Thursday, May 29, 2008

Knee-Capping Scott McClellan

Watching the flood of coverage of Scott McClellan's book has been fascinating. It's amazing to see how many thousands of columnists, reporters, pundits, politicos, bloggers, and commenters have been willing to opine authoritatively about the contents of the book, Scott's motivations, how he wrote the book, etc. etc. without having read the book itself. (It is still not on sale, and just a few advance copies have been circulating among members of the media and some insiders.)

One day I may write something extensive about this experience and the truths it illustrates about how opinions get shaped and spread in today's idea marketplace. For now, I just want to offer brief responses to some of the most common fallacious criticisms Scott has been receiving from diverse sources in the mainstream media and the blogosphere.

1. Criticism #1: "This is not the Scott McClellan we know and love. Why didn't he express his doubts to us, his friends in the White House?"

This is the party line being parroted by everyone in and around the administration, from Ari Fleischer and Dana Perino to Dan Bartlett and Karl Rove. It might make sense if you believe that the Bush administration is made up of people who are genuinely interested in sincere self-criticism and self-examination. What do you suppose would have actually happened if Scott had ventured to talk about his misgivings about the Iraq war and the way it was being sold. I can just hear Rove's reaction now: "Gee, Scott, I never thought of that before! Forthrightness and honesty, eh? What a great idea! Let's go for it!" And Dick Cheney: "I guess you're right, Scott--this war really isn't necessary. Call off the invasion!"

2. Criticism #2: "Why didn't McClellan go public with his accusations earlier, when it might have made a difference?"

Here the idea is that, if Scott had resigned in protest (in 2003, say), and disclosed his incipient doubts about the administration, it would have shifted public opinion against the Bush team and changed history for the better. Sounds nice--except that testimony from disgruntled former insiders like Richard Clarke, John Dilulio, Paul O'Neill, and the retired generals who criticized the Iraq policy didn't have any such effect. Why on earth would McClellan's testimony have tipped the balance?

3. Criticism #3: "Isn't McClellan just taking the easy route to riches by trashing an unpopular president?"

I already debunked the notion that Scott could expect to get rich from his book. (I'm happy to see Jonathan Alter on MSNBC this evening emphasizing the point that Public Affairs, in particular, is well known for its modest advance payments.) But now I see blogger Ezra Klein (whose work I generally like a lot) implying that Scott is somehow being cowardly in criticizing Bush now, when most of the public has already turned against him:
George W. Bush is now the most unpopular president since the advent of modern polling. His disapproval rating passed 70 percent last week, higher than any leader before him. It has been 40 months since a majority of the country supported his presidency. And now, now Scott McClellan tells of us of his dedication to the truth, and his disgust with the propaganda used to sell the war. . . This doesn't come close to clearing his name.
Okay, but this ignores the reality of Scott's social, professional, and political milieu. For someone like Scott McClellan--a lifelong Republican, a Texas loyalist and friend of Bush, a man whose career and livelihood were derived from Bush and who spent seven years of his life at the very center of the Bush circle, surrounded by people who admired Bush and regarded dissent or disagreement as suspect, if not downright evil--for someone like this to write a book like What Happened is absolutely not an act of cowardice.

Ezra may not think the book "clears Scott's name." That's fine. Scott might even agree. (He devotes a fair amount of time in the book to describing his own mistakes and his complicity in the misdeeds of the administration.) But Scott doesn't deserve to be excoriated for writing the book. (Ezra: "Just the tinny bleatings of a man who abetted a lying, disastrous presidency because it seemed like a good gig, but doesn't want his name maligned by the historians.")

Judging by some of the anger against Scott being vented by critics on the left, you'd think his book was intended to somehow justify or excuse the sins of the Bush team. Of course it doesn't--as the defensive reaction of the Bushies themselves makes clear.

There's plenty of room for fair criticism of Scott and his book. But let's not get distracted by arguments that are illogical, irrelevant, or unrealistic.

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