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What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception Hardcover – May 28, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Some listeners may get to the end of this audiobook and still be asking "What happened?" for even in his own words, McClellan's book appears either woefully naïve to the point of negligence or a continuance of spin and lying (or has he says, "shading"). As he traces his early years working with Bush in the Texas government through his tenure as White House press secretary, McClellan continues to applaud Bush with only a mild dash of criticism while laying much of the blame for Bush's poor decisions upon the "permanent campaign" political culture of Washington. Hailing from the party of "personal responsibility," this approach seems awkward at best. Even when he identifies the administration as a group of "well intentioned but flawed people," he still shies away from making strong and definitive statements. Predominantly hovering around his experience and problems as press secretary at the height of the Valerie Plame incident, McClellan's analysis and reporting of the Bush administration doesn't forge any new ground. As narrator, he manages well enough in a matter of fact tone with moderate inflection, minimally hindered with background noises and some stumbling or mispronunciations. However, on occasion, he does execute a good Bush impersonation. A Public Affairs hardcover.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the CD-ROM edition.
"The former press secretary of President Bush (No. 43 version) empties out his notebooks, and all of Washington will be holding its breath." -- Seattle Times, March 16, 2008
Top customer reviews
McClellan, young, loyal, and slightly naïve, was the point man during Bush's bid for re-election and the downward spiraling events that followed the campaign, including Plamegate, endless war, and the Katrina debacle.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that McClellan provides a clear-eyed view of all-around failures of the Bush administration, the Democratic opposition, and the press. He asserts that systemic problems in Washington transcend personal flaws of any single politician. The book is interesting and easy to read from start to finish. The tone is hopeful, rather than accusatory. The most valuable lessons that I got from reading this book are verification and articulation of aspects of our political system that I have often pondered.
McClellan spends considerable time explaining his belief that inside Washington politics have become mired in an irreparable "campaign syndrome." He asserts that this decline began many years and administrations ago and has carried forward with momentum for both parties. He quotes Professor Hugh Heclo in describing the permanent campaign syndrome as a "nonstop process seeking to manipulate sources of public approval to engage in the act of governing itself (62)." Intense campaigns work and strategize to deal with incoming bombs, always seeking to put the best spin on each event while failing to look ahead at the larger picture or admitting to and learning from failures when they exist. He goes on to cite examples of the propaganda machine and spin doctors in both the Clinton and Bush administrations (62).
The "perpetual scandal culture" is another force shaping today's politics, a legacy of the Nixon administration (65). Rather than blaming the "liberal left media," he claims the problem is that the media, in general, overemphasizes controversy and focuses attention on winners versus losers rather than on results (158). The inclination is for critics to exploit trivia for political advantage while failing to address the really important issues.
A third force in politics today is the "scorched earth politics" of presidential campaigns that seek not just to defeat but to destroy the opposition, resulting in a winner-take-all attitude that spills over into Congress. The philosophy of politics-as-war leads to a culture of deception (70).
Throughout the book I sensed the conflict and irony of a man who suffered the loss of his own public and professional credibility as a cog in the political wheel yet still believes in Bush's innate goodness and special type of intelligence. McClellan wants to believe in his man and frequently explains to the reader his own thought processes when confronted with Bush's seemingly dishonest behavior. He lays much of the blame for Bush's less than bright reputation on the failure of his top advisors to push and question his ideas. McClellan is unabashedly forthright in acknowledging administrative mistakes like the disconnect between what the administration said was being done for victims of Katrina and what was in fact happening on the ground. He is also generous to the Washington machine, believing that most politicians are inherently good but trapped in an endless effort to manipulate public opinion.
"Every president wants to achieve greatness but few do, (131)" claims McClellan. Unfortunately President Bush may fail to achieve greatness not because of his intelligence, intentions, or character but because "he and his advisors 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." I'm not sure that I understand Bush or his policies better for having read this book. But at least I understand his failings and expect other, more capable individuals will get caught in many of the same political traps that ensnared Bush.
The book's focus is nominally on the lead-up to and fall-out from the Valerie Plame Affair and Scott McLellan's involvement in communicating White House involvement to the press. Obviously, he feels this is the axis upon which his reputation revolves. While many may be inclined to agree, perhaps more important is the book's continual reversion to the ideas of Permanent Campaign and Scandal Culture. These items, practiced by the US political and media establishments, respectively, are covered in greater details elsewhere (some sources are cited in this text), but McClellan's memoir serves as a decent summary and case study of the intersection of these two phenomena.
The text can be a tad preachy at times, and there are frequent instances of second-guessing, which is always easier after the fact (e.g. Bret Favre shouldn't have thrown an interception on his last pass...). However, it does offer very good insight to the day-to-day operations of the press secretary. At the end of the day, I am not sure whether the narrative is effectively connected to the message, but the message is very likable.
The White House tried to trash Mr. McClellan when the book came out, because that's their way of dealing with dis-loyal Bushies. But once I read it, I could see why this book was written. A naive young man who tried to do the right thing could no longer live inside of his own conscious after he was lied to to protect the guilty in the inner circle.
The book is a pretty quick read and gets right down to business. A little background and a lot of the goings on in the Bush White House.
Austinite, I am familiar with three generations of Keeton/McClellans, all very bright folks, all very politically oriented and well-spoken. Scott's father Barr wrote an expose on the law firm that represented LBJ, for instance. His mother was mayor of Austin for years and ran for Governor of Texas. What is most interesting about Scott's book is not so much what he divulges, but the fact that he perceived the political wind shift and got out. I thought the family was historically Democrat and never understood why Bush hired so deeply into the family. Scott writes well. Will he remain Republican? Who knows. Look for more from this family in the future.