Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Prisoner of Conscience > Ian Williams
Ian Williams
Prisoner of conscience

Scott McClellan's memoir shows him to be more of a Bush loyalist than the criticisms of his former White House colleagues would let on
Ian Williams

June 3, 2008 10:45 PM Guardian Comment is Free

He might not be up there with St Augustine, but former White House press secretary Scott McClellan give an honest depiction in his book of someone wrestling with his conscience. He is legibly torn between his loyalties to his country and to the president he helped elect. As Mr Everyconservative, his signposts on his personal road to Damascus are indeed those that define why the American public lost faith in the administration: the still unexplained rush to war in Iraq, the abysmal handling of the occupation and the inept response to Katrina.

The media reaction to his revelations on the duplicity of the Bush regime led to some unkind thoughts of front-page headlines on ursine defecation in the woods and papal Catholicism. Five years on, it is hardly the stuff of Pulitzers that the White House was not entirely candid over Iraqi WMDs and the Niger uranium letter, or had played a role in the vindictive outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent.

The surprised reaction to his book tends to weaken his argument that most of the press were doing a fine job all along. In fact, Arianna Huffington's new book has an honour roll of the press who did not go dizzy with the spin from McClellan and his colleagues. (In a spirit of full disclosure, she includes me in her list).

McClellan and his former chums were doing their job, which was to be as parsimonious with the truth as possible in what they fed to the White House press corps, which in turn seems to have bought the overall picture. While his apostasy from unwavering belief in a personal GOP with all the answers is impressive in itself, the sound of silence is still deafening. Perhaps the most egregious example, both of selective silence and of his professional stonewalling is his evasive refusal to answer veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas's questions about whether Bush had been sentenced to community service while he was supposed to be serving in the Texas Air National Guard. After 15 minutes, in February 2004, McClellan had not conceded a single word of substance.

Remarkably, neither Thomas herself nor the incident appear in McClellan's book. Also absent is mention of her exclusion, together with correspondents like her, from McClellan's list of journalists who were safe for the president to call on at his few and nugatory press encounters.

It seems that McClellan has not yet completed the 12-step programme to break his Bush dependence. McClellan shows he is still under the spell when he mentions the CBS 60 Minutes scandal over Bush's war record. He mentions it en passant, calling the documentary evidence "dubious". But the programme showed what others had demonstrated - that the story was substantially correct. Bush did dodge the Vietnam war, he did not fulfil his National Guard duty. And throughout, his answers were the presidential equivalent of pleading the Fifth Amendment.

McClellan explains how he began working for Bush because he thought the Texas governor would work in the White House in the chummy, bipartisan way that McClellan saw him at work in Texas. He is Texan himself, so he perhaps does not realise how anomalous the cozy condominium betweens the Dems and the GOP was, spanning as they do the full political spectrum from centre right to John Birchite.

Nevertheless, McClellan's honesty comes through - even though one has to wonder, first at finding a Texan Republican opposed to the death penalty, as he was, and secondly how he could work for a governor who put down more humans than most vets have cats.

He is still conflicted about Bush, in whom he sees reserves of intelligence, if not quite intellect, that most have not. He clearly has a point. Vituperation apart, it was Bush and not the more visibly cerebral John Kerry or Al Gore who is just finishing two terms in the White House. Even allowing for Cheney and Rove as puppet masters, which McClellan does not really see, McClellan is surely right that Bush is not as stupid as may appear to the rest of us.

But there is a complexity to Bush and his past, which McClellan hints at without really explaining. The British political euphemism "economical with the truth" never had a stauncher practitioner than the president, who carries an Orwellian memory hole in his jeans pocket. McClellan mentions that when he wanted to get Bush to sign a bill on drunk driving, longtime aide Karen Hughes told him that the president wouldn't because of "something in his past".

The precise issues came up later when he 'fessed up to a DUI citation, which was then cemented over far more hermetically than Clinton's tortured smoking without inhaling. Incrementally, under questioning, Bush put back the years to which he was prepared to say he had not used cocaine, but miraculously escaped answering the direct question whether or not he had used it.

McClellan recounts his growing doubts about the methods used to get into and get out of Iraq, and loyally but unconvincingly explains that while Cheney, Rumsfeld and the neocons all had their different reasons, the president's concern was for freedom and democracy in Iraq. He begs the question of why Iraq should be the sole country out of so many with a democratic deficit that needed such attention. Sometimes, one supposes, freedom's just another excuse when there's nothing else to use.

The Joseph Wilson/Plame outing was the real turning point for McClellan, who was loyally prepared to be parsimonious with facts when ordered and happily took an asymptotic line with his statements, which may have approached the sphere of lies but never quite touched it. The president, Cheney and Rove cozened him into telling absolute lies about the leak, which clearly hit his own personal integrity and his sense of loyalty to country rather than dynasty.

He is still prevaricating about whether Bush knew about the leak, but he should have read up on Henry II's meant-to-be-overheard exclamation about Becket: "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?"

Bush's attachment to fixed ideas like invading in Iraq, combined with his impatience with nuance, may have occasionally seemed to his many opponents like a convincing display of retardation, but if he seemed moronic, there is obviously method in it, allowing him to disclaim the messy details needed to fulfil his eschatological visions.

But in the end, McClellan's book is well worth reading. For anyone connected with any recent administration to admit that they were wrong is a major step forward for Beltwaykind. And one cannot help suspecting that as he clears his mental lungs of the mephitic atmosphere of the White House, his recollections and analysis will improve even more.

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