Thursday, May 29, 2008

Who Wants Kool-Aid?

The reaction to Scott McClellan’s tell-all book has been loud if not predictable. The White House took the high road, calling it “sad” and “puzzling,” and they got that talking point out to all the surrogates to the point that you could run the clips of Karl Rove, Dan Bartlett, and Dana Perino side by side and they were all in sync. (Mr. Bartlett got a bit het up, calling it total crap, but he had cooled off by the time he got on TV.) This does prove that while the Bush White House can’t get their act together to come to the rescue of a city destroyed by a hurricane, they can muster the troops to defend their boss and exact political revenge with all the force and efficiency of the Delta Force. Suddenly Scott McClellan, who was praised as a great press secretary and defended to the end by the entire White House, is now painted as “disgruntled” and “out of the loop,” and there’s an air of mystery as to whether or not this is the same man who stood at the podium in the press room all those years, and there’s whispers that the FBI is checking the White House basement for pods.

The right wing blogosphere has gone into full blast mode, accusing Mr. McClellan of everything from treason to indecent conduct with barnyard creatures, and there is probably some faction of the Orcosphere that is busily trying to figure out a way to blame this on the Clintons or Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

The big question that everyone on both sides is asking is why Mr. McClellan waited until two years after he left the White House to come forward? Why, if he had qualms about the way the White House sold the case for the Iraq war, or torpedoed the Plames, or ran a permanent election campaign out of the West Wing, did he keep silent? Why didn’t he speak truth to power when he had the chance?

The answer is pretty simple: Mr. McClellan knew what would happen. He had seen — and participated in — the trashing of those who had left the Bush White House and ratted them out to an eager press. He had seen what had happened to former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill and security adviser Richard Clarke. So it’s no surprise that he waited until he had all his defenses ready and his publisher behind him (not to mention the advance check in the bank). I also can’t help but think that there’s a personal vendetta at work here. Mr. McClellan will undoubtedly say that he came forward now because he felt the country deserved to know the truth, but this is also someone who worked in the Bush administration and with people like Karl Rove even before they came to the White House in 2001, so he learned that the first thing you look out for is yourself and get the maximum revenge when you can. Mr. McClellan’s clumsily-engineered “resignation” from the White House in April 2006 at the behest of Chief of Staff Josh Bolten probably still rankles, so this is personal payback. The rest is just icing on the cake.

The Democrats, meanwhile, are trying to do what they can to tie this all to John McCain. That shouldn’t be too hard; after all, he fell hard and fast for the propaganda about the Iraq war and he’s still out there selling it. As much as Sen. McCain tries to delicately extricate himself from the Bush web — happy to have the president fund-raise for him as long as no one knows about it — he’s probably bracing himself for the excerpt from the book where the White House staff chortles about having suckered Mr. McCain into being their complete toady.

In the historical perspective, every White House generates these kinds of books. The right wingers were all over the books from disgruntled FBI agents who served in the Clinton White House, and there’s a library of books going back to the point where someone wrote a disgruntled insider’s account about the life of George and Martha Washington. I still think that Mr. McClellan’s book and the surrounding tempest will be forgotten by the Fourth of July: to update Andy Warhol, everyone will be famous for 30 gigabytes. If it’s not, I hope that the focus will be not on the personal quirks and foibles — we all know that Mr. Bush is shallow and concerned only with his legacy — but on the legacy of incompetence and cynicism that comes when the only thing a president or his administration cares about is getting into power and keeping a hold on it rather than serving the whole country.