Former Bush spokesman looks back with anger |

Former Bush spokesman looks back with anger

Tim Rutten
Los Angeles Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Whatever qualities George W. Bush brought to the presidency, the ability to inspire loyalty in others obviously was not among them.

The evidence seems to suggest, in fact, that you probably would have to go back to the Borgia court to find anything close to the miasma of feral self-interest that must hang in the air during one of this adminis­tration’s staff or Cabinet meetings. If you worked with this crew, you would want to wear a Kevlar undershirt to the office.

“What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception” by Scott McClellan ” the sec­ond of Bush’s four press secretaries ” is the latest tell-all sensation in a series that actually began during the president’s first term. Truth to tell, though, there’s never been anything in presidential history quite like the stream of self-justifying memoirs this administration already has generated. Departed secretaries of State and Treasury have had their says, as has a director of Central Intelligence and an attorney gen­eral and assorted speech writers, political aides and the military commander of the Iraqi and Afghan invasions.

McClellan, who went to work for the then-governor of Texas when he was 30, is the first of Bush’s Austin-based inner cir­cle to turn on his former boss. According to McClellan: – The president went to war against Iraq to secure his place in history and to spread democracy in the Middle East. Because he and his aides knew the case for war could­n’t be sold to the American people on that basis, the president deliberately oversold and misrepresented intelligence on Sad­dam Hussein’s links to international ter­rorism and his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction in what amounted to a “prop­aganda campaign.”

– Presidential political adviser Karl Rove and former vice presidential chief of staff I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby lied to McClellan about their roles in the Valerie Plame affair, leading him ” in turn ” to lie to the media.

– Rove’s influence led Bush to give poli­tics primacy over policy, even when deal­ing with national security, and played a particularly strong role in the administra­tion’s abominable response to the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

– Vice President Dick Cheney “always seemed to get his way” and “simply could not contain his deep seated certitude, even arrogance, to the detriment of the president.”

The White House and its surrogates deny all this, stressing that as the deputy press secretary during the run-up to the war, McClellan wasn’t in a position to have firsthand knowledge concerning some of the issues he discusses.

McClellan sheds interesting new light on the president’s obviously pivotal rela­tionship with former national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, whom the for­mer press aide describes as “fully trusted and sometimes too accommodating.” McClellan now decries her appointment as secretary of State because her prede­cessor, Colin L. Powell ” whom the author clearly admires ” acted as “a mod­erate voice to counter the more hawkish views of Cheney and Rumsfeld.” Rice, according to McClellan, was charged with curbing the independence of the State Department bureaucracy, something Powell had declined to do.

More important, Rice had qualities that allowed her to survive and prosper in the claustrophobic emotional atmosphere that seems to have characterized the Bush White House. “Condi Rice,” McClellan writes, “is hard to get to know. She plays her cards close to the vest, usually saving her views for private discussions with Bush. Over time, however, I was struck by how deft she is at protecting her reputa­tion. No matter what went wrong, she was somehow able to keep her hands clean, even when the problems related to mat­ters under her direct purview. … And in private, she complemented and rein­forced Bush’s instincts rather than chal­lenging or questioning them. As far as I could tell from internal meetings and dis­cussions, Condi invariably fell in line with Bush’s thinking.”

If Rice has been Bush’s closest adviser on national security and foreign affairs, as Rove has been his most intimate political adviser and Cheney his strongest overall influence, McClellan’s up-close-and per­sonal appraisal of the president’s charac­ter looms even larger: “a leader unable to acknowledge that he got it wrong, and unwilling to grow in office by learning from his mistakes ” too stubborn to change and grow.” Although the author says he continues to regard Bush as basi­cally a good and decent man ” and rejects the suspicion that the chief execu­tive simply is stupid ” he does adjudge him incurious and utterly lacking in an inclination for reflection or self-scrutiny. He is, according to McClellan, particular­ly prone to denial and self-deception, per­sonally insular and unable to acknowl­edge error for “fear of appearing weak.”

Take a president with those traits ” and McClellan, who has served Bush since his days in the Texas statehouse, seems enti­tled to a presumption of credibility on at least this score ” and lock him in the Oval Office with the self-seeking, but sycophan­tic Rove-Rice-Cheney troika and any rea­sonable outsider would be entitled to con­clude that they were seeing a disaster looking for a place to happen.

At one point McClellan writes that he undertook his confessional memoir, in part, to square his conscience with his Christianity. Even so, “the devil made me do it” just won’t wash as an explanation for this administration’s eight years of mis­government.