Notes from the former Bush White House Spokesman’s appearance in San Francisco
By Benjamin Wachs
Here’s what you want to know: Scott McClellan thinks that if Bush knew then how the war would turn out, he wouldn’t have done it. He thinks that many of Bush’s senior advisors (besides, you know, him …) don’t give the cause for going to war a second thought. He’s pretty sure – though he won’t swear – that they didn’t mean to mislead the public. It just kind of happened because they were in campaign mode.
And if you want to know any more, you’ll need to buy the book.
Scott McClellan’s address to the Commonwealth Club of California was billed as a political event, but in fact it was always a book signing. Appearing in the Grand Ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel his first words upon being introduced were “Thanks Bob, it’s great to be here in San Francisco” … and his demeanor was that of a game show host ready to unveil the first showcase.
Behind door #1 – Democracy undermined! Would you like to see what’s behind door #2?
Like any good PR shill, McClellan knew how to stay on message: During his 75 minutes speaking before the Commonwealth Club he mentioned the words “my book” or “the book” some 60 times (by my rough count). He didn’t mention dead American soldiers or Iraqi civilians at all.
The moral strain of all those years spent justifying so many unjustifiable corpses did not show on his face. Instead, he opened with a joke.
Karl Rove’s eventual book, McClellan suggested, should be titled “The Lies I told to Who and Why,” while Dick Cheney’s book should be called “I upped Halliburton’s income, so up yours!” and Scooter Libby’s: “Well pardon me!”
The crowd decided he was good at mocking people he'd defended for six years, and ate it up.
“I received plenty of criticism for daring to tell a story as I knew it and I lived it,” McClellan went on. But what he’s noticed is that the critics don’t try to debate him on the facts: “Instead they tried to turn it into a game of gotcha politics.”
I too share his outrage that a political memoir would be considered political.
The larger message of his book, he says – returning to the subject he’s never yet left – “is about encouraging candor to be restored to the political process and the national political discourse.”
“Unfortunately, most people tend to get caught up in this partisan culture. Government becomes an offshoot of campaigning.” That’s why he wrote a book - to fix a process he saw was broken while he was breaking it.
It takes a while, but eventually he stops talking about his book and starts talking about himself.
“A lot of people choose to get involved in politics. I was born into politics. When I was 4 years old my mother was elected to the Austin School Board, and by the time I was in the third grade she was the mayor of Austin.” She served an unprecedented 3 terms. His family was Democratic, and taught him the “importance of speaking up and doing what you believe is right in order to make a positive difference.” Eventually they became Republicans, but “came at things from a more centrist perspective.”
His granddad always used to say to him “It’s not the dollars you take, it’s the difference you make.”
I’ve never actually choked on Irony before. It's amazing that McClellan isn’t choking on it now. But he’s speaking with the enthusiasm of a man who believes we might find his story inspirational.
He points out why he, as a young man in his early 30s, would have first gone to work for Bush: At the time Bush was considered a bipartisan governor with a centrist streak. He had 70% approval ratings. But Bush learned all the wrong lessons from his father’s 1992 defeat.
Bush 41, McClellan admits, pulled out all the stops to pull Mike Dukakis down. But he stopped playing that game in favor of a more civil discourse once he got into office. Bush 43 decided that’s why his dad lost – because he eventually put the political side down in favor of governing.
McClellan served Bush Jr. in several senior communications positions before becoming White House Press Secretary in 2003. He says he noticed something was wrong at the time – the president was admitting to leaking classified documents, other Bush aids were lying to the public … stuff like that – but never really pieced it together until after his 2006 resignation.
“It was only after leaving the White House and I went about researching this … that I was able to realize” that the war was wrong “and be able to think clearly.”
If McClellan feels guilty it doesn’t come up. Instead he veers into a diagnoses of how politics could have gone so wrong as to make people like him possible. He’s the real victim here.
He speaks fast. Going over moral issues he sounds like a rural toastmaster addressing a Rotary Club eager to get to the roast beef. Like a tech executive going over a too familiar Powerpoint. And indeed, his analysis is stunningly unoriginal: all that time in the Bush White House only taught him what everybody already knew.
“The reason we could not sustain (bi-partisanship) was that we did not discuss the war with openness and candor,” he says as though quickly reading over the Value Menu at Wendy’s. You want fries with that because you can also have a baked potato. “It highlights a major problem about the way Washington governs today.” You can have a shake for only a dollar more. “In fact Karl Rove and Scooter Libby had been involved in that.” Thanks that’ll be right up did you want it to go? “That was very painful for me.” The ketchup is over by the napkins to your left.
Finally, after half an hour of this, he admits: “I certainly got caught up in this and share some of the blame.” Talk about burying the lead.
“When you get in Washington it’s easy to lose perspective on things. You get caught up in this bubble of the White House, of the partisan war in Washington D.C.. Writing this book was hard for me, and some of the conclusions I came to were not the ones I started with. I initially wanted to look at pointing responsibility elsewhere, but the responsibility lies with this President, lies with this White House, but I did not write this book because it’s an easy thing to say. I do not want us to repeat these mistakes.” Have you heard about our Value Meal? You can substitute one side for any other and get a giant tub of Coke.
The Question and Answer session comes, and the moderator eventually admits that he’s weeded all of the potentially hostile audience questions out. “They’re very passionate, these questions, and I’ve strained out the worst of them” he says.
Instead, McClellan is asked questions like these: Why did the White House want to go to war so badly? (They didn’t like Saddam Hussain: the president in particular “hates tyrants.”) How can the media do a better job covering the White House? (They must not be appropriated into the Washington Machine – an answer displaying so little self-knowledge that I momentarily think I’m looking at a ghost). What do you look for in a president? (He wants specific answers on how the current candidates will handle Iraq and change the Washington culture). How did you find the courage to write this book? (OH COME ON!)
After the final softball is pitched the session closes with an announcement that books are for sale and McClellan will autograph anyone’s volume if they’ll just line up. For him, everything’s clearly ended on a high note.
My question, submitted in writing, was never answered: “Does your ability to keep a straight face while criticizing others for the culture of Washington represent the death of shame in our society?”
I still want his answer.