George W. Bush and the press secretary he deserves

Former George W. Bush press secretary Scott McLellan now believes in a more vigorous press.

Like a career pug who understood his limitations, Scott McClellan never bothered with showy footwork or agile rhetoric during his years in the White House briefing room.

As the press secretary to President George W. Bush, he would just stand there, implacable, waiting for the question to exhaust itself. Then, always in the same monotonous cadence, he would dispense the day's talking points, never straying, never freelancing, never really engaging on substance.

Some new criticism of the war in Iraq? McClellan would dismiss it as misguided, perhaps tacitly questioning a critic's patriotism. A reporter asking why no weapons of mass destruction had been found? McClellan would refuse to "play the blame game."

Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan in 2004, defending the war in Iraq. ((Charles Dharapak/Associated Press))

His appointment as press secretary was, clearly, a measure of Bush's contempt for the national press corps. The message was: Here is what we have to say, we aren't going to debate anything, print what you like, and don't think for a moment this relationship is an exercise in accountability.

In his new book, What Happened, McClellan says this: "Bush regarded the press as a necessary evil or nuisance. Andy Card [the former chief of staff] once remarked that he viewed the Washington media as just another 'special interest' that the White House had to deal with, much like lobbyists or trade associations."

If the press had any useful role at all, writes McClellan, it was as intermediaries in a propaganda campaign, designed to sell the public on the Bush agenda in general and the war in particular.

A meal of lies

McClellan, like Bush, is an evangelical Christian and he seems to have had an epiphany since he stepped down two years ago. In the book's opening pages, he quotes the biblical injunction that the truth shall set you free and says contrition is the path to that truth.

Contritely, he is now repudiating his old masters.

The Bush White House, McClellan says, operated in "permanent campaign" mode, shading the truth, discrediting critics and manipulating public opinion. He was, he writes, fed lies and encouraged to pass them on.

Now, none of this is much of a surprise. As McClellan notes in his preface, "deception in politics is nothing new."

But his explanation of why the Bush White House was so successful, for many years at least, at bullying and bamboozling the national media has an embarrassing ring of truth. "Through it all," he writes, "the media would serve as complicit enablers."

The real-life reporters he dealt with, he says, certainly didn't resemble the Bush view of them as left-wing activists "actively working to sabotage his administration and weakening its link to the citizenry."

If anything, says McClellan, "the national press corps was probably too deferential (his emphasis) to the White House, particularly in regard to the decision over whether to go to war in Iraq."

In that case, he concludes, "the 'liberal media' didn't live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served."

Useful idiots

Well. That is certainly unpleasant reading for any journalist with pretensions of covering events without fear or favour. No one likes to be lumped in as one of Vladimir Lenin's "useful idiots."

But McClellan is probably right about the compliance of the media — and not just the White House reporters he faced regularly.

As thinkers who study such things have long concluded, Western reporters might fancy themselves the watchdogs of the establishment, but many of them are probably better described as guard dogs, vigilantly protecting the privileges and prerogatives of power.

A 1995 study at the University of Minnesota made just that comparison. "The guard dog metaphor," say the authors, "suggests that media perform as a sentry not for the community as a whole, but for those particular groups who have the power and influence."   That tendency, say the authors of the study, can translate into reporting that toes the government line, especially in matters of foreign policy. Such as a decision to go to war.

As Prof. Noam Chomsky put it in his treatise Manufacturing Consent: "It is very difficult to call authorities on whom one depends for daily news liars, even if they tell whoppers."

Afflict someone

In his book, McClellan debunks the idea of "left-wing journalists at war with conservative politicians and trying to bring them down."

He does observe what surveys and polls have suggested is probably the case: Many elite-level journalists here are to some degree personally liberal and tend to vote Democrat. Kindly, McClellan adds that a majority of them also try to be "honest, fair-minded and professional" in carrying out their duties.

But their personal liberalism, to the extent that it exists, is generally limited to moral issues such as abortion, separation of church and state, gay marriage, etc.

Fiscally, it is a different story. Journalists, especially at the national level, tend to be a bourgeois bunch — generally opposed to tax increases, generally in favour of free trade (knowing, as they do, that their jobs won't be outsourced to India) and generally well up the social ladder, far removed from the problems of those at the bottom.

McClellan's former fellow travellers in the conservative movement here don't like his new book very much. They prefer to see the media as the enemy and don't like seeing a treasured myth punctured.

But wait till they get to his conclusion: "I'm inclined to believe," he says, "that a liberal-oriented media in the United States should be viewed as a good thing." (Again, his emphasis).

Successive American administrations, whether Republican and Democrat, have generally followed conservative or centrist policies once in office, says McClellan.

Given that case, he suggests that a liberal media could "stand up for the interests of people and causes that get short shrift," citing minorities, women, working people, the poor, the disenfranchised.

A reporter, says McClellan, really ought to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." The trouble is, and his own book confirms it, the reality is probably more often the opposite.