Mr. McClellan’s only personal experience of any consequence was being lied to by Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, whom he infamously, and falsely, claimed were not involved in exposing Valerie Plame’s identity. Mr. McClellan spends entire chapters painstakingly recounting their mendacity and its effects, and on this point he’s convincing. But that particular flagrancy has been well known for years; all that’s new is the first-person testimony of the stooge who now realizes he was played for a fool and bitterly resents it.
Mr. McClellan performs tremendous feats of capework to try and distract from this simple truth, mainly by making the juicy charges you’ve already heard and read about: that the Bush administration misled the country into war and that the president is vacuous and mean; that Messrs. Rove and Libby conspired to cover up criminal behavior in the Plame scandal; and that Mr. Bush may have used cocaine in his drinking days. In a desperate attempt to add ballast, Mr. McClellan quotes eminent scholars; solemnly invokes the great “granite heads” of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln on Mount Rushmore; and even reaches for the most shopworn of Washington clichés, quoting Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
The other big problem with What Happened is Mr. McClellan’s failure to credibly account for his belated volte-face. Why didn’t he speak up sooner? If he doubted the “propaganda campaign” and the war it launched, then why not resign in protest? This is, after all, a man who quit Sig Ep because drunken freshmen were being paddled—yet he chose to remain in the White House until his ineptitude violated even the perilously low standards of the Bush administration and he was shown the door.
MR. MCCLELLAN CLAIMS that his principles are intact. “Although the things I said then were sincere,” he writes, “I have since come to realize that some of them were badly misguided.” As luck would have it, the important realizations about the nature of the Bush administration’s rush to war that form the centerpiece of his book arrived only after he left the White House, in the same way, it seems, that a grown man may suddenly recall some lon
g-repressed childhood trauma.
Therefore, every attack must have its pallid qualifier. “Eventually, long after leaving the White House, I came to see that …”; “Only today do I fully appreciate…”; “Upon reflection …” Mr. McClellan’s claims have the collective weight of the defendant’s contrition in the moments before the judge imposes a harsh sentence. And, really to distill the gall, he’s granite-headed enough to charge the media with being “complicit enablers” in the march to war. One need only recall who was doing the spinning and propagandizing (ineptly, yes, but still) to weigh the merit of this claim.
If you happened to catch Mr. McClellan on the Today show last week, or making the rounds on cable, you may have recognized the familiar panicked stare as he sat stammering before his inquisitor and tried vainly to get back to his talking points: He’s not an ingrate but a penitent; the book is about his “loyalty to the truth”; he’s gravely concerned about “the permanent campaign” and its ruinous effect on administrations and reputations. Here’s the kicker: The book really is supposed to be about all that. The signs are everywhere (press secretaries repeat their main points ad nauseam). But Scott McClellan remains true to his deepest qualities: He has once again botched the job.
“History appears poised to confirm what most Americans today have decided—that the decision to invade Iraq was a serious strategic blunder,” he writes. “No one, including me, can know with absolute certainty how the war will be viewed decades from now. …” That subtle elevation of himself (“including me”) as one exercising Kissingerian heft on weighty matters of state is Mr. McClellan’s true intent. The attacks on the war and the president were never his primary purpose: They were simply the price laid down to launch a stature-enhancing tome that would finally win its author redemption and statesmanlike presence. But just like the last time, everything is going horribly wrong. As he miserably absorbs this latest fusillade, you can bet that Scott McClellan still has no idea what’s happening. Poor guy. He’s not Arthur Schlesinger, or even Richard Clarke. He’s Rodney Dangerfield—and respect is further away than ever.
Joshua Green is a senior editor of The Atlantic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.