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Kiss and Tell

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Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's memoir, with its implication that President Bush and his allies overhyped the threat represented by Iraq to explain our attack on that country, is just the latest in the interminable series of "kiss and tell" accounts by former presidential aides purporting to reveal the deceptions, or at least exaggerations, used by our successive presidents or their spokesmen and media defenders to justify their actions.


There is always a ravenous market for such "exposes." The administration's political opponents leap upon them to "prove" the administration was lying; the media swell the chorus; and the public -- always nervously on guard against being deceived by their politicians -- tend to accept the charges uncritically. The exposer, who in most cases actively participated in any deception there was, gets a free pass for his complicity and high praise for his (belated) candor, and the sales of his book (there is practically always a book) go up. The advance the publisher paid him will already have factored in whatever profit is expected to be realized from the charges -- the more incendiary, of course, the better.

This is an old, old story. McClellan's version of it is largely remarkable, if at all, for how little misbehavior it actually reveals. Frank Rich, in The New York Times, all but bites himself in two trying to flog McClellan's book for some revealing tidbits but is finally forced to admit that there aren't any. "There is no news in his book," Rich laments, "hardly the first to charge that the White House used propaganda to sell its war. ... (T)he tale of how the White House ginned up the war is an old story." So Rich settles for contending that "the big new news is how ferocious a hold this familiar tale still exerts on the public all these years later." How's that for a headline?


Every president's White House is a set-up for such exposes. There is always a more or less official account, and explanation, of every presidential action. And in the nature of things, the whole story will be at least a little more complicated, if not strikingly different. People working in the White House will tend to know this whole story, and as the years go by, their attitude toward it may change. They may become disaffected or disgruntled. In our day, there will most certainly be a market for accounts of what happened that differ markedly from the accepted version -- the more sharply and more negatively, the better. So, at a minimum, the price of a discreditable account keeps going up.

McClellan is just a former press secretary, with his fair share of inside stories (true or not), grudges (justified or otherwise) and financial needs. He may have children to put through college, or a dignified retirement for himself and his wife to hope for, and he probably cannot expect some lucrative job to fur-trim his later days. He has had his moment in the sun, and the warmth is only going to decline from now on.

So I have a certain amount of sympathy for the squeeze in which McClellan found himself, and for the temptation he felt when his editors suggested (as they apparently did) that a bigger book advance would be justifiable if he could just think of some piece of raw meat to toss to the political and journalistic dogs who are always out there, ready to chew on the incumbent president of the United States.


As a matter of fact, the real surprise is how minimally discreditable Bush's alleged false "disclosures" were. Bush's central charge against Saddam Hussein was that he had nuclear weapons -- a belief Hussein worked heroically to spread, with such success that it was believed by all of the world's major intelligence agencies (including ours). If Hussein had indeed had them, and used them, Bush's critics would now be trying to impeach him for not knowing this and taking pre-emptive action to disarm the Iraqi regime.

Instead, Rich is reduced to complaining that "Americans don't like being lied to by their leaders" -- as if he has demonstrated that Bush knew the charges were false. But it isn't their leaders who are lying to the American people. It's the propagandists like Rich.


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