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White House Backstabbing for Fun and Profit

Scott McClellan was plucked from obscurity by then-Governor George W. Bush in 1999 to become deputy communications director (he was chief of staff for a Texas state senator). He was given the job of traveling press secretary for Bush-Cheney in 2000 and rewarded with the top communications post in the White House — press secretary — in 2003, succeeding the burned-out Ari Fleisher. McClellan is not a very popular fellow at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue today.

It’s a safe assumption to make that without George Bush, Scott McClellan would still be in Texas, glad handing other state senators, eating greasy barbecue on the campaign trail, watching endless baton twirling routines by cute little 8-year-old girls in hideously revealing outfits (and being forced to clap), and giving interviews to the Turnbull Weekly Shopper. Instead, he became the second most visible person in the White House, calling star reporters by their first name and able to get Ben Bradlee on the phone anytime he wished.

Now I’m a sort of old fashioned curmudgeon. Not a Victorian, mind you, but no doubt born in the wrong time. To my sensibilities, if someone were to do me a life altering favor such as tapping me on the shoulder and asking me to represent the president of these United States before the news media when just a few years previously I was jawboning ranchers to help pass a school lunch bill, I just might carry around feelings of loyalty and respect for pretty much the rest of my life.

But I’m not Scott McClellan and no one dangled a 7-figure advance in front of my face to write a book that would kick my old boss in the groin when he’s already down for the count and bleeding profusely.

McClellan is not the only Bushie to cash in on the times, the drama, and the peculiar satisfaction people get when reading about the president’s failures and blunders. Fired Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill wrote The Price of Loyalty in 2002,a kiss and tell book which claimed that Bush was “detached” from events that were going on and his economic policies were “irresponsible.” He also stated that the war in Iraq had been planned since the first national security council meeting.

But O’Neil’s book didn’t have much impact because most of official Washington realized it was an exercise in payback. The treasury secretary got the ax and was publicly castrated when the administration let on he didn’t have the “gravitas” with Wall Street to give the investors any confidence in the Bush economic plan. O’Neill couldn’t let that challenge to his manhood go by without a riposte so he wrote his poison pen letter of a book, getting in as many shots as he could.

Something similar happened when counterterrorism pro Richard Clarke was shouldered aside in a power grab by then National Security Council Chief Condoleezza Rice. Clarke went from having every day access to the president and being in charge of the nation’s counter terror efforts to filing reports with Rice for the president’s perusal just like any other normal White House staffer. Whether it was because he was passed over or some other more partisan reason, Clarke’s book Against all Enemies laid the blame for 9/11 at Bush’s door and ended up absolving himself of most of the failures that led to that awful day.

Why would aides and cabinet secretaries do something that at the very least is perceived as being a betrayal of the man who gave them a front row seat at the making of history? The phenomenon has not been limited to the Bush administration. The late historian Arthur Schlesinger notes in this PBS Newshour transcript that William Duane, Andrew Jackson’s treasury secretary, wrote a book attacking the president after Jackson fired him. And Newsweek reported that one of FDR’s major advisors, Raymond Moley, wrote a book in 1939 charging that Roosevelt had been captured by the far left.

Presidential historian Michael Beschloss points out that, even with those examples, what McClellan did is very unusual by historical standards. He explains why such behavior was seen as traitorous:

Basically there was a feeling about government — before the last 30 or 40 years — that if you leave in protest, you go quietly. For instance, in Roosevelt’s case, his assistant secretary of the Treasury was Dean Acheson. After the first year [Acheson] was very unhappy about one of Roosevelt’s monetary policies and he quit–and he did it quietly. He was disenchanted with Roosevelt, but publicly people didn’t know the reason why–he just said that it was time to leave. And Roosevelt later said to someone, I really disagreed with Acheson, I was upset when he left. But look at Dean Acheson: that’s an example of the way a gentleman resigns.

What about a more recent example?

Probably the most spectacular example would be [Richard Nixon’s White House counsel] John Dean, who did not resign in protest. He left in the spring of ’73 after he concluded that Nixon was setting him up to be the scapegoat for Watergate … But only a couple months later, in June of ’73, only a couple of months after he’s left the White House, he goes before Congress and accuses Nixon of impeachable offenses and begins his testimony by saying, “I hope the president will be forgiven.” And then goes on to say a lot of things [that Nixon did] that are pretty unforgivable.

The historian then talks about a speechwriter for Eisenhower who was going to write a mildly critical book after the president had already been out of office:

There’s no rule. There used to be that there was an unwritten rule that you never write while the president is in office and even for some time after that. Eisenhower had a speechwriter called Emmet John Hughes … [His] book was called “The Ordeal of Power,” and it was pretty mild criticism. It basically said, Eisenhower was a great man, he was so popular, why didn’t he use his popularity for greater things than he did?” This is not an expose, this is not the kind of thing that we’re talking about later on. Eisenhower heard about it while the book was still in manuscript. He was irate. The book was supposed to be published by Doubleday, which was Eisenhower’s publisher. Eisenhower went to Doubleday and told them to cancel the contract–which they did.

John F. Kennedy was somewhat obsessed about staffers who would end up writing books about him. Bobby told John that they really had to give Arthur Schlesinger a job because he was going to write a book about the administration anyway and he may as well get it from the inside rather than outside where they couldn’t control him.

Ronald Reagan dealt with a trio of employees who ended up contributing to the erroneous image of him as genial dunce. Of the three, former Chief of Staff Donald Regan’s book was the nastiest — a bile-filled reminisce that took particular aim at Nancy Reagan who came off as a cross between Leona Helmsley and the Wicked Witch of the West.

But if there was one thing that all these previous books had in common it is that they were written by fairly substantial men who built solid reputations outside of government. They may have been obscure prior to coming to Washington, but because they were hardly without life achievements their service in government was something like the culmination of a long career. Loyalty was a secondary consideration to playing politics or rescuing a reputation as was the case with both Regan and Alexander Haig, who felt slighted by the Reagan White House when they didn’t think he should act as something of a co-president with the Gipper.

George Stephanopoulos came in for similar criticism as McClellan when he published All Too Human almost two full years before Bill Clinton left office. The book angered Clinton partisans for its frank discussion of the president’s failings and raised many of the same questions being asked about McClellan’s book. But Stephanopoulos was an administration insider and the book was enormously valuable for the insight it gave into how the Clinton White House really operated.

Not so Mr. McClellan. He was far from being an administration big shot. He had no reputation to rescue nor did he necessarily have a political axe to grind. He wrote his vicious little pamphlet and nailed it to the wall because his publisher recognized a market for his scribblings, nothing more. There is doubtless some historical value in what we are told is a book all of 321 pages, although I doubt whether it would be anything much beyond footnote worthy. In essence, Mr. McClellan sold his memories — faulty or otherwise — for no other reason than he could.

Nothing wrong with making a lot of money, I’ll grant that to him. But in McClellan’s case, one wonders if the idea of loyalty to a man who changed his life forever by taking him in when he was little more than a Texas political jobber ever crossed his mind.

Sleep well, Scotty.

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