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Joe Cutbirth

Joe Cutbirth

Posted: May 28, 2008 05:16 PM

Hey Scotty, Fool Us Once Shame on You. Fool Us Twice... Well...


Listen up, citizens. Breaking news here.

President Bush used "propaganda" to sell the invasion of Iraq, and the White House press corps was "too easy on the administration" during the run-up to the war. That's what former White House spokesman Scott McClellan has come forward to tell us in his book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception.

Now, McClellan has never been accused of being the sharpest knife in the drawer, but it's 2008, and somebody needs to tell him -- and his publisher -- most of us figured that out a long time ago.

What's really going on here is twofold, and both folds are ugly.

"My job was to advocate and defend his polices and speak on his behalf," McClellan said Tuesday in an interview with Ken Herman of Cox News Service. "This is an opportunity for me now to share my own views and perspective on things."

This, my friends, is utter garbage. It's the William Calley defense: "I was simply following orders." I don't buy it, and neither should you.

A lot of us are really angry at Bush, and there's a tendency to cheer when somebody -- anybody -- lands a punch on him. Clearly, more than a few members of the mainstream media share that frustration. The challenge is to slow down and not be fooled again.

We need to ask ourselves a fundamental question I teach students at Columbia journalism school: "When someone offers you something titillating and potentially damning to someone in the public eye, ask yourself, 'What does this person have to gain if I buy this story and repeat it to a larger audience?'"

The answer doesn't always determine whether to report the information, but it helps put the allegations in a broader and more appropriate context.

It doesn't take much sophistication to see this book is a self-serving public relations ploy by McClellan, who desperately needs to regain some semblance of credibility with the public and mainstream media. He's 40 years old, and he's been a political flack most of his adult life. Like those before him, McClellan is hoping to leverage the title of "former White House spokesman" -- the crest of honor he wore for nearly three years while he breached the public trust -- into a career as a high-paid media analyst or public relations guru.

The pathway, conventional D.C. wisdom says, is to dump on Bush and play the victim. Do it in a carefully orchestrated roll out of selected media interviews that qualify as news because of the source, not the substance of the material. It's an old story: No honor among thieves. Quel rat.

I haven't read the book, which is set for release on Monday, but when I do, I'll be looking for information I haven't seen in the early stories by selected reporters:

* When was the precise moment McClellan first knew the president of the United States and his inner circle were systematically lying to him?
* What was the tip-off, and is he now fully aware of every lie he told for Bush?
* And when he found out, why didn't he immediately resign and call a news conference to correct any and all false impressions he helped create about the Iraq war and the Valerie Plaime affair?

That's the story McClellan needs to tell. It's our national history. It's the mea culpa he has to offer to his real bosses -- those who paid his salary -- the American people.

Had McClellan done his due diligence and come clean in the fall of 2003 (a full year before the 2004 election) instead of waiting until 2008 and writing a book to profit from these scandals, our national history and involvement in this immoral war might be different.

McClellan alleges that Bush waged "a permanent campaign" that kept him from making the best decisions for the country. The irony is that is precisely what this seasoned public relations man is doing for himself by tossing the media tidbits about cocaine rumors and a specious meeting between Rove and Scooter Libby.

The sad thing is so many members of the media are falling for his tricks. Again.

I haven't read anything new in either case. Bush doesn't remember using cocaine. Is that a surprise? Libby and Rove talked behind closed doors but we don't know what they said. Oh my! Yet, those anecdotes are enough to throw out, yell "fetch," and whip into a frenzy bloggers and a press corps working in a 24-hour news cycle that favors sensationalism over substance.

This is McClellan's shot at shaping his place in history, and so far, the man who studied from the Bush/ Rove playbook for seven years is using the tricks he learned from the masters to deflect reporters from a simpler, more basic and more important story.

Something special and out of the ordinary is required for two positions in the executive branch: attorney general and White House spokesman. The person who takes either job must be accountable to the American people in a way other cabinet or administration offices aren't.

In the darkest days of Watergate, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than soil the history of the Justice Department by following Nixon's order to fire the special prosecutor. Like Richardson and Ruckelshaus, McClellan's salary was paid by you and me, but unlike them, his loyalty wasn't to us. It was to "the permanent campaign."

Every working day, day after day, for almost three years, McClellan woke up, shaved, got dressed, looked himself in the mirror and went to work where he made a series of conscious decisions about his public trust.

McClellan chose an ethic of obfuscation and manipulation rather than one of honestly and forthrightness. The record of every news briefing he gave, including the infamous one on Sept. 29, 2003, where he effectively cleared Rove and Libby of involvement in the Plaime affair, is available on the White House website. (Also noteworthy is the contentions exchange between McClellan, Terry Moran of ABC and David Gregory of NBC on July 11, 2005.)

McClellan is hoping we'll buy the story that he went to work for a good guy who had some bad advisers, and those bad advisers got between him and his boss and hung him out to dry. That is a simplistic bunch of hooey.

McClellan knew Rove -- Rove's contempt for the media and his zeal for manipulating it -- back in Texas, years before they went to the White House. Every press secretary knows the guys close to the boss think he is expendable, and every press secretary, just like every reporter, is responsible for verifying information before offering it to the public.

McClellan owes us more than titillating anecdotes about Bush and Rove. He is for better or worse a minor historic figure, and he owes history the complete and full answer to some simple questions, beginning with: "When did you first realize you had been sent out to lie to the American people, and why didn't you resign and come clean immediately?"

That is the story, here. Until McClellan comes forward with an honest answer about the details surrounding that, he and his cleverly crafted book and the public relations tour to sell it are simply more of "Washington's Culture of Deception."

Related: Scott McLellan, Former Press Secretary, Attacks Bush's White House