What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, by Scott McClellan

Almost 20 years ago I was head of communication at a major company, and I spent much of every day speaking with reporters. The deal I had with the CEO was straightforward: “I won’t lie to you; I won’t lie for you; you can’t lie to me.”

At one point my boss lied to me, hoping I would pass the lie on to the press. I called him on it, and he promised not to do it again. Then he did it again. I unknowingly passed the lie on to reporters. They found out, and called me on it. So I quit.

Leaving my job wasn’t a hard decision, even though it was a painful one. Among other things, my wife was pregnant with our first child. And I didn’t have another job to go to. But it was one of the best decisions I’ve made.

Then as now I taught communication ethics in a graduate program at NYU. And one of the perennial questions of communication ethics is: When is it necessary to quit? I don’t suggest that there are easy answers. Every circumstance is a bit different. And it’s a highly personal choice. But there are consequences to making the wrong choice. And we all have to own the consequences of our choices.

Comes now Scott McClellan, in a tell-all book about his time as press secretary for President George W. Bush, that will be published next week.

I don’t need to re-hash all that’s in the book, which has been excerpted in major media and the subject of endless commentary on television.

But here are some salient points.

Referring to the outing of CIA spy Valerie Plame, McClellan says, according to excerpts on the publisher’s website:

“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.”

I sympathize with his plight. And McClellan further says that he didn’t realize he had been lied to until years later, after he left the White House. OK.

But the signs that his bosses were untrustworthy were already visible back then. He either missed them or didn’t care at the time. But he seems to care now.

A Culture of Deception

In excerpts published by Politico.com, McClellan diagnoses what went wrong with the Bush administration, in its lack of honesty before and after the invasion of Iraq and in its failed attempt to deal with Hurricane Katrina:

“[President Bush] and his advisers confused the propaganda campaign with the high level of candor and honesty so fundamentally needed to build and then sustain public support during a time of war. … In this regard, he was terribly ill-served by his top advisers, especially those involved directly in national security.”

I have less sympathy with this. It seems outright disingenuous.

While I agree with the point about confusing propaganda with candor, the paragraph seems to be a propaganda-like maneuver.

First, it doesn’t hold the president accountable for his own and his administration’s actions, just the president’s advisors.

Second, there’s no suggestion in the excerpts published so far that McClellan tried to change the culture, to introduce the high level of candor and honesty that he now admits was necessary to sustain public support.

Third, unlike the closely-held lie about Plame’s outing, the case against Iraq was the subject of much public discussion throughout 2002 and 2003, and continuing to the present. Someone concerned about honesty and acting in good faith would at least have expressed curiosity about the other points of view in play at the time.

The UN weapons inspectors, right up to the month the US invaded, continued to affirm that there was no evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. And throughout that period knowledgeable commentators questioned the president’s, vice president’s, the secretary of defense’s rationales for going to war. Indeed, those rationales kept changing.

Even as debates raged in the US, other nations’ intelligence services were keenly aware of the propaganda campaign that the administration was conducting.

In July, 2002, fully nine months before the invasion of Iraq, the head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service briefed the Prime Minister and other senior British government ministers on the US run-up to war.

According to minutes of that meeting published by the Times of London in 2005:

“C reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime’s record. There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.”

But the senior-most levels of US government refused even to acknowledge that the case was anything but –- to quote the then-Director of Central Intelligence George Tenant — a “slam dunk.”

McClellan parroted the party line, including calling into question the patriotism of those who criticized the president’s arguments or motives. He could have – perhaps even should have – known better.

The key is in the very word McClellan now uses to describe the president’s approach: propaganda. It is all too easy to confuse what propaganda means. Propaganda is often understood to mean falsehoods. But that’s too narrow a definition.

The Essence of Propaganda Isn’t That A Statement Is False

In fact, the essence of propaganda isn’t that a statement is false. Propaganda is far more insidious.

Rather, the essence of propaganda is that the speaker doesn’t care whether the statement is true or false. An effective propagandist simply uses whatever works in the moment. If it happens to be true, so be it. But if it happens to be false, tough. The propagandist is unconcerned with the truthfulness of the statement.

Why is this distinction important? Because telling the truth, by itself, isn’t necessarily praiseworthy. It certainly isn’t praiseworthy if the speaker doesn’t care whether it’s true.

But also because trust can erode just as quickly in the presence of propaganda – which often includes a mixture of true and false statements – as in the presence of outright lies. And then just because something happens to be true doesn’t mean it will be – or even that it should be – believed.

A climate of propaganda makes it harder for truth-tellers to be believed. This is the challenge President Bush has faced for years. And, to a certain degree, it is the central challenge McClellan now faces in his book.

In McClellan’s case, there are two further challenges:

The first is that his own behavior is contradicted by his official statements about other insiders who published books critical of the president. It’s hard not to judge him by the standards by which he asked us to judge others.

His Own Petard

For example, when former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke published his account of the Bush White House in 2004, Against All Enemies, McClellan said in a White House press briefing:

“Well, why, all of a sudden, if he had all these grave concerns, did he not raise these sooner? This is one-and-a-half years after he left the administration. And now, all of a sudden, he’s raising these grave concerns that he claims he had. And I think you have to look at some of the facts. One, he is bringing this up in the heat of a presidential campaign. He has written a book and he certainly wants to go out there and promote that book…
Q: Scott, the whole point of his book is he says that he did raise these concerns and he was not listened to by his superiors.
McCLELLAN: Yes, and that’s just flat-out wrong. …When someone uses such charged rhetoric that is just not matched by the facts, it’s important that we set the record straight. And that’s what we’re doing. If you look back at his past comments and his past actions, they contradict his current rhetoric. I talked to you all a little bit about that earlier today. Go back and look at exactly what he has said in the past and compare that with what he is saying today.”

Indeed. Compare what McClellan said then against what he says now. It’s pretty hard to reconcile.

McClellan says that he’s speaking out now because he feels betrayed in the Plame affair. Perhaps.

But the second challenge is this: Why the delay? Why not speak out at the time? Or when he discovered that he’d been lied to about the Plame affair?

McClellan certainly didn’t speak out about what he now calls the culture of deception, about the president’s and senior advisors’ default to propaganda, when he had the most powerful pulpit available. And he didn’t quit either.

Owning The Consequences of His Choices

McClellan enabled the very culture of deception he now condemns. His self-disclosure today may help him with his own healing, but it isn’t necessarily praiseworthy. It may absolve him of a private sense of sin or shame. But it doesn’t absolve him of his ethical lapses in office.

In fact, McClellan was a willing propagandist.

Coming clean now is a public event, not a private one. And the consequences of his behavior are with us still.

McClellan was a willing participant in propaganda right up to the moment he left his job under the best of terms – at the time the president said he looked forward to reminiscing with McClellan on the back porch in years to come.

We’ve had two more years – a quarter of the Bush presidency – with no change in approach; with the continuation of propaganda as a first resort.

And now the White House is turning on its former spokesperson. For many, that inspires sympathy. But McClellan is a consenting adult, who obviously expected such a backlash from an administration that values blind loyalty over honesty.

I’ve here only touched briefly on what will certainly be a rich trove of ethics case studies and discussion for months to come. The issues raised in McClellan’s book will likely become grist for my and others’ communication ethics courses.

And as the book gets into general circulation next week and we have more than excerpts to respond to, there are likely to be even more revelations and reactions.

I welcome your reactions and discussion.

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