Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan launches stinging criticisms of President Bush in his memoir, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. Some political observers have expressed shock at a top-level confidant launching attacks against a White House built on loyalty. But the true magnitude of the McClellan betrayal is that he is one of many Bush administration advisors, both past and present, who have come out against their former boss. From Paul O’Neill and General Eric Shinseki to Lawrence Lindsay and Richard Clarke, Scott McClellan is one of many former Bush advisors criticized for exposing unsettling truths about an administration infamous for taking criticism as disloyalty.
This week’s dramatic entrance of the What Happened memoir has drawn torrents of criticism. Former Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove said McClellan reminded him of a “left-wing blogger.” One conservative commentator questioned whether McClellan made a “Judas move.” And yesterday on Fox News, one former Bush-Cheney advisor told commentator Alan Colmes McClellan’s book was chock full of silly lies, unfounded accusations, and outright fabrications. The smear campaign against McClellan paints the episode as an aberration. It is not. Such character assassination has been unleashed on other Bush administration whistleblowers, the most notable being former U.S. National Security Council chief counterterrorism advisor, Richard Clarke.
In the spring of 2004, Clarke released the book Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror, exposing the Bush administration’s failure to take seriously the threat from Al Qaeda in the months leading up to 9/11. In Against All Enemies, Clarke tells how, despite urgent requests to move terrorism up the list of the administration’s list of priorities, key figures of the administration continually marginalized and ignored him. The week Against All Enemies was being publicized — when Clarke testified before the 9/11 Commission and appeared on 60 Minutes — the campaign to discredit him had began. Commentator after commentator slimed Clarke, calling him everything from a “liberal” (sounds familiar), to a profiteer, to a lackey of Bill Clinton. Some even argued Clarke was venally auditioning for a job in the Kerry administration.
In concert with the treatment of Richard Clarke, the current blowback from McClellan’s tell-all illustrates the administration’s intolerance of dissent. The lesson to take away is that no president can govern effectively if they take criticism as disloyalty. Being open to those with whom you fiercely disagree is critical for fostering debate inside your official circle. By listening to others, elected leaders can sharpen their thinking, question their assumptions, and have positions that are more fully grounded. In this respect, as the Bush presidency draws to a close, the public should take interest in McClellan’s memoir not for its own sake, but for what it makes possible for a future administration.