Tale of Two Books

Posted: Jun 02, 2008 12:58 PM
Tale of Two Books

            I don’t generally make a habit of disagreeing with Peggy Noonan.  She is after all, one of the most thoughtful, accomplished and influential wordsmiths of our time.  She is also a much-admired friend and colleague.

            In an essay published last week in the Wall Street Journal last weekend, however, Peggy offered what amounted to a defense of Scott McClellan’s new memoir of his years in the George W. Bush administration, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. To be fair, it wasn’t much of a defense; she took the former press secretary to task for writing a cliché-ridden, “lumpy, uneven and… embarrassing” tome.

            Still, Ms. Noonan welcomed McClellan’s book as a contribution to a needed “debate on the issues” he addressed – notably, the grounds for the United States going to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  As everyone knows by now, the one-time Bush press flak came, in the course of writing this book (evidently with considerable help, read “spinning,” from the left-wing publisher of George Soros’ screeds, Public Affairs), to view the invasion of Iraq as “a serious strategic blunder” arising from a decision that was itself “a fateful misstep.”

            Peggy Noonan declared that she “believes” McClellan and urged that more people “who work or worked within the Bush White House will address the book’s themes and interpretations.” She adds: “What’s needed now? More memoirs, more data, more information, more testimony. More serious books, like Doug Feith’s.  More ‘this is what I saw’ and ‘this is what is true.’  Feed history.”

            I confess I have not read Scott McClellan’s book.  In fact, I could not even get a copy at my local Barnes and Nobles, as they were sold out and hopelessly back-ordered.  So this is not a book review, just an observation, based on the wall-to-wall reporting on the contents of What Happened and the post-publication public statements of its author:  With all due respect, I think Peggy Noonan is wrong.  The world does not need more such books.

            Neither history nor the public’s current need for accurate information about its leaders and their conduct are advanced by more self-aggrandizing, -justifying and -serving memoirs characterized by an almost total lack of discipline.

    A man who was not present at the wartime councils that led up to the invasion of Iraq is entitled to his views – irrespective of how they differ from those he held at the time.  It is, however, altogether another matter to regard McClellan’s current depiction of the subject of the Iraq war as somehow illuminating of what went on “inside the Bush White House,” let alone as dispositive concerning whether the President deliberately misled the American people on the timing and content of his decision to launch the invasion.

            The irony is that, even as she erred in this respect, Ms. Noonan recognized what really is needed: “more serious books, like Doug Feith’s.” Readers of this column will recall that Mr. Feith, the former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and another friend and colleague, has written War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism.  It is the definitive account of the considerations and deliberations that led to the liberation of Iraq and other actions taken in the wake of and in response to the September 11 attacks.  An objective reader will see the case for war was thoughtfully arrived at and persuasively made, not “a fatal misstep” or “strategic blunder.”

            The difference between the two ostensibly “insider” accounts could not be more stark.  Where McClellan was not a participant in the decision-making he finds so objectionable, Feith was.  Where McClellan fails to document any of his pronouncements, Feith documents all of his – including, notably, via a website devoted to making declassified papers and other decision-related materials readily accessible to historians and interested citizens.

            Of course, the most profound contrast between the two books is in how they have been received.  McClellan’s has dominated the airwaves and print outlets for days.  Feith’s has received considerable critical acclaim and pick-up in the alternative media – which recognizes the book’s value in countering the “Bush lied, people died” and other urban legends, but nowhere near the mainstream media coverage.  In fact, the New York Times and Washington Post have refused to review it.

            It is not as though Mr. Feith has been uncritical of the Bush administration.  War and Decision lets the chips fall where they may, including with respect to errors made by the author himself.  Interestingly, the day before the McClellan book-selling bandwagon got underway, Ms. Noonan’s Journal published an op.ed. article adapting part of the Feith book under the headline “How Bush Sold the War.” It took to task the President and his handlers – which, ironically, included at the time Scott McClellan – for failing in the aftermath of Saddam’s overthrow consistently to justify that act on vital national security grounds, rather than exclusively as a contribution to democracy-building.

            There is one other noteworthy contrast in this tale of two books.  Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace suggested during last weekend’s show that Scott McClellan might want to counter criticisms of his cashing in on his memoirs by donating the proceeds of the book sales to a charity for veterans of the war that has, evidently, caused him such anguish.  No such encouragement was needed by Doug Feith; he made that commitment from the get-go. 

            On this Peggy Noonan and I agree.  We certainly need more serious books like Doug Feith’s War and Decision.