Politics & Policy

What Happened?

McClellan communicates!

It’s been rumored that McClellan was hired by the Bush White House to appeal to a specific sub-constituency: pasty middle-aged men with a thumbless grasp of the English language. The veracity of this rumor has long been undermined by the assumption that Bush had locked down this constituency all on his own.

Whatever the justification for McClellan’s tenure, he succeeded in showing that the inability to communicate and the incapacity to deal with the press artfully are not insurmountable obstacles to one’s dream of rising to the position of White House press secretary.

In McClellan’s book, What Happened (oddly missing a question mark), the author purports to explain how the Bush White House launched a “propaganda machine” to push the country into a war of choice.

I have not read the book. I will once I finish eating the contents of my sock drawer (which ranks slightly higher on my to-do list). But in interviews, McClellan’s argument boils down to the fact that the White House employed a high-pitched media campaign to persuade the American people and push the press to more favorable coverage.

Apparently this is something new in McClellan’s eyes. Perhaps such visitor-from-Mars cluelessness will prompt him to report in his next tell-all that when you pull a hidden lever behind a white bowl in the Oval Office bathroom, a sudden burst of water appears and then swirls down the bottom. Some of a suspicious bent might guess that such a system was invented for Bush to quickly jettison damning documents.

Or maybe the “propaganda machine” in the White House is something newer and more surprising than flush toilets. But I doubt it. Propaganda is a scary word – and can be a scary thing – but it’s worth keeping in mind that even a White House press release is technically propaganda, as are those guests of the president at State of the Union addresses. The Clinton administration fine-tuned its propaganda effort by releasing pretend TV news stories – “video news releases” – that the press sometimes utilized in lieu of real reporting. The Bush administration continued this practice, but only then did critics shout “propaganda!”

Longstanding Bush critics like McClellan’s use of the “P” word because they think it proves they were right all along: that “Bush lied and people died,” as that shopworn refrain goes.

The problem is that’s not quite what McClellan seems to be saying. “I still like and admire George W. Bush,” McClellan writes in his memoirs. “I consider him a fundamentally decent person, and I do not believe he or his White House deliberately or consciously sought to deceive the American people. But he and his advisers confused the propaganda campaign with the high level of candor and honesty so fundamentally needed to build and then sustain public support during a time of war.”

McClellan’s only legitimate beef seems to be his unjust treatment during the Valerie Plame investigation. But that complaint doesn’t sell books or get the sluices of journalistic saliva raging. Use of the word “propaganda” and charges of dishonesty about the war do, which is why he uses them. But McClellan concedes in interviews that even when he was an important cog in the “propaganda machine,” he never witnessed anything that seemed at the time to be deceitful or untrue.

Rather, he says that his views have “evolved.” This is one debate over evolution where intelligent design seems to have the upper hand. The prime mover of McClellan’s evolving views was almost surely his need to move books.

This all bespeaks a level of sophistication few ever credited McClellan with when he stood at the podium looking like a McDonald’s cashier flummoxed by an order. He’s hawking books by making people think he’s charging the Bush administration with wholesale dishonesty when he’s not even making that case at the retail level. He’s claiming the role of insider with behind-the-scenes insights, but he admits it never occurred to him that there was any dishonesty at work until he left the White House and began ruminating on what he could put in his book.

If only he’d been this good at working the press when it was for someone’s benefit other than his own.

– Jonah Goldberg is the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.

© 2008 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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