I picked up What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, by Scott McClellan (George W. Bush’s Press Secretary from 2003-2006), curiosity piqued by his widely-reported criticism of the Bush White House. To be honest, it sounded like good blood-sport with some potential for professional development built in: a PR geek’s summer reading dream!
In it, McClellan gives an interesting insider’s perspective on the events that marked his tenure in the White House press office. He is clear in his denial of having knowingly misled the American people about the Valerie Plame affair; he also discusses at length the “permanent campaign” culture in Washington, in which positions and decisions on both sides of the aisle are predicated on political strategy rather than what’s really right for the country.
McClellan acknowledges that the effects of the “permanent campaign” mentality have broken public confidence in government, and makes an impassioned case for government to work more openly and transparently if that is ever to be repaired. And he’s right.
I did find, though, that McClellan’s attempts to position himself as the honest guy calling for change seemed a bit disingenuous. His own hands aren’t entirely clean; and while his motivations may not be directly tied to the “permanent campaign,” to me at least, the end result (i.e. damaged credibility) is the same.
Early on, he recounts hearing Bush say he “honestly” couldn’t remember whether he had used cocaine during the party days of his youth.
“I know Bush, and I know he genuinely believes what he says. He isn’t the kind of person to flat-out lie, particularly when speaking in private to a supporter or friend. So I think he meant what he said in that conversation about cocaine. It’s the first time when I felt I was witnessing Bush convincing himself to believe something that probably was not true and that, deep down, he knew was not true. And his reason for doing so is fairly obvious: political convenience. ” (49)
McClellan compares Bush’s selective memory to that of a courtroom witness who claims not to remember things to avoid implicating himself, and seems to accept it because he doesn’t think the issue (i.e. possibly having tried cocaine in his youth) is germane to Bush’s ability to govern in the present. While that may be valid, the problem for me is less the possibility of having tried cocaine once in his youth than the readiness to be dishonest about it now. As the logic goes, if you’re willing to be dishonest about issues that don’t matter, why should we think you’ll be honest about issues that do?
For me, McClellan shows the same willingness to be selective that he criticizes in Bush. McClellan suggests Bush doesn’t want to admit he took cocaine – I suspect McClellan doesn’t want to admit he chose to speak for someone he knew to be dishonest.
In PR, our reputations are our stock-in-trade; if people don’t think they can trust us, we’re no good to our clients. If you decide you can represent a client who isn’t going to be honest with you (and therefore, your audiences), you have to accept that your credibility may pay the price. And I don’t think you can consider yourself a victim of their dishonesty when it does, as McClellan seems to.
For me, the most valuable section of What Happened was the chapter on the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. McClellan openly admits the government’s mishandling of the disaster – and the chapter gives an interesting insider’s account that shows how quickly public goodwill can be lost in a crisis. I felt for him as I read this chapter, as I always do for communicators dealing with really tough issues. We’ll be discussing that chapter in class this fall.
While I don’t think it achieved what McClellan was going for, What Happened was worth the read. If you’re looking for a behind-the-headlines perspective on some interesting PR case studies, you might want to check it out.