Support 100 years of independent journalism.

2 June 2008

Bush laid bare?

Former aide to Ronald Reagan, William H Pingree, gives his reaction to the book by former White Hous

By William H Pingree

For those of us who regularly follow presidential elections, all of the furore over Scott McClellan’s new book, What Happened is amusing. Ever since Watergate participants have either “found religion,” in the case of Jeb Stuart Magruder, “fallen on their sword,” in the case of G. Gordon Liddy, or, as in the case of John Dean, speak to us in highly moral tones about our behavior. This is highly amusing in light of what they did in the name of politics. I fear that Scott McClellan’s book is of the same variety.

This is not to exonerate the Bush Administration in their mismanagement of the Iraq war, nor is this an attempt to take sides in the current political entanglements that the electorate will need to sort out in November, but rather this is an attempt to understand what the McClellan book is really all about.

Having been close to one president and seeing future presidents-to-be, it is clear that the seat of power that rests in the executive branch of government draws men and women alike to long to partake of these fruits.

It is the nature of such human beings to make themselves important as they draw near this seat of power because all of a sudden, their opinions “matter,” certainly more than if they were simply opining ex-cathedra from the hallowed halls of academia.

Because of their proximity to “the real throne,” others seem to value their opinions more than if they were far away. They are perceived to be “in the know.” Such is the case with Scott McClellan and What Happened. Those seeking to find a failed presidency laid bare will certainly find what they’re looking for in McClellan’s book.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. A weekly round-up of The New Statesman's climate, environment and sustainability content. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Others, including those who also enjoyed a close proximity to power in the Bush Whitehouse, will have another competing opinion. My view is simple. We see things not as they are, but as “we are”. Facts rarely are stand-alone, but always need context to give them a rubric of meaning. In McClellan’s case, we understand now how “he is” and not necessarily how “it is.”

McClellan has been approached by many from all sides and his opinions have been sought. This means that he thinks his views are truly ‘what happened.’ His current point of view that is different from ones he expressed earlier and this only shows that he has either changed his mind, which is valid, or has sold out for money to others whose views he has newly acquired.

All of us who have been in politics for a long time marvel how each political point of view, represented on many cable ‘news’ networks have tried to mold McClellan’s work into their own agenda. Those who hate Bush view McClellan’s ‘journey to find himself’ as an expiation of the evil George Bush and his prime advisor ‘Darth Vader,’ or Vice President Cheney.

Others find betrayal in McClellan’s words and thus seek to marginalize his opinions. As far as the Republican Party is concerned, it is clear that its position will be one of pointing out that John McCain’s policy on the Iraq war diverges significantly from that of the current administation and so for the presidential election, McClelland’s book may serve to highlight the differences between McCain and Bush.

Clearly the Republicans will not want to rehash the conditions for going to war, those are in the past. The errors in judgement can be laid at the feet of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz about whom McCain has been critical. It will be viewed as a point of departure for a new Republican administration which will lead to victory in Iraq as contrasted by the policies of the Democrats who seem to be steeped in defeatism.

The one thing I know about a majority of Americans is that we hate to lose at anything. If the Republicans are careful to show that the McCain policies have a high probability of success, as contrasted to democratic opponents who are shown as the party of defeat, Republicans will win the election.

This is particularly so if the Republican Party can get its hands around such difficult issues such as health care, the mortgage crisis, and the looming recession. It is clear that McClelland had handed McCain a gift if he can capitalize on it.

The lesson of history comes from another McClellan who was the Democratic standard bearer in 1864. The ‘hated’ Lincoln was re-elected in a landslide even though he had a difficult unpopular war on his hands. By 1864 the tide had turned and the whiff of victory was in the air. If this can be done in 2008, the parallel will be complete.

William H. Pingree was a special assistant to President Ronald Reagan for Mideast and European affairs from 1982-1986 before becoming a private international relations consultant. He now teaches Political Science and International Relations at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah

Topics in this article: