A review of Scott McClellan’s What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington Culture of Deception by a political independent.
It is obvious from reading Scott McClellan’s What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington Culture of Deception, that he still admires and respects George W. Bush. That said, McClellan’s basic premise in the book is that Bush’ greatest mistake was turning away from “candor and honesty when those qualities were most needed.” (P.xii)
McClellan makes the argument that Bush came to Washington fully intending to reach across party lines, as he had done in Texas, to bring civility back to Washington government. However, along the way Bush and some of his closest advisors got caught up in a sordid trifecta that pervades Washington politics: government as a permanent campaign, the scandal culture, and politics as war.
The case that McClellan uses to chiefly illustrate this point revolves around the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concerning yellowcake and the disclosure of Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA agent. In what seems to be an act of self-vindication and contrition, McClellan details who knew what and when, and how he was duped. In the process, he reveals some of the nastiness pervading the Bush White House.
To recap, a major factor in selling the Iraq war was the oft-repeated claim by Bush and the administration that Saddam Hussein was aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons. That claim had its basis in the NIE of October 2002, which erroneously reported Saddam had been trying to buy fissile uranium concentrates, known as yellowcake, in Niger. Prior to the NIE, Vice President Cheney asked the CIA about an intelligence report on the same subject. In February 2002, the CIA sent former ambassador Joe Wilson to Africa to investigate. Wilson discounted the report. CIA later admitted publicly that the report was based on forged documents. In July 2003, Wilson went public with his assertion that the war was based in part on information which the administration knew to be false. McClellan asserts that Cheney led the attack to discredit Wilson and possibly to retaliate against him. In the ensuing debacle of secret leaks to selected reporters, Wilson’s wife’s (Plame) identity as a CIA agent became public knowledge; potentially a felony offense. Scooter Libby, Cheney’s chief of staff, was subsequently convicted of obstructing justice in the investigation which followed. However, Libby’s sentence was commuted by President Bush.
According to McClellan, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, and Andrew Card were all involved either in falsely discrediting Wilson, outing Plame, or deceiving McClellan regarding the case, who unwittingly passed false information to the press.
Karl Rove is portrayed as the most Machiavellian of the group. While McClellan has unkind words for Donald Rumsfeld, he also paints an unflattering picture of Condoleeza Rice. McClellan states that, as National Security Adviser, she preferred to carry out Bush’s plans rather than educate him on facts. She initially blamed the CIA for allowing the yellowcake misinformation to be used in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union speech. Later, when she discovered that her office was responsible for the error, she allowed her deputy, Steve Hadley, to take the blame, unlike CIA director George Tenet who publicly took full responsibility for anything his agency reported.
There is a chapter devoted to Hurricane Katrina.
Of Bush, McClellan describes him in various places as:
- having a vision to recreate the Middle East by forcing democracy on Iraq and Afghanistan;
- possessing an understanding that “only a wartime president is likely to achieve greatness,” (P.131);
- being an instinctive rather than an intellectual leader, basing decisions on gut reactions and deeply held convictions;
- confident, quick-witted, down-to-earth, stubborn, and sincere.
McClellan himself comes across as somewhat naïve, particularly with his experience with politics, which he discusses at length. He grew up in Texas politics. His grandfather taught law at the University of Texas, where his grandmother was a law student. His mother served on the Austin board of education and was once mayor of Austin. McClellan himself worked on several campaigns in Texas, including running his mother’s first successful attempt at state office. Given his background and all that was going on in Washington, one might have expected more skepticism from McClellan.
Overall, it is an easy and interesting read, though limited in scope, offering insight into the character, or lack thereof, of several prominent people in the George W. Bush administrations, including the president.
For more understanding on how and why we went to war with Iraq, read James Bamford’s, A Pretext For War, and Bob Woodward’s, State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III.
Jeffrey M. Freeman is the author of Wrong Enemy, Wrong War. He served the Army and Army Reserve for thirty-three years including thirteen years at the Pentagon. Jeff was recalled from retirement from 2003-05 to work on the Joint Staff history of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM.