Singin' the Scott McClellan Blues

June 5, 2008

Singin' the Scott McClellan Blues

What effect will former–Bush Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s new tell-all book have on the 2008 presidential race? For one thing, it could undermine John McCain’s claim that he would listen to foreign-policy moderates if elected.

Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) could complicate Senator John McCain's (R-AZ) ability to play a potential campaign trump if he effectively leverages the public's resurgent interest in the promotion of the Iraq War, prompted by Scott McClellan's recently published memoir.

"What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," by McClellan-who was President Bush's press secretary-asserts that the Bush administration shaded the truth in selling the Iraq War to the American people. The debate surrounding the memoir, if not so much the book itself, also spotlights the Bush administration's record of co-opting and compromising the moderates within it. So if McCain should try to tap a moderate as his running mate, the Obama camp can point to the inability of pragmatists to change the Bush administration's most-cataclysmic decisions, and even how those individuals came to so aggressively promote those decisions that they engaged in the kind of personal attacks that only former-deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove or Vice President Richard Cheney seemed capable of. The American public should be wary, the Obama camp could argue, of assigning significance to the potential sight of a moderate by McCain's side.

In his column, "Parroting the Democrats," Robert D. Novak responded Monday to McClellan's book, maintaining that McClellan virtually ignored the fact that it was Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage-and not Rove or Cheney-who leaked to him the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Following that leak, Novak published a column identifying Plame and that led to a grand jury investigation and the conviction of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

Novak maintains that Plame promoted her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, to carry out a fact-finding mission to Niger to look into allegations that the African country was selling uranium to Iraq. After Wilson said publicly there was no truth to those allegations, the administration sought to discredit him by suggesting to members of the press that he was unsuited for the mission and had been awarded the role because of his wife's lobbying. Novak said that McClellan's virtual omission of Armitage's role "fits the partisan Democratic version of the Plame affair, in keeping with the overall tenor of the book . . ."

But the Plame affair and Armitage's role in it could offer the Democrats some good campaign material. Rove, after all, served as a lightening rod for much of the criticism leveled at the administration and to some degree thereby shielded the president and others, as he does in McClellan's book. But Armitage's leading role in "outing" Plame demonstrates the degree to which moderate officials were worse than ineffectual in the Bush administration. They may have also engaged in behavior that belied their stature or ethical standards. Armitage is now an adviser to McCain and has indeed been upheld as one of the few pragmatists on his team.


Who McCain will elevate to his number-two spot remains unknown. It is possible he would look to more of a "red-meat" conservative to secure the base, but that move could limit the senator's appeal. So far, McCain appears to be trying to tone down his hawkish image. Last week, he said he would be willing to work with Russia and China on nuclear nonproliferation issues, even though he had earlier advocated Russia's expulsion from the Group of Eight.

McCain on Tuesday said he would be reaching out to Senator Hillary Clinton's (D-NY) supporters and sought to distance himself from President Bush. "You will hear from my opponent's campaign in every speech, every interview, every press release that I'm running for President Bush's third term," said McCain. "You will hear every policy of the president described as the Bush-McCain policy. Why does Senator Obama believe it's so important to repeat that idea over and over again? Because he knows it's very difficult to get Americans to believe something they know is false." In distancing himself from Bush and reaching out to Clinton's supporters, McCain appears to be trying to mollify his campaign persona and could be signaling a willingness to bring on a moderate running mate.


A number of columnists have proposed General Colin Powell as a potential pick, but Powell has voiced distaste for campaign politics and has reportedly been giving Obama informal advice. Powell would also be highly vulnerable to allegations that he has been-and would continue to be-co-opted by a hawkish president, given his address to the United Nations regarding Iraq's alleged WMD arsenal.

The Bush administration's recent history suggests that officials are often only as good as the administrations they serve and the policies they are tasked with carrying out. And the positions McCain has staked on Russia and Iraq could strengthen the determination of foreign governments and individuals to counter U.S. power. McCain's unwillingness to negotiate with the Iranian and North Korean governments could prevent U.S. officials from finding nonmilitary means of dealing with the challenges posed by those countries.

If McCain is to be taken at his word, he would lead an even-more-hawkish foreign policy than Bush, at a time when America can ill afford making mistakes abroad-regardless of who might be on his ticket.


Ximena Ortiz is a senior editor at The National Interest.