- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 3, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

His former allies are ready to throw him to the wolves while one-time adversaries are saying that his words prove that their criticisms of the Bush administration were right all along.

To paraphrase that sage philosopher Oliver Hardy: What a fine mess Scott McClellan has gotten himself into.

His revelatory - and surprisingly enjoyable - memoir is really three books in one: Part exercise in reputation management, part political kiss-and-tell and part Capraesque screed to more accountable government.

Though Mr. McClellan is not as deep a thinker or as graceful a literary stylist as other former presidential aides, such as Harry McPherson (LBJ) or William Safire (Nixon), his book shines an important light on events of one of the most controversial periods in political history.

The decision-making and policy-execution processes of the Bush administration come in for withering criticism in “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.” But the former White House press secretary is not afraid to look in the mirror when finding fault.

Mr. McClellan, who worked for Mr. Bush since he was governor of Texas, regrets not having spoken up when those at higher pay grades devised what he now sees as dishonest approaches to selling the war to the American people. He said the strategy did not involve “employing out-and-out deception but shading the truth; downplaying the major reason for going to war and emphasizing a lesser motivation that could arguably be dealt with in other ways.”

One senses that the big decisions were often made above his pay grade and he was reduced to carrying out strategies for disseminating information that he strongly suspected would hurt the administration’s standing with the public.

When other press secretaries were faced with having to defend a policy they disagreed with - such as Jerald terHorst under President Ford - they resigned. Mr. McClellan stayed though he was not at all successful in saving the Bush administration from itself.

One of the reasons Mr. McClellan, and other well-meaning aides, couldn’t prevent some of these mistakes is President Bush’s personality. His stubbornness and lack of intellectual curiosity, coupled with a fixed world view not often subject to persuasion, is a difficult combination.

Although Mr. McClellan likes the president personally and sees him as generally well meaning, he is concerned that Mr. Bush often “convinces himself to believe what suits him at the moment.”

That is, of course, not a trait limited to political leaders, but when presidents and members of Congress do it, the results can be more wide-ranging than when your garden variety self delusionist does it.

Mr. McClellan is also shocked (in the best tradition of Claude Rains in “Casablanca”) that the president failed to differentiate whether Iraq was a war of choice or of necessity.

There is other score settling. Karl Rove and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, both of whom asked Mr. McClellan to mislead the press about their role in leaking the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame, come in for withering treatment. Mr. Rove (a one-time mentor of Mr. McClellan) comes across as a masterful political strategist who gummed up the works when he tried to transform those skills into helping run the government.

When not paying back others for their slights toward him, Mr. McClellan tries to make himself out as something of a warrior for fairness. Sometimes it’s a bit of a stretch.

He recounts his efforts as a college fraternity officer to fight for a rules change and get a ban on hazing enacted.

“The college experience left a lasting impression on me. Most significantly, it showed me how difficult it can be to change a negative culture that has grown up in an institution over time,” he writes.

The other negative culture that Mr. McClellan is concerned about is what he sees as the scorched earth, zero sum political environment that he sees as having pervaded Washington. He contends, rightly, that both parties are equally to blame and expresses genuine regret that the Bush administration was unwilling or unable to change things. He also offers some suggestions on how future presidents can reverse the tide.

Mr. McClellan’s discourse on political reconciliation will, of course, be overshadowed by his mea culpa about his work in the Bush administration. The latter revelations make “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception” a worthwhile and sometimes disturbing book.

Claude R. Marx, an award-winning journalist, is author of a chapter on media and politics in “The Sixth Year Itch.”

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