By Scott McClellan
PublicAffairs, 341 pages, $27.95
FROM JULY 15, 2003, until April 26, 2006, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, told the world what the Bush administration thought the world needed to know about the Bush administration—and not much more. To the job of representing a White House disinclined toward openness, Mr. McClellan brought a kind of hapless obstinacy. He seemed incapable of anything beyond duly repeating the day’s talking points, so he didn’t garner a lot of respect. When the title of his new memoir, What Happened, began to circulate, it evoked a fair amount of snickering in Washington. Reporters wanting to find out what happened knew that Mr. McClellan was usually the last to know.
White House press secretaries tend to fall into two categories. Some, like Bill Clinton’s former spokesman Mike McCurry, strive to be seen as empathetic champions of the press corps. Others, like Mr. McClellan’s predecessor, Ari Fleischer, are antagonists who prefer to bully and spar. But Mr. McClellan possessed neither Mr. McCurry’s touch nor Mr. Fleischer’s combativeness, and he had the misfortune to hold the job during a period when the White House’s reputation went into steep decline. So he pioneered a third approach, one as painful to watch as it must have been to perform: that of the press secretary as guileless simp. Day after day, he stood before the podium, his brow knit and shiny with perspiration, blinking helplessly as he absorbed abuse over everything from the latest incoherencies about the war in Iraq to the Valerie Plame scandal to the fallout from Hurricane Katrina. For the Bush White House, Scott McClellan was the functional equivalent of a rodeo clown.
A large part of what’s so startling about his book—the reason it caused such a squall last week—is that until this sudden eruption, Mr. McClellan was presumed to have been aware of his status and O.K. with it. The controversy has been framed as an issue of loyalty, but it’s really about class. Mr. McClellan seemed to belong to that species of Republican operative content to get by on patronage, a party man who accepted subservience and the loss of personal dignity in exchange for the certainty of a comfortable spot in the conservative sphere.
Instead of the Bush hagiography that a proper functionary would have produced, Mr. McClellan has delivered a flawed jeremiad against his former colleagues that’s noteworthy mainly for the entertaining spectacle of the faithful hound biting his master’s hand. But for all the hype on cable news shows and blogs, What Happened adds almost nothing of value to the historical record. It’s a tangle of competing impulses: a confused and unconvincing memoir that aims to excuse (but never explains) its author’s toadying past; a series of flailing attempts to settle scores; a lament over what Mr. McClellan calls the “Washington game” and how it led to a war he helped sell but now opposes; and an undergraduate-level analysis of the “permanent campaign” mind-set that prevails in Washington—and has, in fact, for the past 30 years, though Mr. McClellan seems to have only just discovered the idea. More than anything, the book is a plea for reconsideration that seeks to win back for its author a few shreds of the dignity that he spent such stubborn effort sacrificing. It’s the work of a shallow man impelled, finally, to stand up for himself.
PROPERLY EXECUTED, the White House memoir is an art form crafted according to a carefully established set of rules. The protagonist must present himself as having arrived in Washington a naif, come only to serve president and country. He may include formative episodes that establish his purity and strength of character. Mr. McClellan writes that while attending the University of Texas, he resigned as president of Sigma Phi Epsilon to protest the fraternity’s practice of hazing pledges.
When the author turns to his main business, he must do three things: convincingly initiate his readers into the innermost sanctum of power; provide a compelling account of the pulse-quickening intrigue he witnessed there; and above all confirm the intuition that the major players in government, those powerful-but-distant figures known only from newspapers and television, are in fact hopelessly flawed and weird—prone to consulting astrologers, perhaps, or holding séances with Eleanor Roosevelt’s ghost—dismissible, in short, for deeply embarrassing reasons. You have to show a little leg.
Along the way, it’s permissible to take credit for a memorable presidential initiative or turn of phrase in a notable speech. Here’s Mr. McClellan’s bid for history: He claims to have convinced Mr. Bush to add “apparent” when the president told the country, after the second plane hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, that the United States was under terrorist attack.
Mr. McClellan more or less understands the rules of the genre and tries to abide by them. But he quickly runs into trouble. He’s hamstrung by the fact of who he was. As the loyal shill, he never challenged anyone, so he didn’t develop any Rumsfeld/Powell-style rivalries with major figures that might be exploited in a book. He didn’t witness any high-level intrigue because he didn’t possess sufficient stature to attend those kinds of meetings. Mr. McClellan proudly recounts every pat on the head he received from a big player, but he gleaned his insight into their decisions and actions in the same way as everybody else: from Bob Woodward’s books.