Skip to comments.David Frum on Scott McClellan's new book: George Bush got the team he deserved
Posted on 06/01/2008 1:34:43 AM PDT by CutePuppy
Posted: May 30, 2008, 3:47 PM by Marni Soupcoff
Except maybe for MSNBCs 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 McClellan's disloyalty. The left complains that McClellans change of heart arrived too late. The old Washington hands shake their heads at a press secretary writing a book at all: FDRs and Eisenhowers men took their secrets to their graves why cannot todays 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 Washingtons Culture of Deception, has hit number one on Amazon.coms sales chart despite the fact that it wont be officially released till next week.)
If you ever watched McClellans 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 dont 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 worlds most powerful nation. McClellan, too, started in Bushs governors 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 at 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 administrations 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 of this story is emphatically not that presidents should seek staffers even more fanatically loyal than Bushs. The lesson is that weak personalities break under pressure. And since a White House is the worlds 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.
Born of his own insecurities, this kind of personality compels Bush constantly to test the loyalty of his subordinates by demeaning them. Thereafter, he proves his self-worth by seducing them again. This pattern fit Bill Clinton to a "t." One wonders whether the award of the medal of freedom to the likes of George Tenet is another expression of this syndrome.
We have no way of knowing whether Frum's analysis is on the mark. Nor can we say that it excuses Scott McClellan's treachery. If that is what Fromm intended, his analysis was wide of the mark. Bush might indeed have the psychological faults Frum alleges but that certainly does not relieve McClellan of his duty to the office and to the country.
Clearly there is no love lost between Frum and Bush. Strangely, Frum seems not to regard the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and against terror to be the kind of high moral purpose which he recommends should be employed to gain and hold the loyalties of strong individuals. Sadly, he does not elaborate on his remarks. For example, he does not support his observations of the Secretary of State and her alleged weakness with any facts. Finally, it is an extraordinary attack from a neocon who had such a high degree of influence.
I didn't get the "feel" he is excusing what Scott McLellan did, rather he expressed some sympathy to a weak personality who was promoted to the level of his incompetence (case of Peter Principle) and used him and this episode as a bridge to similarly describe a large part of cast chosen to be in inner circle for reasons other than qualifications or ideology.
There is definitely no love lost between Frum and Bush, as could be evidenced from Frum's previous articles, though he was always stalwart on subject of WOT and Iraq. I'd like the article to be more expansive and more buttressed by facts, but I think his emphasis, as title has implied, was on Bush's surrounding staff chosen for [perceived] loyalty, not necessarily competency. Like you, I also thought that Frum's shot at Rice was gratuitous and unwarranted.
I always like to keep in mind what Abraham Lincoln said:
"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but to test a man's character, give him power."
On that score Bush has done well in many aspects, particularly being steadfast on prosecuting WOT and Iraq, but also failed in many aspects, including his decisions re staff and ineptness in defending them and their actions on his behalf, e.g. Lewis Libby, Harriet Miers, post-Katrina PR fiasco etc. One never knows if the action is taken due to strength of conviction or character, or simply obstinacy.
After the Harriet Miers episode....this story really explains alot about why it was so screwed and why Harriet eventually got dropped. In the end....we all feel like most of the member of Mayberry have taken over running the White House...with Bush being played by Andy Griffith who we can never say anything really bad about...but have to accept the White House “as is”.
Maybe in the case of Iraq Frum might find the same premise at work as he eludes to in this article.
Scooter Libby was VP Cheney’s guy.
Bush didn’t stand up for his people in the Plame witchhunt. He made complimentary remarks about the Prosecutor. He refused to point to the politics of it all.
A man who admittedly leaked, Armitage, is scot free. Libby, who didn’t and wasn’t alleged to have, winds up with a giant legal bill and a hefty fine and prison sentence and losing his job and law license because he told a different story to investigators than his own notes showed (which he turned over to them) and than reporters involved in the case told.
And Wilson and Plame and the rogue CIA never had to answer for anything about their lies and nefarious, America harming activities.
Yet you’re wondering about Bush’s loyalty to people like Libby??
Yes, he commuted his jail time.
But everything else stands. And that “everything else” stinks to the skies of DemLib plots and hateful partisanship and prosecutorial excess. For which they will never be exposed, much less punished.
If this is Bush standing up for personal cronies, I’d hate to see what would happen if he let them twist in the wind. /sarcasm
Frum absolves everyone of their fiduciary reponsibilities as public servants and employees of the people of the United States.
On that we agree to disagree with Frum.
I do not trust Frum. He has his own agenda and like McClellan is seeking money which is based on the fact that both of them worked in the Bush WH and now are out and trading off of that. Otherwise, what would they have?
I’m not claiming that everything Frum says is always false.
I’m saying he’s an operator playing both sides of the fence, based on his stint of working in the Bush WH, to make a nice living today. He knows how to thread that needle, where to walk that line.
McClellan introduced his book and himself on Obermann. McClellan is hopelessly transparant and unbalanced.
Frum is wiser, if you want to call it wisdom. A much more effective operator. You might even call it “triangulation”.
Article is about Bush choosing personnel on basis of their loyalty him, not his loyalty to them.
I was referring to his and his staff ineptness in standing up for people loyal to him / WH. We can safely assume that Bush was loyal to some, e.g. Alberto Gonzales and others, yet he and others in WH were still incredibly inept in defending them.
It is known that Cheney was reluctant to air his views in the presence of members of the administration but he had private, prolonged, and, undoubtedly, influential access to Bush. If mediocrities were allowed to stay in place, where was Cheney? If Bush was handicapped by a flaw of personality from recognizing and removing mediocrities, where was Cheney?
I concede that this business becomes complicated when one applies Frum's theories to the Scott McClellan affair, which has evidently much to do with the Valerie Plame affair, which of course intimately involved the Vice President and therefore might well have considerably reduced the vice president's influence at least in these matters.
If Bush's psychological needs drove him to appoint loyalists even at the price of weakness of character in his subordinates, it's odd that he chose the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Colin Powell, none of whom could possibly be creditably called weak in character.
Nicknames are a Southern tradition, and not intended to be demeaning (normally). Correct me if I'm wrong, NB.
This analysis — and coming from David Frum — rings true. Bush has been badly served by his staff (other than Rove and a few others) but Bush put them in that place and left them there. And as Frum notes, loyalty to a person is much weaker than loyalty to an idea, a cause, a conviction, a vision. Bush wasn’t a movement conservative and he surrounded himself with people who weren’t movement conservatives — and look at what he ended up with.
He may not ever write it, but I’m looking forward to Dick Cheney’s memoir, especially if he could really “tell it like it was/is”. I doubt he would have allowed a guy like Scott McClellan to have the Press Secretary job — McClellan was clearly unsuited for it on any level. But then again, Cheney was apparently responsible for bringing Paul O’Neill into the cabinet...
Bottom line: Bush had some fatal flaws in his personality that resulted in poor choices in staffing his Administration, and then he didn’t have the instincts for cutting his losses until those losses started to really hurt. It’s one of the key reasons this Administation failed on so many levels and important issues.
David Frum is a disloyal scum also.
Are you POSITIVE???? That does NOT sound Dick Cheney, the most COMPETENT person in government to bring in a WEASEL like O'Neill.
Dana has a set, unlike Scotty.
What has Dick Cheney said, if anything, about protecting our borders and amnesty?
You are JOKING......right?
In other words, you have no idea.
Geesh, Louise.....Cheney’s baliwick is FOREIGN policy stuff. I thought EVERY one knew that....sorry.
Good questions. We have to take into account that it was not meant to be a comprehensive analysis of all, or even key players, by Frum.
My understanding is that Cheney was himself somewhat an outsider, though obviously much valued, and did not participate much, if at all, in staffing of non-principals in upcoming administration which was also delayed by Gore’s court challenges and recounts. Same can be said about other strong personalities in principal positions (Rumsfeld at DoD, Rice at NSC, Powell at DoS, Ashcroft at DoJ) - they did not come from Texas Governor campaigns and political circles, but that was pretty much it. None of these strong people depended on Bush or being viable in government service for their [political or financial] future. And there were also many stories about Bush actually looking and asking for different advice from different points of view and varied experience from these principals.
Also, of these principals (with likely exception of Powell) were pretty busy early on, looking to find replacements and/or get through delayed confirmations in their respective or related departments and reshape/establish their policies and shortly after had to deal with 9/11. One might say they did not have much time or choice [to vet] and went with whoever were known and comfortable to Bush.
It seems that Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice (as NSA) were pretty close and for the most part on the same page, including their immense contributions in developing a concept of COW (Coalition Of the Willing) which is much needed replacement of failed NATO (as an organization and a structure) and the need to restructure severely downsized military to fit new budgets and new kinds of threats.
I think Frum in this article only tries to deal with people who are not a part of that very small “decision circle” but rather, as he described, “these subordinated personalities” (which makes his shot at Rice even more puzzling, and more likely refers to her tenure at DoS which he - and many of her detractors, including on FR - may consider disappointing and “damaging”)
We don’t know if Cheney had any hand or input into relieving from duties any mediocrities (such as Andy Card) but this administration had a long list of them, probably not too long a list of better people willing to serve to replace them, and not too much time to look for qualified and willing replacements. Considering that Bush himself was not a movement leader, the problem of finding the “willing qualified” was probably magnified - real conservatives are not known to favor serving in administrative positions in Washington to affect “change”... For Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice and the like it was more like another “tour of duty”.
Plamegate exposed weaknesses and ineptitude and created cracks in the Bush “defense” structure and lack of communication and cohesiveness between him and among “these subordinated personalities”; post-Katrina, Harriet Miers and Dubai Ports World PR fiascoes broke the dam and opened the floodgates.
One of the most profound errors in the Bush Administration was in not using Cheney more -- he could have and should have been the spokesperson for the Administration. He could have been very effective at something that W just had no confidence and no competence. I'm sure the Administration's leaders decided they couldn't let Cheney have that kind of public and prominent role because it would have fueled the suspicion that Cheney was in charge. So W's Administration just went ahead without any effective communication to the American people defending the Administartion's policies and the long-term vision they were following. Compare W's success with that of Reagan -- and I think this inability to communicate is by far the primary reason.
As for you stating you thought "EVERY one knew" Cheney's bailiwick, you would be surprised that there are many who do not know much about him, some who do not even recognize the name.
Dana Perino is as pretty as you can get away with being in public life.
Those people are STUPID.
That's bordering on a violation of the Eighth Commandment.
She’s a hot little number.
Having said that if we say he still was not used enough maybe we go back to the loyalty aspect with the President. VP Cheney has always said that his role within this administration is promoting the President's policy and he would not use it as many VP’s have for furthering their political standing or career. He made it clear that at the end of either the 4 or 8 years that was it for him in an official political/governmental capacity in Washington. I am out of here is a term he has used often.
Bearing this in mind this would therefore the President feel happy in using the VP as a spokesman for some issues with which they did not agree? The marriage amendment springs to mind even that though Cheney the loyal servant he is did promote it a few times even though privately it is known both he and his wife felt it was a State's issue not Federal one. No doubt this is partly to do with sexual orientation of his younger daughter Mary but that aside he was still prepared if push came to shuff to support the President.
I would suspect there were other issues probably one of them is in how to tackle the immigration issue where he and the President did disagree again here there are few speeches where he did push the President's views and wishes but compared with other issues I agree he has not been that outspoken on this probably because privately he did not agree 100 per cent with the President.
Now going back to loyality aspect I would suggest the President would not feel comfortable getting the VP to constantly go against some of his own personal views to promote the President's point of view and that is why I suspect that maybe he has not been used on some ocassions as a spokeman for the adminstration. Again you can say the President maybe was wrong and that as the Commander in Chief he should not have taken this into consideration but I believe that this is part of his character and his own loyalty that he would take it into consideration.
One footnote from me on this take this away from the President and you take away his character and what IMHO makes the man tick and he would be a lesser person maybe not a lesser President but certainly a lesser person.
IMO, your summation is right on the button.