Proximity to Power

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Former White
House spokesperson Scott McClellan caused quite the stir with his
tell-more-than-usual book What
Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of
Deception
about his years working for president Bush.
In the book McClellan attacks his former White House bosses for
using propaganda to mislead the American people about the war in
Iraq, the Valerie Plame case and the aftermath of hurricane Katrina,
and he blames the deferential media for allowing the White House
to get away with it.

Now as a cynical
reader you may be forgiven for not being quite as shocked and saddened
by these tales of government propaganda and lies as McClellan himself
says he was. After all, aren't lies, deception and obfuscation the
essence of all government and wasn't McClellan as a spokesperson
the central cog in the propaganda machine, a machine that led to
a war that has cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives?

Nor will you
be the only one who is skeptical of the sincerity of McClellan's
story and motives. The other parties involved – the White House,
the pundits, the other spokespersons, the Democrats, the journalists
– will likewise not buy the story of McClellan as a naïve
well-meaning public servant who gradually discovered that his bosses
were not as well-meaning and public-spirited as he thought they
were.

This story
makes McClellan about as credible as the man who, with righteous
indignation, quits a five-year stint at the local slaughterhouse
because he found out that "They kill animals in there! Who
knew?"

So since McClellan
must have known what he was getting himself into when he started
his job the most sensible explanation for his actions is that he
is jumping the sinking ship that is the Bush administration, thereby
trying to secure a political, intellectual or media future for himself
as one of the "good guys."

Mythology

The problem
for some of the other parties involved though is that they cannot
confront McClellan with the absurdities of his "official" story
and thereby expose his real intentions.

After all,
they all have an interest in sustaining the myth of government as
serving the people, not themselves. Sure, there are some rotten
apples every now and then, mistakes get made and occasionally power
gets to people's heads. But that's why we have the heroic media
and whistleblowers who keep a watchful and ever-skeptical eye on
the government's actions, "keeping them honest."

McClellan's
"official" story of himself as a whistleblower who wrote
the book in order to call attention to changes that need to be made
to restore the dignity and honesty of government fits that myth
rather well. Government sometimes goes off the rails, but well-meaning
whistleblowers, together with the media and the public, can get
it back on track. The only anomaly in this case concerns the role
of the media who are criticized by McClellan for not having been
vigilant enough in exposing the truth. More about the role of the
media later.

With this in
mind it is interesting to observe how the different parties chose
to respond to the book and how they either used or were constrained
by the official mythology of good government.

Of course the
opponents of the Bush administration had the easiest job. They could
eagerly accept McClellan's story and use the myth of good government
to their own advantage. So they took McClellan to be a whistleblower
whose revelations show that this administration, not the institution
of government itself, was the problem: The Bush administration has
changed the government from the venerable, public service–oriented
institution that it was under the Democratic rule of the 1990s,
into a corrupt, power-hungry propaganda machine. And it's time for
change!

Of course they
thereby conveniently ignored the lies, misery and deception of the
Clinton-Gore administration. (Kosovo, Iraq sanctions and Waco, anyone?)

The same tactic
was open to disgruntled Republicans and old-time political hacks.
They could grumble about how much better government used to be,
what a mess the Bush administration has created and how standards
have lapsed in the past decades. If only Bush had listened to them
rather than to Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and the neocons none of
this would have ever happened.

The White
House

The White House
and its supporters had a much more difficult job in responding.
The ideal tactic is to disprove McClellan's factual claims by presenting
evidence to the contrary, thereby exposing McClellan as a liar.
But that's a toughie since, you know, there is no such evidence.

If anything,
the more the White House actually talks about the facts in the run
up to the war, their handling of "Katrina" and the Valerie Plame
case, the deeper the hole they'll be digging for themselves. So
they'll talk about anything other than the actual subjects that
McClellan raised.

They could
for example attack McClellan's motives. But as we saw above this
presents problems of its own. They cannot say that obviously McClellan
was not sincere when he said that he became a whistleblower because
he was shocked by the lies and deception he saw around him, that
McClellan must have known what he was getting himself into
by working as a government spokesperson, i.e. as a professional
liar. The fact that this is actually most likely true does
not help the White House here because as we saw this is not a truth
that can be publicly expressed. It would blow up the myth
of government as serving the public.

But personally
attacking McClellan in other ways is equally risky for it could
easily be seen as the big bad powerful administration attacking
the heroic vulnerable whistleblower.

In the end,
the White House and the Republican Party in general opted for a
mix of the above. They did their best to steer the conversation
away from the actual topic: the use of propaganda to mislead the
American public into supporting a war that has killed hundreds of
thousands of people and that has cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
And they did their best to make McClellan come across as a somewhat
hapless and spineless character who was kept "out of the loop"
and simply cannot know what he is talking about.

Moreover, they
say, nobody in the White House denies that mistakes were made, but
they were just that: honest mistakes, not deception or propaganda.
And the president himself saw to it that measures were taken to
prevent such mistakes from re-occurring.

Furthermore,
White House staff say that the Scott McClellan who wrote the book
is not the Scott they knew from his White House years, the Scott
they worked with, liked, helped and trusted. They don't understand
what the cause of Scott's sudden metamorphosis is, why he would
turn against them. They're not angry, just puzzled.

This of course
paved the way for others to volunteer guesses as to what
explains McClellan's transformation. The White House itself had
to sound reasonable and respectable in responding to McClellan's
claims, but others such as right-wing radio and TV hosts and commentators
as well as former politicians were less constrained. They could
function as the bloodthirsty attack dogs going after the traitor.

Bob Dole probably
came closest to expressing what the Bush loyalists really thought
(and what likely is the truth) when he suggested
in a private e-mail that McClellan is just a "miserable creature"
who enjoys the proximity to power and who will rat on his bosses
to obtain a fine position in the Democratic Party.

The funniest
responses came from those Republicans who complained about how unprofessional
McClellan's behavior was. They're right of course; given McClellan's
job description few things could be less professional than actually
exposing the deceit that you were supposed to cover up.

So all in all,
the White House denied (though not refuted) McClellan's accusations
of government lies and deception, claiming McClellan was not in
a position to know either way, and then let their cronies do the
dirty work of suggesting that McClellan just invented or parroted
these accusations to exploit public resentment over a war gone bad
to further his own career.

One thing is
certain: nobody in any way related to the White House or the Republican
Party will talk in any detail about McClellan's actual accusations,
about the facts.

The media

But wait, in
the mythology of good government, didn't we have the media to "keep
them honest," to expose government mistakes? What about them,
will they force the conversation to turn to that topic?

Not a chance.
The truly remarkable thing about McClellan's book is that he attacks
the media as well, for being too deferential and not inquisitive
enough and so allowing the White House to get away with its propaganda.
If the liberal media had lived up to its reputation, McClellan says,
the country would have been much better off. Ouch. A former political
spokesperson criticizing the media for making things too easy on
him and his bosses.

So, like the
White House itself, the media are angry but there is little they
can do. As for example Bill Moyers showed in his documentary Buying
the War: How Did the Mainstream Press Get It So Wrong?
,
McClellan is simply right about this: the media were deferential
to the White House, afraid to ask tough questions, to do research
that disproved the claims coming from the White House for fear of
coming across as unpatriotic.

So how do the
mainstream media respond to McClellan's book? Firstly they simply
deny the claim and profess helplessness. They did ask McClellan
tough questions at all those White House press conferences. But
McClellan was always so evasive, so unwilling to tell the truth,
so skilled at deflecting questions that this was simply hopeless.
They tried their best, but the White House was just unwilling to
answer them. What could they do?

Well, how about
doing some research of their own, talking to people disputing the
government's claims, writing stories that expose government lies
and propaganda rather than just transcribing White House press conferences
(as the Daily Show calls it) and going along for the ride?
You know, being real journalists.

But of course
there is a serious risk involved in doing that: by being critical
of the White House they might lose access. They might for
example not be allowed to the White House press conferences anymore.
Now the reader might ask what good access to press conferences is
if you don't thereby actually have access to any meaningful information
to do your part as a journalist?

But this question
is based on the mythology of journalism, not its actuality.
The proper question is what good is it being a journalist if you
no longer have the experience of feeling important, close to power,
and have the president, the most powerful man in the world, call
you by your first name, joking with you.

Moreover, the
journalists say, we were under pressure from our executives to not
do stories that were too critical of president Bush and the war
in Iraq while his approval ratings were high. This of course is
an astonishing admission for people who, in accordance with the
mythology of journalism, pride themselves on being independent thinkers
and who cherish their role as watchdogs of the government.

The problem
is that they could in fact easily do the contemporary equivalent
of such a story at any moment they want to. There are hundreds or
thousands of stories out there that would expose government corruption,
incompetence and cover-ups, from relatively small incidents to grand
criminal schemes like "monetary policy" and the war on drugs. But
every day they choose not to do such independent research or report
and instead they just go with the flow.

Sure, they
will make fiery resolutions to do better next time. A journalist
in a panel discussion last week said that it was true that the media,
including himself, had not been critical enough in the run-up to
the war in Iraq, and that he had resolved to never let this happen
again. But judging from the age of this journalist he was around
during the first Gulf War and the Kosovo war as well, so who knows
how many times he has made the very same resolve already.

The buzz
of power

Journalists
are like the drunkard who wakes up in the morning, after having
made a fool of himself the night before, and swears to himself:
"Never again." He is not serious in his desire to quit, and neither
are journalists when they say that from now on they are going to
be real journalists.

Just as the
drunkard craves the buzz of alcohol, the journalists, as well as
petty bureaucrats like Scott McClellan, crave the buzz of power.
Only government can give them that buzz and so politicians, bureaucrats
and journalists are engaged in a never-ending game, where the goal
is not to win the game, but to play it, because the game constitutes
power. Sometimes the politicians will have the upper hand, and other
times the journalists. Balances will shift, some pawns will be sacrificed
every now and then, but the game will not end if the players can
help it.

The mythology
of governments serving the public and of the press keeping the politicians
honest is only intended to obfuscate and justify what is really
going on, the buzz of power.

All the players
in the Scott McClellan story, the White House, the pundits, the
political opponents, the press and McClellan himself have to pay
respect to the mythology if they are to serve their own selfish
interests.

In this case,
the Democrats and other political opponents were able to use the
mythology and McClellan's book to argue against the Bush administration
and for their own side: the Bush administration was incompetent
and corrupt, but we will be different and keep government
on the straight and narrow.

McClellan himself
used the mythology to escape the sinking ship and position himself
for a better political or media future. He portrayed himself as
the whistleblower whose only concern is good government, knowing
full well the oxymoronic nature of that term.

By doing so
he made himself relatively invulnerable to fundamental criticism
because the two parties that McClellan criticized most, the White
House and the press, had their hands tied behind their backs by
the same mythology. They could not use McClellan to further their
own interests as Bush's opponents could, but they could not fully
expose his hypocrisy either since that would entail admitting
the true nature of government and journalism.

So they were
prevented from saying what they really wanted to say: "Scott,
you bastard! You're ruining our game!"

June
4, 2008

Koen Swinkels
[send him mail] writes
from Toronto and hosts the LiberatingMinds
discussion forum.

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