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.
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 email@example.com.