Scott McClellan, President Bush, and the Permanent Campaign

Scott McClellan was the White House press secretary from July 2003 to April 2006, and the deputy press secretary before that. I saw him speak at a meeting of the Commonwealth Club this Tuesday, June 24. He talked about his relationship to President Bush, the administration’s “mistakes”, and why these mistakes were made. For example, he now feels that “the war in Iraq was not absolutely necessary.” It is fascinating to watch someone formerly so close to the president recant so publicly and dramatically, especially someone who appeared on CNN time and time again to justify the president’s decisions. The personal dynamics of what happened between the president and his press secretary are at least as interesting as the actual events, and perhaps give us a little bit of insight into the psychology of politics in America.

In his talk, and in his new book What Happened, McClellan describes a shift in Washington culture over the last few decades, where national interest has given way to “a game of who’s up and who’s down,” a culture of “permanent campaign,” where “governing becomes an offshoot of campaigning.” He describes Clinton and Bush Senior as sensitive to and constrained by the same pressure, and says that this culture of “permanent campaign” has gradually been getting worse over the past few decades, to the point where it is now a corrupting factor to all who work in Washington.

I don’t think any White House since Nixon has truly learned the lessons of Watergate. … It has become about which side can best manipulate the narrative to their advantage. … Deliberation and compromise get pushed further and further down on the list. People like Karl Rove didn’t create the permanent campaign. The permanent campaign created people like Karl Rove.

I’m not convinced that the “permanent campaign” is in any way a new feature of politics, given that the people in power seem to have been trying to stay that way throughout history. A 2007 Washington Post article takes the same position with respect to American politics specifically. However, these are surely strong words coming from someone whose job it was to shape our political narratives. Perhaps more illuminating were McClellan’s comments regarding the process of going to war in Iraq. Although it is by now clear that the administration was committed to an invasion long before there was any evidence to support the notion that Iraq had WMDs, McClellan’s description of the process of actually bringing the nation to war is the first direct testimony I’ve ever heard from someone who would know.

Was it deliberate to mislead? I don’t think the president’s top advisers were sitting in a room saying, ‘how do we mislead the American people?’ … But there was an effort to sell the war to the American people. It was sold like our education campaign, like tax cuts, like social security reform. It was ‘how do we make the strongest possible case?’ Forget about ‘how do we communicate the truth?’ … We took the nation to war by making it sound more urgent, more serious than it actually was. … It was all about shading.

He went on to describe President Bush’s role in the process,

The president is an instinctive leader. In some ways that’s admirable, in some ways that causes a lot of problems. … After the decision is made, he expects everyone else to follow in lock-step. … He had this belief, this idealistic and ambitious vision that we could go coercively into Iraw and create democracy and it would be the lynch-pin that would transform the Middle East … If he’d had a crystal ball, I don’t think he would have made that decision.

These are words from a man who publicly defended the administration’s decisions time and time again, a man who was formerly fiercely loyal to the president. McClellan’s own story is equally interesting. He says that people now forget that

Bush was a bipartisan and popular governor in Texas, who worked ‘across-the-aisle.’ This is why I was drawn to him. … [When I arrived in Washington] I got caught up in this destructive culture just like many others did. I am not saying this to remove blame from my doorstep. … Eventually I could no longer stand up and speak for the president because I kept getting undermined. … I trusted the administration. It was not until I began researching the book that I realized how misplaced my trust was. … It was hard to separate personal closeness with the president from his policy.

I find these remarks on power fascinating, and perhaps a valuable lesson in reality all on their own: the Bush administration is not stupid or evil. The problems appear to be ones of ideology, and a pronounced lack of commitment to candor and honesty. He finished by offering some suggestions, and his hopes for the future.

[The next press secretary] needs to have access to any meeting, any time. … I actually welcome a liberal media, if they’re fair, because they will be more skeptical of the government. And if they’re not fair, in this day and age it will be known. …I really want to see Washington change the way it governs forthe better. I want to see loyalty to the ideas of candor, transparency, and openness. Too often people think that loyalty to an individual office-holder overrides loyalty to the people. … We need to move beyond the philosophy that politics should be viewed as war.

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