At the White House, Truth is a Casualty
At the risk of taking a Bob Dylan lyric completely out of context, the amphetamine-fueled singer articulated the perfect line about modern presidents' relationship to truth back in 1965 when he sneered: "Obscenity, who really cares / propaganda, all is phony."
All is phony, indeed. As usual, phoniness begins at the top. In an excerpt from "What Happened," a tell-all that won't be published until April 2008, former White House press secretary Scott McClellan admitted that he may have been President Bush's accidental propagandist during his undistinguished stint in Washington's version of the Augean stables:
"The most powerful leader in the world had called upon me to speak on his behalf and help restore credibility he lost amid the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
"So I stood at the White House briefing room podium in front of the glare of the klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.
"There was one problem. It was not true. I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice president, the president's chief of staff and the president himself."
Since posting the excerpt on its Web site, the book's publisher, PublicAffairs, has already begun its unseemly ritual backpedaling: Of course Mr. McClellan wasn't saying that he was personally misled by Mr. Bush, no matter what the excerpt indicates. Sure, the language is blunt and declarative, but that's books by former White House press secretaries for you. Blah, blah, blah!
When the president's surrogates finish sliming Mr. McClellan for explaining the slippery nature of truth in the Bush White House, the actual text of "What Happened" will probably be drained of its most controversial elements when it finally hits the book skids at Wal-Mart in the spring.
"The president has not and would not ask his spokespeople to pass false information," said White House press secretary Dana Perino. She said it was difficult for the White House to react to the book excerpt because it wasn't clear what the passage meant without the context of the entire book.
Who knew that assessing an unflattering comment by a former administration insider required a background in semiotics and linguistic philosophy?
Assuming this story hasn't completely disappeared by the middle of next week, Ms. Perino will probably begin insinuating that her predecessor either misunderstood his job or has willfully misrepresented -- in exchange for a large book advance -- the role his former superiors played in the leak of former CIA officer Valerie Plame's name.
So far, only lefty-oriented blogs and Keith Olbermann, the Don Quixote of broadcast journalism, are making a big deal about the teaser from the book. The mainstream media is either bored by the thought of another plunge into l'affaire Plame or numb at the prospect of cataloguing yet another series of lies by an administration that would get and deserve banner headlines if it ever bothered to tell the truth about anything.
When Mr. McClellan announced last year that he was leaving the administration, Mr. Bush rolled out his corniest bromides for his departing Texas crony whose sweaty forehead had been telegraphing the opposite of what had been coming out of his mouth for years:
"I don't know whether or not the press corps realizes this, but his is a challenging assignment dealing with you all on a regular basis," Mr. Bush said, laying it on thick about a guy whose conscience had obviously begun to get to him. The press snickered at being insulted by the commander in chief yet again. "And I thought he handled his assignment with class, integrity. He really represents the best of his family, our state and our country. It's going to be hard to replace Scott. But, nevertheless, he's made the decision and I accept it."
If Scott McClellan and his publisher intended only to indict the White House chain of command, but not the president himself, the best Mr. Bush could expect would be to look out of touch. The publisher chose the most inflammatory excerpt possible to attract media attention. Claiming that Mr. McClellan's intention is being distorted is a little disingenuous.
When his successor Tony Snow finally writes his own account of his White House years, it will be a guaranteed blockbuster with or without unflattering verdicts about the president. Mr. Snow's witty stonewalling was an awesome thing to behold.
But we all know that Mr. Snow, a former Fox News talking head, isn't so blinded by loyalty to his former boss that he would be tentative about criticizing him if he felt compelled to do so. Let me be as bold as to suggest a possible title for a Mr. Snow tell-all: "I Can't Believe I Actually Took Orders from that Guy."
Tony Norman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631.
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