Thursday, July 31, 2008

What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception by Scott McClellan

When I heard that the former White House press secretary had written a "tell all" book on his years with the Bush administration, I was interested in much the same way that rush hour drivers are interested in an accident on the other side of the freeway. I knew that McClellan had been press secretary through some of the most harrowing days of the Bush administration and felt a bit sorry for him because I believed that he had been lied to on numerous occasions by the President himself as well as the inner circle of the administration. I didn't expect the book to be enlightening but I found myself wanting to read about the carnage.

It was no surprise that this book was ruthlessly attacked by those within and close to the Bush administration. The book was mostly characterised as an angry response by a bitter former employee. At first, this actually made some sense to me. But then I thought about the interviews that McClellan had given around the time he resigned from his post. At that time, he seemed like a loyal Bushie who had simply reached burnout. So why would he change his tune a year or so later?

The reasoning became more apparent when I read the preface to "What Happened." According to the author, it wasn't until he began the process of reflection that the writing of a memoir requires that he began to formulate the views he chose to include in the book. This felt honest to me so, I decided to plunge in and see what he had to say.

The crux of this book, which I think is being left out of much of the discussion surrounding it, is the concept of the "permanent campaign" and it's negative effects on our government, society and citizens. McClellan recounts his political career prior to the White House and his years in the Bush administration from the perspective that we have gone horribly wrong in our approach to government. By treating every issue as if it were a campaign and making governing decisions entirely based on the way they will play to a particular political base, we have lost sight of the true function of government.

Although his writing isn't always as eloquent as I'd like it to be, I think Scott McClellan makes some very important points in this book. There are a lot of voices shouting for the end of bipartisanship and the removal of money from politics but, McClellan speaks to these issues with a unique inside viewpoint that gives his message and it's ability to add to the dialogue an added resonance. The fact that McClellan is, for the most part, a political conservative, helps to enforce his point that the "permanent campaign" reaches far beyond ideas of liberal or conservative, republican or democrat. It is, to steal a phrase from the Nixon era, a cancer on the heart of our political system.

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