Revenge of the Nerd

Posted: May 30, 2008 12:01 AM
Revenge of the Nerd

Sometimes the answers to our most perplexing questions can be found on the playground.

Take Scott McClellan. Is he dishonest? Dishonorable? Disloyal? Is he telling the truth that the Bush administration conducted an organized propaganda campaign in order to lead the country to war?

Did McClellan know it all along and, if so, why did he hang so long with those guys?

Curious Americans want to know.

At the White House, former colleagues wonder what happened to the Scott they thought they knew? What caused that sweet guy to betray his former boss and friends with a tell-all memoir -- "What Happened" -- already No. 1 on Amazon?

Who is that unmasked man?

Suddenly, benign Scott McClellan is the serial killer next door whom stunned neighbors recall as "kinda quiet but always polite, a loner," whose garden was, come to think of it, suspiciously fertile.

Maybe what happened isn't as complicated as a moral dilemma tied to catastrophic events -- a devastating hurricane or a questionable war. Maybe McClellan wasn't as conflicted about those issues as we might wish him to have been.

Maybe he was just seething with rage.

After all, the honorable man knows what to do when he believes that the president is lying about something as serious as the need for war. An honorable man quits his job rather than be complicit in fatal fraud. He stops the lie in its tracks and heads straight to the nation's newsrooms.

Immediately. Not after he's left the job.

But McClellan didn't do that. Instead, he warmed himself by the glow of the inner circle and stood before the nation as a bumbling, inept spokesman, saying nothing repeatedly -- and badly. It couldn't have been easy to be so flawlessly awful or to suffer the media's relentless evisceration.

McClellan wasn't merely bad. Being an incompetent communicator was both his job description and a Bush administration strategy to geld the media, according to New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen.

In his "rollback" theory, Rosen suggested that the Bush administration wanted to "downgrade the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country."

Instead of feeding the beast, as past administrations had done in hopes of receiving favorable coverage, the Bush White House decided to starve it, said Rosen. McClellan was selected as the best man to withhold nourishment. Not only was he willing, but he seemed to have a gift for non-communication.

Indeed, he tended to make things less clear the more he talked, which Rosen assumed was as Bush liked it.

Adding to the humiliation of being inarticulate in front of the national media were the incessant characterizations of McClellan as a loser. Michael Wolff's Vanity Fair profile was particularly brutal and, perhaps, predictive of the revenge to come. McClellan, Wolff wrote, seemed to have "some terrible social disability," and had become a "kick-me archetype" in the press briefing room. "He's Piggy in 'Lord of the Flies': a living victim, whose reason for being is, apparently, to shoulder public ridicule and pain (or, come to think of it, he's Squealer from 'Animal Farm'). He's the person nobody would ever choose to be."

Few can read those words and not feel some empathy for McClellan -- the picked-on boy who just wanted to be one of the cool guys. With few friends and no respect from peers, it seems entirely plausible that McClellan began plotting his revenge long ago. That behind his flaccid facade of befuddled calm was a focused mind marking time.

He would show the Bushies -- and he would show the world -- that Scott McClellan was nobody's chump.

Fast-forward to this week and McClellan is no longer a socially disabled, farcical figure bullied by the press, but king of the bully pulpit -- a triumph of lucidity. All he had to do was switch sides and say what the vast majority of Americans already believe.

Who's the fool now?

Unfortunately for the short, unhappy political life of Scott McClellan, the boy who squealed all the way home may be stuck with the title after all. Because no matter how sweet the revenge, on the playground, the snitch is trusted by no one.

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