Commentary Magazine


Topic: Scott McClellan

The Real Lessons

David Frum posits, correctly I think, that the real lesson of Scott McClellan is that Presidents shouldn’t surround themselves with incompetent lackeys and foster a sense of blind personal loyalty. That’s something upon which both conservatives and liberals can agree. But of course, we didn’t need McClellan to write about that–he was that. (And if you entirely change your book pitch from “Bush was a pretty ok guy” to “They were all liars” to please your left-wing book publisher, you deserve to have bipartisan contempt hurled your way.)

While we are learning (or re-learning) lessons about the Bush administration, I think refusing to listen to military experts, adjusting to new facts, and acknowledging reality should rank fairly high. Given the current status of Iraq and Al Qaeda, maybe Barack Obama shouldn’t be tossing around phrases like: “We don’t need more leaders who can’t admit they made a mistake.” That seems destined to wind up in a John McCain campaign ad. For now the McCain camp responds that:

Barack Obama has never once said that neglecting to meet one on one with General David Petraeus or that neglecting to visit Iraq in 874 days was a mistake. The issue is: Barack Obama’s inaction appears to be a refusal to see or even consider the reported successes with the ‘Surge’ in Iraq – and that is a major mistake he should admit to.

And from a less biased source: the Washington Post, after pointing to the substantial gains in Iraq, suggests that the new facts “ought to mandate an already-overdue rethinking by the ‘this-war-is-lost” caucus in Washington, including Sen. Barack Obama.” After all, we know the perils of a President who is slow to recognize new facts and adjust accordingly.

David Frum posits, correctly I think, that the real lesson of Scott McClellan is that Presidents shouldn’t surround themselves with incompetent lackeys and foster a sense of blind personal loyalty. That’s something upon which both conservatives and liberals can agree. But of course, we didn’t need McClellan to write about that–he was that. (And if you entirely change your book pitch from “Bush was a pretty ok guy” to “They were all liars” to please your left-wing book publisher, you deserve to have bipartisan contempt hurled your way.)

While we are learning (or re-learning) lessons about the Bush administration, I think refusing to listen to military experts, adjusting to new facts, and acknowledging reality should rank fairly high. Given the current status of Iraq and Al Qaeda, maybe Barack Obama shouldn’t be tossing around phrases like: “We don’t need more leaders who can’t admit they made a mistake.” That seems destined to wind up in a John McCain campaign ad. For now the McCain camp responds that:

Barack Obama has never once said that neglecting to meet one on one with General David Petraeus or that neglecting to visit Iraq in 874 days was a mistake. The issue is: Barack Obama’s inaction appears to be a refusal to see or even consider the reported successes with the ‘Surge’ in Iraq – and that is a major mistake he should admit to.

And from a less biased source: the Washington Post, after pointing to the substantial gains in Iraq, suggests that the new facts “ought to mandate an already-overdue rethinking by the ‘this-war-is-lost” caucus in Washington, including Sen. Barack Obama.” After all, we know the perils of a President who is slow to recognize new facts and adjust accordingly.

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Multilateral Math

192 + 27 = 2.4 million.

There are 192 countries in the United Nations.

It has been 27 days since a cyclone devastated Burma.

2.4 million homeless and hungry are denied aid by the Burmese junta.

78,000 people are dead.

56,000 are missing.

This is shameful math. Where did all the body-count-ghouls with their Iraq War tallies disappear to? Why are these humanitarian activists now silent in the face of such overwhelming human tragedy? They seem, frankly, distracted. When a coalition of democracies liberated millions from from tyranny the rest of the world counted corpses. When a military dictatorship starves its population, all eyes are on a disgraced former White House Press Secretary.

The AP reports that the junta is now forcing cyclone victims to leave their shelters without food or supplies. UNICEF official Teh Tai Ring says, “The government is moving people unannounced . . . dumping people in the approximate location of the villages, basically with nothing.” With 2.4 million homeless roaming the ravaged land, the Burmese government has “declared that the relief phase of the rescue effort had been concluded.”

Hey, McClellan says Bush rushed into war, you know.

Aid groups report that that the junta is still blocking foreign aid from getting to victims, even though it promised UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon that travel restrictions would be lifted.

Did you hear that McClellan talks about Bush talking about cocaine?

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “The military leaders surely know that foreign aid will save lives and help to rebuild the devastated areas. But they also fear the political consequences of opening up the disaster zone to international aid teams. This might show up their own incapability, and undermine their credibility and legitimacy.”

The important thing, after all, is that the U.S. didn’t go in there like the world’s police and try to force American values and institutions on a sovereign nation. And anyway, things will probably turn out fine because UN official Terje Skavdal said that the forced exposure of the refugees is “completely unacceptable.”

(Here is some more shameful math: Scott McClellan’s book is a number one bestseller.)

192 + 27 = 2.4 million.

There are 192 countries in the United Nations.

It has been 27 days since a cyclone devastated Burma.

2.4 million homeless and hungry are denied aid by the Burmese junta.

78,000 people are dead.

56,000 are missing.

This is shameful math. Where did all the body-count-ghouls with their Iraq War tallies disappear to? Why are these humanitarian activists now silent in the face of such overwhelming human tragedy? They seem, frankly, distracted. When a coalition of democracies liberated millions from from tyranny the rest of the world counted corpses. When a military dictatorship starves its population, all eyes are on a disgraced former White House Press Secretary.

The AP reports that the junta is now forcing cyclone victims to leave their shelters without food or supplies. UNICEF official Teh Tai Ring says, “The government is moving people unannounced . . . dumping people in the approximate location of the villages, basically with nothing.” With 2.4 million homeless roaming the ravaged land, the Burmese government has “declared that the relief phase of the rescue effort had been concluded.”

Hey, McClellan says Bush rushed into war, you know.

Aid groups report that that the junta is still blocking foreign aid from getting to victims, even though it promised UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon that travel restrictions would be lifted.

Did you hear that McClellan talks about Bush talking about cocaine?

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “The military leaders surely know that foreign aid will save lives and help to rebuild the devastated areas. But they also fear the political consequences of opening up the disaster zone to international aid teams. This might show up their own incapability, and undermine their credibility and legitimacy.”

The important thing, after all, is that the U.S. didn’t go in there like the world’s police and try to force American values and institutions on a sovereign nation. And anyway, things will probably turn out fine because UN official Terje Skavdal said that the forced exposure of the refugees is “completely unacceptable.”

(Here is some more shameful math: Scott McClellan’s book is a number one bestseller.)

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The Story Is Only as Good as the Witness

It would have been nice had Peggy Noonan tried harder to answer her query (“Is it true?”) about Scott McClellan’s book. She acknowledges that the storyteller has some significant credibility problems, but shushes those who criticize him. She then seems to conclude the book is nevertheless “true.” (There’s quite a bit of “if he thought it or felt it, it has truth” which suggests that, unfortunately, post-modernism has become endemic.)

Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, but I think that when the credibility of the witness is damaged because of bias, motive to lie, or lack of first-hand facts (or all of these), there is reason to believe the story isn’t true. There are a few core problems with McClellan’s telling, which others more knowledgeable than I about the inner workings of the Bush White House have pointed to, contemporaneous contradictory comments and lack of access being two of the major ones. Hint #1: a telltale sign of a hyped story about supposed misdeeds is use of provocative language (“propaganda”) in lieu of details about who, what, where, and when untruths allegedly were concocted. Hint#2: when the book changes fundamentally between the “proposal and publication” under the tutelage of a left-wing book publisher you can bet, like that infamous British intelligence report, it got “sexed up” a bit.

So rather than hush the skeptics, maybe we should consider their point: the storyteller is an unreliable witness. (And if forced to swallow truth serum, the reporters–the ones who covered the White House–who are now fawning over McClellan would tell us they doubt he was keyed into the major players and key conversations which would substantiate his claims.)

As to the generic venom and clichéd observations (Dick Cheney was powerful! Who’d have thought?):those didn’t take a percipient witness. They could have been drafted by George Soros. (Maybe they were.)

It would have been nice had Peggy Noonan tried harder to answer her query (“Is it true?”) about Scott McClellan’s book. She acknowledges that the storyteller has some significant credibility problems, but shushes those who criticize him. She then seems to conclude the book is nevertheless “true.” (There’s quite a bit of “if he thought it or felt it, it has truth” which suggests that, unfortunately, post-modernism has become endemic.)

Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, but I think that when the credibility of the witness is damaged because of bias, motive to lie, or lack of first-hand facts (or all of these), there is reason to believe the story isn’t true. There are a few core problems with McClellan’s telling, which others more knowledgeable than I about the inner workings of the Bush White House have pointed to, contemporaneous contradictory comments and lack of access being two of the major ones. Hint #1: a telltale sign of a hyped story about supposed misdeeds is use of provocative language (“propaganda”) in lieu of details about who, what, where, and when untruths allegedly were concocted. Hint#2: when the book changes fundamentally between the “proposal and publication” under the tutelage of a left-wing book publisher you can bet, like that infamous British intelligence report, it got “sexed up” a bit.

So rather than hush the skeptics, maybe we should consider their point: the storyteller is an unreliable witness. (And if forced to swallow truth serum, the reporters–the ones who covered the White House–who are now fawning over McClellan would tell us they doubt he was keyed into the major players and key conversations which would substantiate his claims.)

As to the generic venom and clichéd observations (Dick Cheney was powerful! Who’d have thought?):those didn’t take a percipient witness. They could have been drafted by George Soros. (Maybe they were.)

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Bringing People Together

From the Left, the Right, and a number of Scott McClellan’s former colleagues we have agreement: if you’re going to betray your former employer, it is best to have been more capable yourself and to have spoken out when there was not a book deal at issue. Perhaps the most telling comment comes from David Gregory, one of McClellan’s chief antagonists, who finds it hard to believe that McClellan was even in the loop. (I am confident that, in a secret ballot election by the White House press corps, McClellan wouldn’t win any votes for the “most knowledgeable and connected press secretary in our time.”)

Despite the diverse criticism of McClellan, it appears that much of the news media (the same crowd that thought McClellan an ineffective bumbler at the time) is infatuated with the story because it is another excuse to trot out the “Bush lied, people died” mantra. (There is an occasional note of skepticism, and even a willingness to recite McClellan’s own words castigating Richard Clarke for his similar tell-all indictment.) And surely if the issue for the election in November is “Should George W. Bush get a third term?”, it’s curtains for the GOP. But the McCain team is trying its best to make the election about Barack Obama’s experience, knowledge, and judgment. And they have had some success in getting the media to focus on how much Obama knows and how ready he is to be commander-in-chief. We have seen lately that when Obama talks about his own positions on issues or his own version of reality, things can get rather dicey. So no doubt his media cheerleaders would be delighted to go back to talking about McClellan’s book.

From the Left, the Right, and a number of Scott McClellan’s former colleagues we have agreement: if you’re going to betray your former employer, it is best to have been more capable yourself and to have spoken out when there was not a book deal at issue. Perhaps the most telling comment comes from David Gregory, one of McClellan’s chief antagonists, who finds it hard to believe that McClellan was even in the loop. (I am confident that, in a secret ballot election by the White House press corps, McClellan wouldn’t win any votes for the “most knowledgeable and connected press secretary in our time.”)

Despite the diverse criticism of McClellan, it appears that much of the news media (the same crowd that thought McClellan an ineffective bumbler at the time) is infatuated with the story because it is another excuse to trot out the “Bush lied, people died” mantra. (There is an occasional note of skepticism, and even a willingness to recite McClellan’s own words castigating Richard Clarke for his similar tell-all indictment.) And surely if the issue for the election in November is “Should George W. Bush get a third term?”, it’s curtains for the GOP. But the McCain team is trying its best to make the election about Barack Obama’s experience, knowledge, and judgment. And they have had some success in getting the media to focus on how much Obama knows and how ready he is to be commander-in-chief. We have seen lately that when Obama talks about his own positions on issues or his own version of reality, things can get rather dicey. So no doubt his media cheerleaders would be delighted to go back to talking about McClellan’s book.

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The Hackiest Hack of All

Is there a single person–Republican, Democrat, Independent–who thinks that Scott McClellan was an able or skilled White House spokesman? Is there any member of the press who thought he was good at his job? What makes the notion of his tell-all book so ludicrous is that McClellan is surely the most incompetent and least trustworthy White House press flack since Ron Ziegler. His stonewall visage and his smarmy, resentful, and unmemorable responses seemed to exude evasion and incomplete information. Based on the snippets from Drudge and Politico, the book seems to be filled to the brim with the most hackneyed, pseudo-pious notions about how the administration was not “open and forthright,” or how he had been “at best misled” by his West Wing bosses or how the White House was “in a state of denial.” At one point, accusing Rove and Libby of secretly coordinating their statements during the Plame investigation, he mentions, in passing, that he reached this conclusion because he saw them talking, but never heard what they talked about. McClellan apparently spends a lot of time complaining that he didn’t know what was going on, or was lied to by others–and yet he has the temerity to call his (probably ghostwritten) book What Happened. Larry Speakes wrote a book, too, I guess. This deserves the same place in history.

Is there a single person–Republican, Democrat, Independent–who thinks that Scott McClellan was an able or skilled White House spokesman? Is there any member of the press who thought he was good at his job? What makes the notion of his tell-all book so ludicrous is that McClellan is surely the most incompetent and least trustworthy White House press flack since Ron Ziegler. His stonewall visage and his smarmy, resentful, and unmemorable responses seemed to exude evasion and incomplete information. Based on the snippets from Drudge and Politico, the book seems to be filled to the brim with the most hackneyed, pseudo-pious notions about how the administration was not “open and forthright,” or how he had been “at best misled” by his West Wing bosses or how the White House was “in a state of denial.” At one point, accusing Rove and Libby of secretly coordinating their statements during the Plame investigation, he mentions, in passing, that he reached this conclusion because he saw them talking, but never heard what they talked about. McClellan apparently spends a lot of time complaining that he didn’t know what was going on, or was lied to by others–and yet he has the temerity to call his (probably ghostwritten) book What Happened. Larry Speakes wrote a book, too, I guess. This deserves the same place in history.

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Rove’s Unused Gift

Mike Gerson, David Frum, Carl Cannon, and many others have offered their view of how history will judge Karl Rove’s contribution as political strategist and White House aide. All of them overlook what was perhaps Rove’s greatest—and least utilized—skill: explaining and advocating the Administration’s policies. Since the outset, the Bush White House has done a terrible job of defending itself in public. On political talk shows, Republican spokesmen were as likely to criticize the White House as they were their Democratic counterparts. Too often Scott McClellan, the ineffective White House spokesman, was the only voice making the case for the Administration. (By the time the far savvier Tony Snow arrived, most people had stopped listening.)

It was a stunning failure of imagination not to have given Rove a more prominent role as White House spokesman, and instead to have dispatched him to endless party-building activities. Rove was not merely a master of policy detail, but a compelling and persuasive debater. Democrats who saw him merely as a Republican James Carville never saw him speak before an audience. While Carville could deliver only partisan hyperbole, Rove was especially effective in front of skeptical audiences, whom he mesmerized with cool but passionate presentations of facts, history, and data. A year ago I saw him receive a standing ovation at the hyper-liberal Aspen Festival of Ideas. When he spoke there this year, making what sounded like an irrefutable case for the surge in Iraq, one of the prominent locals stood up and asked: “Why haven’t we heard these arguments before?” Why indeed.

Mike Gerson, David Frum, Carl Cannon, and many others have offered their view of how history will judge Karl Rove’s contribution as political strategist and White House aide. All of them overlook what was perhaps Rove’s greatest—and least utilized—skill: explaining and advocating the Administration’s policies. Since the outset, the Bush White House has done a terrible job of defending itself in public. On political talk shows, Republican spokesmen were as likely to criticize the White House as they were their Democratic counterparts. Too often Scott McClellan, the ineffective White House spokesman, was the only voice making the case for the Administration. (By the time the far savvier Tony Snow arrived, most people had stopped listening.)

It was a stunning failure of imagination not to have given Rove a more prominent role as White House spokesman, and instead to have dispatched him to endless party-building activities. Rove was not merely a master of policy detail, but a compelling and persuasive debater. Democrats who saw him merely as a Republican James Carville never saw him speak before an audience. While Carville could deliver only partisan hyperbole, Rove was especially effective in front of skeptical audiences, whom he mesmerized with cool but passionate presentations of facts, history, and data. A year ago I saw him receive a standing ovation at the hyper-liberal Aspen Festival of Ideas. When he spoke there this year, making what sounded like an irrefutable case for the surge in Iraq, one of the prominent locals stood up and asked: “Why haven’t we heard these arguments before?” Why indeed.

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