Saturday, June 21, 2008

A Clearly Horrible Controversy

So now I know what it feels like to be denounced on national television by the ranking Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee . . .

Perhaps a word of explanation is in order.

On Friday morning, I tuned in to MSNBC to check out the opening moments of Scott McClellan's testimony before the aforementioned committee. As you may know, Scott (whose recent book I edited) had been invited by chairman John Conyers to tell the committee what he knows about the Valerie Plame leak--the incident that led to Scott's most serious personal embarrassment and played a major role in his disillusionment with and estrangement from the Bush administration.

After Conyers himself, the first person to speak was Representative Lamar Smith of Texas. Smith's remarks set the pattern for the day. The Republicans, led by Smith, treated Scott like an ax murderer who had unwisely chosen to testify in court in his own behalf, while the Democrats lauded Scott as a patriotic truth-teller and a courageous public servant. Other than that, the event was completely non-partisan.

Smith began the hearing like this:

REP. LAMAR SMITH, R-TEXAS: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Welcome, everyone, to the Judiciary Committee's first Book of the Month Club meeting.


Today, it's Scott McClellan's "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception." I propose that next time we consider Ann Coulter's book, "How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)." It's hard to take Mr. McClellan, or this hearing, too seriously. Despite what Mr. McClellan says regarding Iraq, three different studies--the Senate Intelligence Committee report of 2004, the Robb- Silberman report of 2005 and Britain's Butler report--conclude that intelligence reports were not altered in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

And, despite this book's innuendo, a three-year independent criminal investigation found that no White House officials leaked Valerie Plame's name to the media in violation of the law. Also, it should be of no surprise that there was spin in the White House Press Office. What White House has not had a communications operation that advocates for its policies?

Any recent administration that did not try to promote its priorities should be cited for dereliction of duty. Many have asked why Mr. McClellan did not object to what he saw while he was at the White House. The reason is clear: There was nothing to object to.
So far, this was ho-hum--pretty much the same talking points that the White House and its supporters have been launching against Scott ever since his book was published three weeks ago. But then Smith veered to another angle. As you can imagine, my attention was caught by the following salvo aimed at discrediting the book:

How much influence did a biased editor have on the finished product? What edits were made to the original manuscript to make it more critical of the administration? We do know that Mr. Osnos [Peter Osnos, founder of Scott's publishing house] and Public Affairs have published six books by George Soros. Mr. Soros was the largest donor to Democratic 527 groups during the 2004 presidential election, giving over $23 million.

And we know that Mr. Osnos himself has been highly and publicly critical of the Bush administration. Also, Mr. McClellan's project editor for the book, Karl Weber, has written venomous statements about the president; for example, calling him a, quote, "clearly horrible person."
A few moments later, when the questioning proper was under way, Smith returned to this theme:

SMITH: Is it true that Karl Weber was the project editor?

MCCLELLAN: Yes, he worked with me.

SMITH: OK. Were you aware before you worked with him that he had called President Bush a clearly horrible person and said, quote, "He's consciously manipulative and deceitful"?

MCCLELLAN: No, I was not.

SMITH: OK. So in other words, someone who called the president a clearly horrible person helped you draft and edit the book, is that right?

MCCLELLAN: Actually, this is my book. I wrote this book. And he provided great help as an editor.

SMITH: Yes. Did he edit the book?

MCCLELLAN: He was an editor on the book, yes.

SMITH: OK. You write that you witnessed Mr. Rove and Mr. Libby meet in Mr. Rove's office behind closed doors . . .
And as Smith moved on toward what he hoped would be more fertile lines of attack, my five minutes in the national spotlight came to an end, at least for the moment.

Well, this was exciting! In a few minutes, my phone was ringing. Public Affairs was on the line. They were understandably nervous. Would this factoid about McClellan's editor open up a new front for the right-wing blogosphere to use in attacking Scott's book? Would Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly devote the next week to investigating this notorious anti-Bush hatemonger Karl Weber in hopes of further discrediting the Soros-linked publishing house?

Peter Osnos wasn't eager to spend a few days fending off attacks like this. "Karl, you've got to clarify this quote about Bush. Did you call him a clearly horrible person the way Smith said?"

"Well, I might have. I'm certainly not a fan of Bush. But the specific phrase doesn't ring a bell."

"Track it down! We need the facts."

So I opened up the archives of World Wide Webers and began scanning our 617 posts, looking for some time when I might have described our president as "clearly horrible."

Well, it took a while. MSNBC moved on to other stories when the committee hearings adjourned briefly for a vote on the House floor. But after about half an hour, I had worked my way back to January, 2005, and there I uncovered the tell-tale phrase. I sent an email to Public Affairs:

I checked all the contents of my blog World Wide Webers, and I discovered that the words ascribed to me by the House Judiciary Committee member, describing President Bush as a "clearly horrible person," were actually written not by me but by my daughter Laura. (As the name of the blog implies, it is a family blog, although I write most of the contents.)

There are certainly plenty of things I have written that are critical of Pres Bush, but I never used the particular words quoted.
Cries of relief and triumph broke out in the halls of Public Affairs. (Actually I shouldn't use the word "halls." Public Affairs is a modest outfit even by the standards of publishing houses. "Cubicles" would be more accurate.) Their crack publicity team promptly began sending word to media outlets and blogs that had followed up on Smith's attack, pointing out the facts and even providing a link to the original blog post that had been misattributed to me.

Now I must interrupt this narrative for a couple of important asides.

First, although it is true that I didn't actually write the post that called Bush "clearly horrible," I have no desire to distance myself from my daughter or (in the unfortunate phrase now commonly used in such circumstances) throw her under the bus. I personally wouldn't call Bush "clearly horrible," but it is certainly true that I have no use for the man. If Representative Smith's evidently incompetent staffers had studied our blog a little more carefully, I'm sure they could have found some words I actually wrote that could have been wrenched from context and used against me.

Second, and more important: So what? As Scott himself said, it was his book, not his editor's. Every word reflected Scott's ideas, and his ideas alone--and I can vouch for that, because we spent two full days going over the final page proofs line by line, with Scott agonizing over every word choice to make sure it accurately captured his perspective.

It's fun to imagine that I somehow brainwashed Scott and filled his mind, and his book, with my own sinister views. But the Chicago Manual of Style doesn't offer any tips on how to do that, so I stuck to the normal work of an editor, tedious and humdrum as that is.

In any case, the slipshod work of Representative Smith's staff was a boon to Public Affairs and me. It was probably a stretch to imagine hordes of right-wing bloggers going nuts over anti-Bush sentiments written by Scott McClellan's editor. But it was a stretch and a half to imagine them going nuts over the same sentiments written by Scott's editor's daughter.

Scott himself was alerted to the mistake via email during a break in the hearings, and he actually inserted a correction into the public record. This effectively drained any life the story might have had except as fodder for ridicule. In the Washington Post, Dana Milbank recounted the incident this way:
"Mr. McClellan's project editor for the book, Karl Weber, has written venomous statements about the president; for example, calling him a, quote, 'clearly horrible person,' " Smith announced.

"Were you aware before you worked with him that he had called President Bush a clearly horrible person and said, quote, 'He's consciously manipulative and deceitful'?"

"No, I was not," McClellan said. Maybe that's because Weber had said no such thing. After a break, McClellan returned and reported to the committee that the line was written "by his daughter, and his daughter's name is on that post that is on the family blog site." The audience laughed. Smith did not.

The strain of the attacks from his former friends and colleagues showed in the puffy bags under his eyes, but McClellan dispatched with ease the ad hominem attacks. He had, after all, received much worse in the White House briefing room from reporters, with whom he smiled and chatted during breaks in the hearing.
In the end, only a few newspapers and blogs even mentioned the exchange in their accounts of the hearings. And much to my disappointment, traffic on World Wide Webers enjoyed only a small uptick--not the huge spike I'd been counting on as a result of my newfound notoreity.

Too bad. I guess the old right-wing slurs don't pack the same punch they used to.

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