What happened? Deception vs. contempt
Carlton M. Caves
2008 May 30

Scott McClellan, Bush's former press secretary, has Washington abuzz with his memoir, "What Happened? Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception." McClellan reports that Bush is incurious and inflexible, that Rove and Libby and probably Cheney mislead him about their roles in the Plame leak case, that Cheney is a skillful behind-the-scenes operator who gets his way, that Condi Rice is a master at evading responsibility, that the Bush gang operates in full campaign mode at all times, spinning everything without regard for truth, that the gang sold us a bill of goods in the run-up to the Iraq war, that they bungled the response to Katrina, and that they are major contributors to the Washington's culture of deception, which was apparently a last-minute addition to the book's subtitle.

So what's new? This has all been obvious to anyone who was paying attention. The only thing that I would disagree with is that Bush and his gang are just participants in Washington's culture of deception. They are largely responsible for creating that culture and to debasing political discourse in America almost to the point of meaninglessness.

To give Scott his due, however, what is new is that these obvious truths are coming from a former insider in the Bush gang. Not a high-level insider, but somebody who was far enough inside to provide credible information about the Bush gang's operation. That he has hit home is revealed by the responses from his former White House colleagues. They're "disappointed" that this is "not the Scott we knew." They're "puzzled" that he is apparently "disgruntled." They suggest that he made up all the bad stuff just to sell his book and make a load of dough. None of this expresses even remotely what they really think, which is probably that Scott is the sort of person for whom they made up the designation of enemy combatant.

It certainly is true that this is not the Scott they knew. That Scott conducted pointless press briefings at which he, admittedly with some apparent pain, robotically parroted the Bush gang's nonsense. That Scott couldn't have written a book at all, unless it was dictated to him by the White House. It's hard to see how anyone could be surprised that he is disgruntled; the Bush gang treated him like a parrot and then, he having done the job they wanted, discarded him because the press's scorn had become so palpable that it looked like press briefings would have to be conducted remotely. And isn't is laughable to hear Republicans questioning the motives of somebody who wants to make money?

What's the bottom line? Scott is a sad case. He is going to be regarded with contempt by the left for his participation in the Bush gang and by the right for his betrayal of the gang. But he does deserve something marginally better than contempt. My guess is that he is not a particularly strong person and that as his time at the White House wound down and he was pushed aside, he realized, like a recovering cult member, how he had been mislead, used, and then tossed aside. His motives in writing the book are a mixture of confession, expiation, and revenge.

Despite these mixed motives, there is not much reason to question Scott's account. He had plenty of material to work with, and his account is quite consistent with what we already know about the players. For some reason, the White House apologists seem far more interested in questioning Scott's character and motivation than in denying what he reports. I suspect that we will be seeing more such memoirs over the next few years, as Bush staffers, deciding that belated truthfulness is better than none at all, especially if it can provide some ready cash, decide to expose Bush's dirty laundry before the market for dirt is saturated.

For Scott, earning the contempt of all sides is a step up from participating in the systematic deception he practiced at the White House. My view is that we should reserve the contempt for the Bush gang itself, preferring for Scott the less damning view that he is an utterly pathetic figure. He will need some big earnings from his book, because he's not going to find much of a welcome anywhere after his current run on the news shows. Still, I think he might have started himself on the road to redemption. Traveling that road provides a chance for him to grow up and be a productive member of society.

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