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It comes perhaps as no surprise that Americans appreciate above all things the need for a stout, bright heart in the White House. After all, George Washington certainly did; his book of maxims (distributed, free of charge, to generations of American schoolchildren) includes this resolution: “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an Honest Man.”
While today we might feel compelled to use the language of gender neutrality, the same sentiment prevails. We want from our leaders not an aristocrat’s aloofness but the broad appeal of a character whittled smooth by hard work and strong values, one given not to bombast but to good country straight talk—be that over potatoes and Yuengling in Altoona, Pennsylvania, or fried steak and Lost Duck in Altoona, Iowa. With some unabashed image engineering, it turns out, nothing else really matters.
This much seems obvious in light of recent bids at de-starching the whitest collars for election: be he a millionaire actor or a dyed-in-the-cashmere Connecticut Yankee, your candidate can also be Washington’s “Honest Man”—firm and virtuous enough, at least, to win the White House.
This strategy was never stretched to its limits until 2004, however, when a blue-blooded Yale graduate and oil executive who pulled strings to duck Vietnam was cast as the anti-elitist, the living, breathing Good Ol’ Boy to John Kerry’s pharaonic mummy. A September poll that year showed that—war be damned—nearly 60 percent of undecided voters would prefer having a beer with Bush. Pundits pounced, and Republican staffers rejoiced: The plan had worked.
Not without a little elbow grease, though. Team Crawford had been running damage control for more than a decade, trying to keep a long youth—marked chiefly by a drunk-driving arrest and a 2.35 grade point average—from interfering with political destiny. To quote the president himself, at his question-begging best: “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.”
On that team was baby-faced Texan politico Scott McClellan, one of W’s spokesmen since 1999. Mr. McClellan was on hand in August of that year to deflect allegations of cocaine abuse, replying only that his employer had “learned from his mistakes.” Finding Laura, finding Jesus, and abandoning the B & B: a bad-boy-gone-golden narrative is always preferable to the sanctimony of lifelong sobriety.
That October, when primary opponent and then-maverick John McCain raged against an article he suggested Bush staffers planted, Mr. McClellan was there, too, wondering aloud where the boss could not: “We’re somewhat puzzled at the way Senator McCain is reacting. It’s totally ridiculous to think that we control what The New York Times writes.”
The thing about Bush’s celebrated political Teflon is that it rarely involves the candidate alone; rather, a staff of loyal vassals works—and works hard—to subtly detect, derail and discredit all threats, like dogs wandering a minefield.
This dynamic was most excruciatingly apparent during Mr. McClellan’s tenure as White House Press Secretary. Conferences took on the character of one-sided dodgeball matches. Years into his relationship with Bush, after the big guy had called him a “good man” for the job, McClellan could be seen daily, sweating through David Gregory’s heartless probing and engaging in all the party-line prevarication his job description came to entail.
Perhaps McClellan’s resignation in 2006 was for him a merciful release; for Bush, it was part of a politically prudent changing of the guard, after midterm elections revealed the precise limits of “likeability.” At this point, most centrist Americans had rethought their earlier decision, and preferred to take their hypothetical beer for the road.
So Scott left the building, practically invisible in the noisy exodus of Messrs. Card, Rumsfeld, Rove, and Gonzales. Two years have elapsed since Bush bid his friend and mouthpiece farewell with this prediction: “One of these days, he and I are going to be rocking in chairs in Texas talking about the good old days of his time as the press secretary. And I can assure you, I will feel the same way then that I feel now, that I can say to Scott, job well done.”
For a while, it looked as though Bush’s predictive abilities might not be as bad as they seemed. In April of 2007, Scott McClellan reappeared on “Real Time with Bill Maher”—a private citizen, but still Bush’s proxy—to go head-to-head with former Sen. Bill Bradley. Repeatedly asked to lay out the rationale for the catastrophic war in Iraq, the once-and-future spokesman stammered back: “No, let me talk about where we are right now…We can do—we went in—we went in—because that’s already been laid out.”
Today, even that seems long ago. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Bill Maher’s still on the air, the New York Times is still dressing down Sen. McCain, and George W. Bush is still existentially, even blissfully, puzzled. Only the object has changed, to McClellan himself—or at least so says current Press Secretary Dana Perino.
After months of rumbling, the press corps’ one-time whipping-boy has spoken up for himself in a new book, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.” In it, McClellan labels some of his public statements as propaganda and attributes Bush’s fall from grace to a Machiavellian lack of candor among top advisors like Karl Rove.
Much ado has been made about the book. Beyond the bemusement of McClellan’s former comrades, former Sen. Bob Dole—getting sentimental in his old age—called its author a “miserable creature” who “cashed in,” while Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler has asked that McClellan officially bite the hand that fed him before the House Judiciary Committee. For his part, the former fall guy has only cited a new “loyalty to the truth,” one that supplants his former allegiance to the president.
Of course, it would be hard to cast What Happened as an admirable confession; it seems that McClellan waited a little too long to drop a dime on his former employer. Even in it, a rosy tint lingers around the image of Mr. Bush himself. McClellan calls him “sincere,” and displaces blame onto Rove and his ilk.
What is most interesting about the book, though, is what it says about the fleeting spell of Bush loyalty; the rhetorical Red-Rover that formed up around the president can be broken up, after all. It draws into relief the startling extent to which modern politics have become a merciless team sport—the great sins of the last seven years would never have been possible without diffusion, delegation, and the occasional concession at the margins—a Cabinet member here or there, one counsel for another.
But what about the captain? The verdict is still out, though we may proceed with another maxim in mind. In his Strength to Love, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” McClellan’s career, like many others’, was spent concealing President Bush, absorbing his controversies, and dismissing the many challenges made in decision after poor, duplicitous decision.
With the revelations made in the past week, Americans ought to wonder whether they have ever actually seen this president stare down a storm on his own, and whether he has ever, with the privilege of principle and information on his side, overruled the bleak drumbeat of his éminence grise. And, if not, we may be forced to ask if he is instead merely a overgrown boy, coasting along a dark sea—full of bravado, without a care, and with all of us in tow.
James M. Larkin ’10, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator in Quincy house.
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