Former press secretary’s tell-all book could poison relationships with media for administrations to follow
By Dylan Mathieu
Watching the parade of Scott McClellan’s self-assessed “friends” step up to the plate to try and discredit his book-bound assertions of a wayward White House reminds me of what President Truman said about having friends in that neighborhood: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
And have you had to suffer through their feigned concerns and dismay about how and why McClellan strayed? To the point where you’d think they’ll schedule an intervention for him up at Vice President Cheney’s residence this weekend. Don’t go, Scott. You probably need to hold your book-signings in very public places for at least a while.
I am left dismayed by the eagerness of these aspiring discrediting bodies. Many of them (witness McClellan’s predecessor, Ari Fleischer) have found that they also had a book in them to write. They must know each of their media hit-jobs creates more tension and conflict, thus ensuring the book sells more copies and stays even longer atop Amazon.com’s top-sellers list. These aired-out intrigues are deepening the interests of prospective readers of What Happened. And worse, these readers could be the Bush faithful, who have reliably dismissed much of the water-cooler chatter of people who in their minds ultimately are vicarious or disgruntled staffers.
In dissecting the views of those who claimed they were “puzzled” and “astonished” at McClellan’s comments, I’d draw you to the puzzling environment that he worked in. Consider even the most sympathetic-to-Bush history that’ll be written about the character assassination of Richard Clarke, treating Valerie Plame’s career at the CIA flippantly as “fair game.” Worse were the allegations that those opposing Bush’s war policies were unpatriotic and did not support our troops; how unforgivably patronizing to a group of all-volunteers who also have taken a sworn oath to follow orders of their president without pause or delay… and have done so admirably.
McClellan had sometimes more than a guiding hand in some of these stumbles. Although much was fueled by arrogance and hubris from the most senior White House advisors, he was clearly the accelerant hoping for a spark from a usually doubting, questioning “gaggle” of reporters. This book is not the bleach that’ll remove his stains of omission and culpability.
But where could have McClellan raised his objections? Are those who are panning the book painting a picture where dissension was, if not encouraged, at least taken into account toward policies or received constructively? Really? Many interviewing the former White House staffers/discrediters gave a glaring pass to these comments. Also left unexplored were the roles of Mr. Rumsfeld, Mr. Rove and Mr. Cheney in creating an atmosphere that not one White House insider’s book will ever describe as collaborative and inclusive. Are the media still too gullible and trusting by half? I’m left puzzled. Before I solve this one, though, tens of thousands more copies of What Happened will be sold.
I’m guessing the media’s frothy coverage of What Happened won’t survive past the first round of Sunday morning news shows. A few weeks later it will be taken down from bookstores’ bestseller racks. But what will remain? I wonder what in the long term does this do to the aspirations of top-quality public servants.
Recall McClellan was among those many who loyally followed his governor from Texas to the White House. He followed a “compassionate conservative” to Washington. A candidate in 1999 who had something to offer and appealed to moderates, as well as his party faithful. After this sheen faded and the qualifier “compassionate” was cast aside far beyond anyone’s reach, McClellan was still supporting his leader faithfully. For five-plus years, McClellan was catching the spears from those swelling audiences left seemingly disenfranchised; left, middle and right. He was a faithful servant when his leader had three times the approval ratings he does now to when he had about half.
There remains more than a stirring anger at McClellan’s breach of protocol. Protocol, but admittedly, it’s a fuzzy, evolving set of rules judging who gets to write a book and who embraces or rejects its assertions. The final adjudication rights probably go to book publishers, no doubt, guided by readers. So far, I’ve seen no anger worse than Bob Dole’s assessment of McClellan as a “miserable creature.” In a month or so, a soft-cover of What Happened will grace bookshelves. Sadly, memories of these derisions will linger and no doubt scare away the best and the brightest among a future generation of aspiring public servants who love their country more than themselves or any one person.
A lasting damage was inflicted by this book. It is the American public that may suffer the final blows from its very public arrival and reception. Think for a moment about what this venom, this outrage does to the relationships future press secretaries will have with their leaders? Will press secretaries’ access and advice be given more consideration given the advent of this book? Will their access now be restricted or muted due to fears that the inner-most workings and discussions are bound for tell-all books by self-appointed insiders? Maybe. But where is the shock? Didn’t the term “commentraitor” come from a former press secretary? In the past 25 years, was there a former White House press secretary who did not write an insider’s account of the White House? I started with Marlin Fitzwater and stopped counting at the first five books that came to mind.
However this book will or won’t affect the role or influence of future White House press secretaries, here’s a safe bet: Dana Perino will write an insider’s account and so will President Obama’s string of press secretaries. At a minimum, McClellan’s book has affected the aperture (narrowed) and opacity (clouded) of the press secretary’s lens upon which reporters rely. I fear it’s not in our favor.
M. Dylan Mathieu, is a psuedonym for a media and communications strategist who, in a career spanning seventeen years across more than forty countries in six continents, has advised Fortune 300 CEOs, congressional candidates and both U.S. and foreign military generals and ambassadors. His government employment prevents him from disclosing his identity.