June 5, 2008

Bob Dole: Part of the Problem

The furor over former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan's tell-all book about the Bush Administration's march to war in Iraq under false pretenses is richly deserved and long overdue. In his book, Mr. McClellan targets not only his former employer, but the national press for essentially playing a stenographic role in distributing the Administration's propaganda:

If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq. The collapse of the administration's rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as such a surprise. ... In this case, the "liberal media" didn't live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.
Reactions from the Fourth Estate and supporters of the president in the face of this statement - from a man whose primary professional responsibility was to spin White House policy as favorably as possible and keep the press at bay, no less - have been interesting, to say the least.

Those of us who failed to swallow the party line before Mr. Bush's ill-advised and tragic invasion of Iraq can certainly be forgiven for feeling even a small sense of vindication that revelations of conspiracy and institutional falsehood are being discussed, but the minority of journalists - McClatchy's Washington Bureau, for instance - who provided real, critical reporting, are justifiably frustrated and angry that it has taken a former presidential stooge's literary confessional to get anyone to pay attention. Meanwhile, although at least one reporter revealed that she was pressured by superiors to avoid filing stories critical of the White House's justification for military action, for every mea culpa, there were two declarations that the press corps had done a bang-up job, with the increasingly embarrassing Charles Gibson of ABC stating "[Knowing what we know now,] I’m not sure we would have asked anything differently."

There is perhaps little surprise that, in the main, the national disgrace that is our current corporate media lacks the courage, the conviction or the self-awareness to admit its mistakes; this is, after all a group that was extremely helpful in getting the president elected. Recall that while they were dumping on Mr. Bush's opponents in 2000 and 2004 as, respectively, a serial exaggerator who was stiff, cold and arrogant, and a henpecked elitist who showed cowardice under fire and shamed his country, President Bush was the MBA candidate with whom everyone most wanted to have a beer. Equally un-shocking is the fact that the usual party-over-country crowd has been in full throat in its denunciation of Scott McClellan, with Newt Gingrich essentially declaring him irrelevant, and Bill O'Reilly naming him a weasel.

What was surprising however, was former GOP presidential nominee and long-time senator Bob Dole's reaction. Mr. Dole, an old-school conservative of the Ronald Reagan-George H.W. Bush variety and a wounded combat veteran of World War II to boot, savaged Mr. McClellan in an angry eMail:

There are miserable creatures like you in every administration who don’t have the guts to speak up or quit if there are disagreements with the boss or colleagues. No, your type soaks up the benefits of power, revels in the limelight for years, then quits and, spurred on by greed, cashes in with a scathing critique.
In my nearly 36 years of public service I've known of a few like you. No doubt you will 'clean up' as the liberal anti-Bush press will promote your belated concerns with wild enthusiasm. When the money starts rolling in you should donate it to a worthy cause, something like, 'Biting The Hand That Fed Me.' Another thought is to weasel your way back into the White House if a Democrat is elected. That would provide a good set up for a second book deal in a few years.
... if all these awful things were happening, and perhaps some may have been, you should have spoken up publicly like a man, or quit your cushy, high-profile job. That would have taken integrity and courage but then you would have had credibility and your complaints could have been aired objectively. ... You’re a hot ticket now, but don’t you, deep down, feel like a total ingrate?
To be sure, some of Senator Dole's criticisms are at least partially valid; if Mr. McClellan could have effected change earlier, he should have spoken up sooner, but given what we now know about the march to war in Iraq, so should a lot of people, in both the Administration and in the press. Likewise, it is telling that those who were critical of the invasion plans - even if only from a logistical standpoint - such as Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, were quickly forced out, and it is difficult to make the case that anyone would have listened to Scott McClellan as President Bush invaded Iraq.

It is also puzzling, with the raft of criticism for the president from former military men such as General John Batiste and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez (the former commander of forces in Iraq) that Mr. Dole singles out Mr. McClellan for a tongue-lashing, especially in light of this passage from General Sanchez's new book, which was released just weeks before McClellan's:
In 2006, I was forced to retire by civilian leaders in the executive branch of the U.S. government. I was not ready to leave the soldiers I loved. The Army was my life. Service to my nation was my calling. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I watched helplessly as the Bush administration led America into a strategic blunder of historic proportions. It became painfully obvious that the executive branch of our government did not trust its military. It relied instead on a neoconservative ideology developed by men and women with little, if any, military experience. Some senior military leaders did not challenge civilian decision makers at the appropriate times, and the courageous few who did take a stand were subsequently forced out of the service.
Although it is difficult to dispute the contention that Scott McClellan would never have had the prominence he enjoyed as White House Press Secretary had he not met George W. Bush, the idea that he is an "ingrate," a "miserable creature" or guilty of "biting the hand that feeds him" is, at its core, ridiculous. By his consistent account, Mr. McClellan was given false assurances by Karl Rove and Scooter Libby that the two were uninvolved in leaking Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA agent in retaliation for her husband's criticism of the president's justification for war with Iraq. (Speaking of reasons why voicing concerns early was no guarantee that anyone would listen!) Mr. McClellan, who was roundly pilloried for standing up for his two colleagues - with Libby eventually convicted of wrongdoing in the affair - was, in short, made a very public fool by the president and the vice president's righthand men, and apparently with Mr. Bush's acquiescence, if not his approval.

Further, as a public servant - appointed or no - Scott McClellan's duty is, first and foremost - and no matter the time line - to the people of the United States, not to either the Republican Party or George W. Bush. It is American tax revenue, not the president, that pays government salaries, and anyone working for the public is doubly duty-bound to speak out if no one else is doing so, and no one else has. Senator Dole concedes in his electronic screed that there may well be basis for Mr. McClellan's complaints ("...if all these awful things were happening, and perhaps some may have been..."), but continues to question his integrity. Certainly, timely exposure of misdeeds is the most desirable outcome, but are we truly to hold in greater respect those who witness acts of bad faith at public expense and remain silent, than those who report it, if only belatedly?

Finally, there is the matter of whether or not Scott McClellan is telling the truth, lying or is simply misinformed. If it is the last, then it is reasonable to expect a persuasive and direct response from the White House; instead, statements have been largely confined to attacks on character, and one need only refer to the Plame leak to understand what that means. It is certainly possible that Mr. McClellan has constructed his memoir out of whole cloth in order to cash in on the talk show circuit, but by any reasonable assessment, it is highly unlikely. He was a long-time member of the Bush team, and if he kept his mouth shut, there is little doubt he would have been well cared-for in the coming years by the network of powerful interests who remain invested in the GOP and this president. (Perhaps he would have found work as a Fox News commentator.) As it is, however, he has pledged to donate a portion of the profits from his book to charities benefiting returing Iraq War veterans. (I'd be happier if all proceeds were donated, but it's a start.)

All of which leads to this: while it may well be that his betrayal by Karl Rove and Scooter Libby was what pushed him over the edge, even a brief evaluation of the potential motives involved strongly indicates that Scott McClellan is telling the truth to the best of his ability, and that the White House knowingly lied the country into the invasion of Iraq. Again, this is not a startling revelation for those who have closely followed this issue, but it is unquestionably incremental evidence in the case for condemnation of the Bush Administration.

Bob Dole, meanwhile, has revealed himself not as an elder statesman who retired as a respected senator and presidential candidate with a healthy ability to poke fun at himself, but as just one more rank Republican hypocrite. It was Bob Dole, remember, who, in reference to the White House's improper use of FBI background reports, railed at the American public during his 1996 presidential run against Bill Clinton, demanding "Where is the outrage in America?" In light of the Bush Administration's disregard for the law and the Constitution, the Kansas senator's question remains a good one, just not for the reasons he believes.

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