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In the Company of Liars

By Gene Mirabelli

What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception

By Scott McClellan

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.

“In 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.

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