Analysis: What Scott McClellan knew

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  May 29, 2008 at 4:11 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 29 (UPI) -- The most revealing thing in Scott McClellan's memoir trashing his boss and longtime benefactor President George W. Bush is how typical it is of thousands of ambitious people in Washington life.

As President Harry Truman famously said, "If you want a friend in this city, buy a dog."

Of course, that doesn't mean McClellan, Bush's press secretary during the crucial years from 2003 to 2006, was wrong.

The lame duck Bush administration has gone into overdrive mode to trash McClellan's memoir, which contains devastating accusations about his longtime mentor and boss. McClellan accuses Bush of believing whatever he wants to for his own selfish political expediency at any time.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Ari Fleisher, McClellan's predecessor as White House press secretary, have rushed to condemn him. Other Bush supporters and former colleagues and friends of McClellan have claimed that the memoir doesn't sound like him at all and reads like liberal or Democratic Party propaganda. Well, as Mandy Rice-Davies memorably replied when a member of the British House of Lords denied sleeping with her, "He would, wouldn't he?"

It is perfectly true that White House press secretaries are not members of the Cabinet, the Joint Chiefs of Staff or the National Security Council. So McClellan obviously was not in the most secret chambers of government when the deliberations about invading Iraq in March 2003 were held. But he was in an ideal position to see the paper flow of government public statements and was tasked with expressing the precise words the White House wanted the world to know and hear on a day-by-day basis.

McClellan was universally regarded as an amiable and able White House press secretary who did his job smoothly and well. He did not have the brilliance and mastery of a Mike McCurry, who held the job for President Bill Clinton, and he did not have the intimacy with his boss or perceived stature that his predecessor Ari Fleisher did. But with the exception of a couple of standouts like McCurry, most White House chief spokesmen and press secretaries are not rocket scientists, and about half of them just about get through the day. McClellan was above that break-even mark, but he now has unexpectedly produced what is likely to be the most influential and important press secretary memoir of modern times.

This is not because McClellan is actually exposing any national secrets or shocking scandals. He doesn't. Nor does he make any wild accusations. The most fascinating reading in his book is, in fact, his own subjective assessments, which he quite openly identifies as such.

McClellan nowhere claims or alleges that crucial intelligence about the alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was knowingly faked. What he instead claims is that the president had a strong, uncritical bias for believing shaky, untrustworthy and extremely limited and often unsubstantiated allegations. Journalists tracking the debate at the time, including myself, could have told McClellan that five years ago.

McClellan is also devastating, though far from unprecedented, in his criticisms of Rice. He assesses her as being bureaucratically brilliant but untrustworthy and cynical, bending over backward to avoid getting pinned down on issues and far more concerned about looking good than about making the right decisions in the interests of her president and her country. That may be unfair. But there are certainly lots of people like that in Washington, and not only in the Bush administration.

However much it infuriates Bush loyalists -- indeed, for that very reason -- McClellan's memoir is likely to become an important historical document about the nature of decision-making in the Bush White House. Political scientists, who adore their precious decision-making models far more than the complexities of history and reality, will rush to shoehorn it into their theories of how White Houses ought to function. (The truth is that every one of them functions differently.)

The book appears sincerely written. It has the tone of being a tale told by an honest man. The irony of its success, however, is two-fold. First, McClellan would have been nowhere without the loyalty and generosity Bush gave him. And he has repaid his old boss by trashing him when the president is most vulnerable.

Second, had the war in Iraq gone well, McClellan would have written a very different book, praising Bush to the skies and emphasizing how sagacious and considered he always was.

McClellan's book, in other words, confirms the wisdom of another, far older saying, apparently originally an Italian proverb and one that was beloved by President John F. Kennedy, but was tellingly earlier cited by Count Ciano, foreign minister of Fascist Italy and son-in-law of Benito Mussolini, when his country was losing World War II: "Victory has 100 fathers, (but) defeat is an orphan."

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