Sunday, June 01, 2008

Confessions of an Insider

Scott McClellan’s “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception” is the buzz of the week. The former White House press secretary’s revelations, however, are not new. Seriously, is there anyone on earth who doesn’t yet know that George Bush is not inquisitive, that he doesn’t have an analytic bend of mind, that he stubbornly refuses to admit mistakes, that he is deceitfully self-delusional, that he gave free rein to the diabolical Dick Cheney to call the shots in major strategic decisions, that the Iraq war was a “solution” in search of a problem from day one of his presidency?

But even without any shock value, the book deserves attention. As the president’s long-time confidant, McClellan’s memoir offers a fascinating glimpse into the conflicting demands of loyalty and conscience and the dueling instincts of self-preservation and the urge to speak truth to power.

But first things first. Was McClellan motivated, to some extent at least, by money? Sure. Wanting to cash in while the opportunity lasts is an ancient human instinct. Just ask Bush memoirists Paul O’Neill, John Dilulio, Larry Wilkerson, Richard Clarke and others. Many more tell-alls are likely to appear after Bush leaves office but by then interest in his presidency will fade. If one had to make a bundle before it was too late, it had to be now, and McClellan used the opportunity.

As to the charge of hypocrisy that his conscience was fine towing the official line for nearly three years but that it began to weigh on him only after he resigned in 2006, there is also some truth to it. However, McClellan is no Archibald Cox, and to demand of him integrity that animates only the rarest among us is itself hypocritical.

The point, however, is that McClellan’s conscience, even if tainted, eventually caught up with him. “What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary,” is how he sums up his telling, if belated, insight.

What also emerges from several published reports is that the act of writing the memoir was cathartic for McClellan. It liberated him from his own delusions. Putting pen to paper, or keystrokes to word processor, brought to light what lay buried in his mind.

The central question that the memoir raises is this: Why did Bush do what he did? What drove him to create, in the words of novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace “an unmitigated horror show of rapacity, hubris, incompetence, mendacity, corruption, cynicism and contempt for the electorate”?

There is a key sentence in McClellan’s book that, I think, answers it. “The president promised himself that he would accomplish what his father had failed to do …” In other words, Bush Jr. was driven primarily by one goal: to outdo Bush Sr. That he wanted to outdo his father vis-à-vis Saddam Hussein is known but it also extended to his other presidential acts, in the way he dealt with his political adversaries and the illegal privileges he showered on his sycophants. (The presidency of George Bush should convince voters that they must give thumbs down to presidential dynasties in modern times).

At a personal level, there is no doubt that George Bush is a kind and compassionate man. When McClellan handed his resignation in April of 2006 as the White House press secretary, “tears were streaming down (Bush’s) both cheeks.” Those were genuine tears. But Bush is also a man with severely flawed instincts and judgments. Combine this with his overpowering need to prove his superiority at any cost over the old man, another president who also happened to be a domineering dad once, and you have a recipe for rapacity, hubris, incompetence, mendacity, corruption, cynicism and contempt for the electorate.

“What Happened” will contribute to our understanding of why historians are already labeling George Bush’s presidency as among the worst in American history, alongside the presidencies of James Buchanan (1857-1861) and Warren Harding (1921-1923), a verdict that is likely to stand the test of time.

Certainly no profile in courage, Scott McClellan has nevertheless given us an honest account of his White House experience that revealed its meaning to him only upon later reflection, and for that we applaud him.

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