the Company of Liars
Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture
Public Affairs Books, 341 pages, $27.95
It was as if Tom Sawyer, filled with his boyish sense of adventure,
had become pals with the president. Scott McClellan became
spokesman for George W. Bush just as Bush began his campaign
for the Oval Office. When the Supreme Court declared Bush
the winner, McClellan became a deputy press secretary and
eventually the president’s official spokesman.
The disillusioned end of his tenure began when he learned
he had been lied to in a big way by Lewis “Scooter” Libby,
former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, and White
House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, and had innocently
foisted the lie onto the press corps. The breaking point came
when he asked Bush if it was true that he had authorized a
leak of information from the ultra-classified National Intelligence
Estimate. “Yeah, I did,” Bush said. Then, while the disenchanted
McClellan was picking a date to shove off, he was pushed out.
McClellan had begun as Tom Sawyer but ended as Huck Finn—the
kid who knows the world is full of frauds and liars.
Readers hearing about What Happened may be tempted
to dismiss it, believing that McClellan can’t tell us anything
we don’t already know about Bush’s White House. And for the
broad facts, that’s mostly true. But this book isn’t intended
to be a chronicle of events. It’s a depiction of the forces
driving the White House and the ambiance of secrecy and lies
in which the administration works.
McClellan grew up in politics; his mother was a three-time
mayor of Austin, Texas. He loved the scramble of campaigning
and the rush of victory. But nothing prepared him for extraordinary
“permanent campaign” that dominates the Bush White House.
The attempt to shape perceptions and to motivate the masses
doesn’t stop on Election Day. As soon as the victor gets to
the Oval Office, he makes use of his heightened power to conduct
an even more forceful campaign.
In McClellan’s book, the greatest campaign of George W. Bush’s
career was not his run for the presidency, but his campaign
to invade Iraq. The president and his confederates had long
desired to throw themselves upon Saddam Hussein, and the events
of Sept. 11, 2001, gave them an opportunity to consummate
that desire. As McClellan says, “The script had been finalized
with great care over the summer, and now, September 2001,
was the time to begin carrying it out.” Andy Card, White House
Chief of Staff, put it succinctly: “From a marketing point
of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” The
methods were the methods of advertising; the product was war.
the fall of 2002, Bush and his White House were engaging in
a carefully orchestrated campaign to shape and manipulate
sources of public approval to our advantage,” McClellan tells
us. As for those vigilant guardians on whom we rely for information:
“Through it all, the media would serve as complicit enablers.
Their primary focus would be on covering the campaign to sell
the war, rather than aggressively questioning the rationale
for war or pursuing the truth behind it.”
Evidently, the Bush White House is a palace of secrets; even
as chief press secretary, McClellan sometimes found it difficult
to get the information he needed to do his job. Dark innuendo,
misleading statements and outright lies flourish in political
campaigns. And when the campaign becomes a permanent part
of the governing process, then deception—oh, let’s call it
lying—flourishes in government.
All’s fair in war, notes McClellan. “This ‘all’s fair’ attitude
now permeates political campaigns and has crossed excessively
into governing, especially when the stakes are high. Washington
has become a breeding ground for deception and a killing field
for truth,” he writes. And he was one of its victims.
Scott McClellan’s book is in some ways a memoir, which might
be called The Education of Scott McClellan. Maybe he
was a slow learner. Far too often he writes about the “Washington
environment” as if the president and his media manipulators
were helpless victims of something toxic in the air. They
weren’t. The author himself draws a very clear picture of
Bush—a man who thinks only briefly while tending to act on
his gut feelings—and his inner circle, composed of knowledgeable
people who defer to his judgments even when they know better.
McClellan will continue to be faulted for not quitting as
soon as he came to know the darker side of the White House.
These criticisms must come from people who never have felt
the inebriation of being at the center of great events, people
who have no sense of loyalty, no idea what it’s like to confront
power and to risk losing not only your place in the world
but also, in large measure, your identity. The worst that
can be said of Scott McClellan is that he wasn’t a hero. And
we need a few.