GOOD READ: The hottest book in town is Scott McClellan’s expose of the George W. Bush White House. I had a hard time finding a copy this week but managed to snag one at Chaucer’s.
Not so highly in demand is Sally Bedell Smith’s unfriendly look at the trials and tribulations of the Clinton White House.
Despite the headlines, McClellan’s is not a nonstop Bush-basher. True, Bush’s former press secretary-PR man to be more accurate-nails the president for abandoning “candor and honesty” while pulling out all the stops in his use of propaganda to sell what McClellan terms an “unnecessary war.”
Bush’s fellow Texan stops just short of calling the man he once virtually worshipped a liar. In What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, McClellan, who also worked for Bush when he was governor of Texas, cuts his former boss plenty of slack and throws more praise his way than many of his critics do.
In For the Love of Politics, Washington journalist Smith paints a picture of a Clinton administration equally reckless with the truth at times, although avoiding Bush’s major mistake: going to war. (“Bill lied but no one died,” as the saying went after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.)
McClellan’s book is laden with the sadness of a man talking about his fallen idol. “I thought the mentality of political manipulation had been largely the creation of our predecessors in the Clinton White House and that the leader I placed great hope in, George W. Bush, was dead set on changing it. He chose not to do so. Instead, his own White House became embroiled in political maneuvering that was equally unsavory, if not worse, much of it related directly to his most consequential decision as president-the decision to invade Iraq.
“Just as the Clinton presidency had done when it came to questionable activity, we perpetuated the endless investigations and scandals we’d vowed to move beyond by engaging in spin, stonewalling, hedging, evasion, denial, noncommunication and deceit by omission.”
Case in point: the infamous “16 words” in a Bush State of the Union address, where he claimed, “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” That hyped up the call for war, and was not only false, but some in the administration knew it, having sent former ambassador Joe Wilson over to Niger, where he reported that the rumor was based on forged documents. Bush was apparently left out of the loop on that.
When Wilson pointed the falsehood out in an op-ed piece, the White House attacked him and outed his wife, Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA agent. That was a crime, and after many denials all around, Vice President Dick Cheney’s right-hand man, Scooter Libby, was sentenced to prison for lying about it. Bush promptly commuted his sentence, saving him from prison, an act McClellan criticizes as demeaning to the legal process.
Perhaps McClellan’s most surprising revelation is that Bush’s apparent main reason to go to war in Iraq was his “idealistic post-9/11 vision of transforming the Middle East through the spread of freedom.” Of course, he also had no use for Saddam Hussein, and there was always the matter of oil.
But as McClellan points out, the White House couldn’t ask the American people to send their children to give their lives to bring democracy to a region that never had it, wasn’t ready for it, and perhaps didn’t even want it. Enter WMD: Hussein and the imaginary nuclear weapons threat.
McClellan, not surprisingly, is taking a beating for blowing the whistle on his former boss and his associates. The ironic thing, however, is that most of the nation knew all this Bush administration monkey business, or strongly suspected it. McClellan is also taking heat for standing by while all the lies and propaganda were being passed around. Why didn’t he protest or just quit?
McClellan’s excuse: He got taken in just as the rest of us were. He was lied to about who leaked Plame’s secret ID to the press, among other things. And, to his everlasting regret, he unknowingly passed on the lies to the nation.
“What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary and the Iraq war was not. Waging an unnecessary war is a grave mistake. But in reflecting on all that happened during the Bush administration, I’ve come to believe that an even more fundamental mistake was made-a decision to turn away from candor and honesty when those qualities were most needed.”
McClellan also blames the national media, which, by emphasizing “conflict, controversy and negativity,” ignores the larger issues. The so-called “liberal media” in fact was too easy on the Republican president and deferential to his administration and became “complicit enablers” of Bush’s strategy, McClellan charges.
If Bush did not learn important lessons from Clinton’s mistakes, will the next administration do better?