The Skimmer: Scott McClellan's What Happened

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Given the barrage of publicity and outrage that it has generated in the last day, you know what you're in for before you even crack the spine of What Happened, Scott McClellan's memoir of his nearly three years as George W. Bush's press secretary. It's not necessarily surprising that McClellan critiques his former co-workers. But the candor, anger and overall disappointment with which McClellan discusses President Bush and his policies is particularly surprising from someone previously presumed to be the most faithful of aides. On the fifth page of the preface McClellan bluntly writes, "History appears poised to confirm what most Americans today have decided — that the decision to invade Iraq was a serious strategic blunder." That blunder, he continues, was one propagated by a "political propaganda machine" that misled the public on the reasons for war with Iraq.

A lifelong politico and son of the first female mayor of Austin, Texas, McClellan joined the Bush team in 1999. At the time, he believed the bipartisan Texas governor might be "a leader who could make us believe...[that] we could change the destructive dynamic that dominated [Washington]." He tried his best to brush aside anything that might contradict that belief. Yet during the 2000 campaign, he was startled at Bush's ability at self-deception. When questions arose about whether the candidate had ever used cocaine in his past, Bush tells McClellan that he just doesn't remember. "How can that be?" McClellan writes. "How can someone simply not remember whether or not they used an illegal substance like cocaine? It didn't make a lot of sense. It's the first time when I felt I was witnessing Bush convincing himself to believe something that probably was not true and that, deep down, he knew was not true. And his reason for doing so is fairly obvious: political convenience."

For someone whose chief job was spinning the press, McClellan seems surprisingly troubled by the way that politics dominates everyday governance. He claims to be especially concerned by the prevalence and toxicity of the "permanent campaign," where politics trumps policy on every issue. The architect of this was, of course, Karl Rove, whom McClellan praises in a variety off backhanded ways. "Karl Rove is not the problem," he writes. "Karl Rove did not create the excesses of the permanent campaign. Rather, the excesses of the permanent campaign created Karl Rove."

McClellan writes his share about White House personalities such as Dick Cheney ("the magic man") and Condoleezza Rice ("I was struck by how deft she is at protecting her reputation"). But the bulk of analysis is aimed at the top dog. "President Bush has always been an instinctive leader more than an intellectual leader," he notes. "He chooses based on his gut."

Much of his venom is saved for those involved in the Valerie Plame affair. He accuses Rove and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, of misleading him about their role in the scandal, which caused him to effectively lie to the press. When the truth comes out, he receives a whipping at the hands of the White House reporters. "I could feel something fall out of me into the abyss as each reporter took a turn whacking me," he writes. "It was my reputation crumbling away, bit by bit. And my affection for the job eventually followed it."

It's telling that the Secret Service code name for the press secretary was "Matrix." As McClellan notes, a large part of his job was — much like the villains in the Keanu Reeves film — to project the reality the White House wished the world to see, regardless of whether it actually existed.