I’ll say this for Scott McClellan, at last he learned how to communicate. He was, to my mind, one of the worst press secretaries in presidential history — at least in modern times, continually cowed by the press, never able to show any confidence, and making us all wince whenever he held a briefing.
His book, titled What Happened, seems to go after Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, the president and others. The main releases we read about are how the president bollixed the response to Katrina and how the White House made a political campaign of the Iraq war, using, as Scott puts it, “a propaganda campaign.”
The first thing to ask about these kinds of books is “does it help history, does it shed light, does it add to the sum total of knowledge about a topic history or contemporary analysis can use to shed light on an administration?” OR, rather, “is this a self-aggrandizing after-the-fact justification to bolster one’s own reputation and credibility?” especially after having done such a poor job in the first place.
I think we’ll probably find this book is mostly of the latter category. The evidence I’ve seen does in fact show that the administration had different justifications for the liberation of Iraq — but we saw them plainly and in the open before as well as after the invasion. The president, the secretary of state, the VP, and many others gave lots of reasons for the invasion of Iraq. There were international legal cases, there were public policy cases, there were national security cases all to be made. And they were. The idea that the press didn’t do its job and was too soft on the president — as McClellan writes — is, frankly, laughable. Raise your hand if you have any evidence that the press was too soft on the administration.
As far as Katrina, I think we all know and can admit it was both a public policy and public relations disaster. We had a bad FEMA director, the president should not have flown over the disaster, or said Michael Brown was doing a good job. But it wasn’t just the administration that didn’t do so hot. I seem to recall state and local officials, those who had more access to the facts on the ground, those tasked with evacuation plans, those responsible for the city and state, were pretty unprepared as well. Heck, the mayor’s family fled the state. Not the city, the state.
Finally, we’ll learn more as those written about in his book speak out. I note Fran Townsend is already on record saying she recalls no meeting where Scott McClellan ever objected to what was being said or made his dissenting views known. And I’ll just leave you with this — having not read the book and having no plans to do so: don’t you think that when someone has an objection to what is being done, they owe it to the public and as a mark of duty to do something about it or say something about it at the time, rather than wait two years and save it for a book? Does that in and of itself not cut down some of the credibility.
The job of press secretary is not easy, but it can be done well, as Tony Snow and Dana Perino have shown. You want a Democratic example, I always thought Mike McCurry did a good job — and with good cheer in a tough time. But I’ll say one other thing, too. I think this genre of book is losing its cachet, and people are getting a little tired of the game which goes something like this: Get a high-level job, make your name and reputation, do an average job at it, then write a book after you leave that helps nobody but bolsters your own reputation at the expense of those without book contracts. It’s one of the uglier things in Washington, and as I say, I think its days will soon be over. People are tired of it.