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The Miami Herald

McClellan's 'Mea Culpa' Way Too Late

Leonard Pitts Jr.

"The first grave mistake of Bush's presidency was rushing toward military confrontation with Iraq. It took his presidency off course and greatly damaged his standing with the public. His second grave mistake was his virtual blindness about his first mistake . . . ''-- Scott McClellan in What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception.

Years ago, I gave one of my kids some advice. Don't do such-and-such, I said. If you do, so-and-so is going to happen and it will not be pretty.

Naturally, the kid did not take my advice and the outcome I predicted came to pass. Sometime later, we're riding along and the kid turns to me and says, in a tone of wonder, "You were right.''

You may think this was an ''I told you so'' moment. Actually, it would have been an attempted homicide moment had I not been driving. ''You were right?!'' Like this was news? Like it was a revelation? I knew I was right. Any intelligent adult would have known I was right. Being right was not rocket science. So I didn't need any belated validation. I needed for this kid to have listened to me. What headaches and hardship might have been avoided had this child only listened?

The analogy is imperfect for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Scott McClellan is not my child. Yet I hope it imparts some sense of how it feels to choke down the new book by the former Bush White House spokesman in which he finally acknowledges that, yes, whaddayou know, the war in Iraq was a blunder, marketed like McDonald's to a compliant public and a prone press, and exacerbated by the inability of an incurious president to face any reality that conflicted with the fantasies he had erected around him.

Defender of Iraq debacle

It is hard to imagine a public confession more extraordinarily frustrating or profoundly unsatisfying.

For almost three years, McClellan was the lead salesman and staunch defender of the Iraq debacle, the man who swore with a straight face and evident sincerity that up was down and black, white. Now here he comes with this remarkable mea culpa, and it's hard to know what he expects a reader to take away.

There is no cheap joy of ''I told you so'' in this book. Too many people are limbless, maimed and dead for that, too much treasure is lost, too many lives are ruined, too much national prestige has been peed away.


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And if the idea is for McClellan to reclaim his integrity, well, that ship has sailed -- and sunk. The time for integrity was four or five years ago when telling the truth would have required some guts, when it might have meant something, challenged something, changed something.

A publicity hound?

But four years ago, McClellan was too busy savaging a man who did have the integrity to speak truth to power in the moment when it mattered. When former White House counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke made some of the same arguments in his book Against All Enemies that McClellan makes now, McClellan led the White House counterattack, calling Clarke a publicity hound with no credibility.

It is ironic -- and satisfyingly appropriate -- that angry defenders of the president are now leveling the same charges against McClellan.

But that's a political sideshow that doesn't move the ball forward a single inch. Not that there's anything really to do at this point other than hope whoever becomes president in January will bring to the Oval Office a capacity for reason and an ability to countenance unwelcome realities that haven't been seen in that space for far too long.

Between now and then, we are left to ponder this sad, meaningless little confession. Perhaps the best response is simply, thanks for nothing.

You may think that's harsh. I think there are few things less satisfying than being validated in what you already knew, too late to make a difference.

--Leonard Pitts Jr.

Copyright 2008 Miami Herald Media Co.

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