize about my time in the spotlight – beyond just this episode – is a larger, and very unpleasant truth.”

This unpleasant truth was that the culture of deception spread and permeated throughout Washington’s political society and national political discourse, that it has “become an accepted way of winning the partisan wars for public opinion and an increasingly destructive part of Washington’s culture.” Instead of discovering that the “great right-wing conspiracy” was a creation of the embattled Clinton administration, McClellan found that the leader he had pegged so much hope on, George W. Bush, would wallow in the same deceitful and political mud the author (rather naively) hoped was a fiction, recreating many of the same political tactics they had spent so long railing against on the campaign trail. Most of this deception would revolve around Bush’s most consequential decision in office, the war in Iraq.

While many books have been written about the George W. Bush presidency – with many more still in the pipeline, What Happened provides a particularly intimate insider’s view of these turbulent years. McClellan started working for Bush before he officially announced his intention to run for president, and was with him until 2007, having served in a number of posts in the White House – most notably and infamously as Press Secretary. After a brief chapter on McClellan’s own beginnings in politics (it’s a family thing), and his upbringing as a whole, he moves on to the 2000 campaign and beyond.

There is an overall apologetic tone to the book – the author often points out those positions he held in opposition to the president, sometimes giving lengthy explanations of why (e.g. his nuanced and considered position on the death penalty), and also describes Bush administration’s faults. This goes some way in showing us the loyalty Bush engenders in those who worked for him. What doesn’t work, however, is McClellan’s anecdotes about Bush being the fun guy on the campaign trail – in certain examples, Bush comes across as a bit of a bully, putting people in their place and making it seem like he’s the only one doing the real work. Far from painting an endearing picture of Bush, it only underscores some of the negative images created by partisan journalists.

Perhaps the most honest appraisal of the former president comes when McClellan discusses his (and by extension his administration’s) hazy relationship with truth and recollection. McClellan laments how Bush “has a way of falling back on the hazy memory defense to protect himself from potential political embarrassment”, all too comfortable with the “I do not recall” defence – a tactic, we might remember, The Daily Show and pretty much the entire mainstream media ridiculed disgraced former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for using excessively during the hearings about the politically-motivated firings at the justice department. Other members of the administration discussed in the book are the “troika” of Rove, Andy Card, and Karen Hughes – the message people.

This is a very interesting book. Bush and his administration are put under the microscope, often put into context, and filled with anecdotes and recollections to paint a fuller picture than anything written by someone who was not on the inside.

While not as detailed or expansive as Bob Woodward’s Bush at War series (nothing is, really), this book nonetheless has plenty to offer the casual reader, as well as those who are well-informed on the subject. It is filled with insider detail and personal observations that show a man struggling with his personal loyalty, affection and respect for President Bush, and his disappointed awareness that things were not always on the level during the administration’s tenure in office.

What Happened is written in a very clear, welcoming style. Part mea culpa, defense, indictment, and narrative, it is a very worthwhile addition to your library.

Also try: Bob Woodward, Bush At War (2003), Plan of Attack (2004), State of Denial (2006); Jacob Weisberg, The Bush Tragedy (2007); Robert Draper, Dead Certain (2007); Jack Goldsmith, The Terror Presidency (2008); Mike Loew, Thanks For The Memories, George (2009); Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty (2004)

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