David Frum May 31st, 2008 at 12:00 am
Except maybe for MSNBC’s wild-eyed commentator Keith Olbermann, nobody in politics or media seems to have a good word to say for Scott McClellan, the former George W. Bush press secretary turned ferocious Bush critic.
The right complains of his disloyalty. The left complains that McClellan’s change of heart arrived too late. The old Washington hands shake their heads at a press secretary writing a book at all: FDR’s and Eisenhower’s men took their secrets to their graves — why can’t today’s whippersnappers do the same?
Yet there is something very sad and sympathetic about McClellan and the bitter, accusatory memoir that leaked out this week. (The book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, has hit number one on Amazon. com’s sales chart despite the fact that it won’t be officially released till next week.)
If you ever watched McClellan’s televised confrontations with the savage White House press corps, you probably thought:This is terrible!The man has no business being up there. He looks frightened, like a schoolboy trying to retrieve his mittens from a persecuting gang of bullies. His words stumble and clomber. When he has good news to announce, he cannot elicit any interest; when the news is bad, his clumsy efforts to evade questions only draw more attention than ever.
As the current press secretary Dana Perino daily reminds us, you don’t have to be a genius to succeed as press secretary. But you do need (1) composure under fire, (2) verbal fluency, (3) an understanding of the imperatives of the news business and (4) access to the interior workings of the administration. McClellan never possessed qualities (1) and (2), and his colleagues refused to grant him (4).
In these deficiencies, McClellan was not alone. George W. Bush brought most of his White House team with him from Texas. Except for Karl Rove, these Texans were a strikingly inadequate bunch. Harriet Miers, Alberto Gonzalez, Karen Hughes, Al Hawkins, Andy Card (the last not a Texan, but a lifelong Bush family retainer) — they were more like characters from The Office than the sort of people one would expect to find at the supreme height of government in the world’s most powerful nation. McClellan, too, started in Bush’s governor’s office, and if he never belonged to the innermost circle of power, he nonetheless gained closer proximity than would be available to almost anyone who did not first serve in Texas.
That early team was recruited with one paramount consideration in mind: loyalty. Theoretically, it should be possible to combine loyalty with talent. But that did not happen often with the Bush team.
Bush demanded a very personal kind of loyalty, a loyalty not to a cause or an idea, but to him and his own career. Perhaps unconsciously, he tested that loyalty with constant petty teasing, sometimes verging on the demeaning. (Robert Draper, whose book Dead Certain offers a vivid picture of the pre-presidential Bush, tells the story of a 1999 campaign-strategy meeting during which Bush shut Karl Rove up by ordering him to “hang up my jacket.” The room fell silent in shock–but Rove did it.)
These little abuses would often be followed by unexpected acts of thoughtfulness and generosity. Yet the effect of the combination of the demand for personal loyalty, the bullying and the ensuing compensatory love-bombing was to weed out strong personalities and to build an inner circle defined by a willingness to accept absolute subordination to the fluctuating needs of a tense, irascible and unpredictable chief.
Had Bush been a more active manager, these subordinated personalities might have done him less harm. But after choosing people he could dominate, he then delegated them enormous power. He created a closed loop in which the people entrusted with the most responsibility were precisely those who most dreaded responsibility — Condoleezza Rice being the most important and most damaging example.
Yet as the proverb warns us, even worms will turn.
For three years, Bush left Scott McClellan in a position for which he was unsuited and in which he must have suffered terrible anxiety and stress. Finally, McClellan was deputed to act as the administration’s shield and buffer in the Valerie Plame leak case. The administration had nothing to fear from the truth, but McClellan was assigned to say things that later proved untrue. Understandably, he feels terrible bitterness about the episode — and predictably, a book publisher offered him the opportunity to exact his revenge.
The lesson from this story is emphatically not that presidents should seek staffers even more fanatically loyal than Bush’s. The lesson is that weak personalities break under pressure. And since a White House is the world’s highest-pressure environment, a wise president will seek to staff it with strong personalities.
To recruit and hold strong personalities, a president must demand something more than personal loyalty. He must offer a compelling vision and ideal — a cause that people can serve without feeling servile. Otherwise a president will only get what Bush has now got.