Scott McClellan and the rules of punditry

June 10, 2008

I was abroad when the memoirs of Scott McClellan, the former White House press secretary, hit the news, so I missed his first disclosures about administration lies and the early attacks his book triggered. I’ve since caught up on several interviews – he’s an affable guy, like his ex-boss — and read up on what his book says.

But I won’t buy it. As a taxpayer, I already paid McClellan once for the sins, and I don’t feel I owe him a tip for his confession. More important, I have a problem accepting that his record as a deceitful suck-up qualifies him for respect as a truth-teller.

And that’s the topic I want to explore today. What are the rules? How bad does somebody’s wrongdoing have to be to disqualify that person from taking part in public life? Or have the standards of public regard deteriorated to where all that matters is the iron law of media culture: If the person is well-known enough to draw a crowd, he’s worth listening to?

Scott McClellan was chief administration spokesman for nearly three years. During that time, he now says, he falsely defended White House brass who leaked the name of a CIA operative as part of a political hit, took part in “a carefully orchestrated campaign to shape and manipulate sources of public approval,” and only now has discovered, as he told the NBC Today Show, a “higher loyalty to the truth.”

The administration’s defenders have attacked his personal loyalty — an obvious but pointless tack — and his credibility. The attack on his credibility has taken the form of “Gee, that doesn’t sound like Scott.” This suggests that although he seemed like just another eager lackey, he had artfully concealed an independent spirit. No wonder they’re annoyed.

But it isn’t the attacks that are surprising, it’s the embrace. McClellan has been not merely covered, but covered with kisses by otherwise subdued media interlocutors; he’s the old adversary who can at last be trusted. Trusted? When his claim to trustworthiness rests on his repudiating years of service during which he willingly championed causes he now says were mendacious and contemptible?

So what gives? That’s an easy question for administration fans: McClellan offers the anti-Bush media fresh meat, and he’s rewarded for confirming their dearly held beliefs about the perfidy of the administration.

There’s probably some truth to that. There’s also truth to the idea that he’s being snuggled because he offers exoneration to a media establishment that was hoodwinked on the war, WMD and the terror threat:  The press was not so much wrong as wronged, he seems to say. He too was misled — hell, even the president, McClellan suggests, was deceived.

Who knows. What I think matters is how forgiving our media culture is when it comes to deception and those who perpetrate it.  Scott McClellan gets his moment. His timing is good. The administration he served enjoys record levels of public disdain, and nobody he worked for is expecting re-election.  Six months from now, book-buyers won’t care about yet another eyewitness account of the Bush debacle. So McClellan cashes out, scot-free, you might say.

And now? Will he join Karl Rove, the Bush consigliore who’s now a commentator for Fox News, or the long line of political operatives who played the party card until the media made a better offer?

I hope not. To me, there’s a difference between McClellan and Rove –or McClellan and George Stephanopulos, Peggy Noonan, William Safire, Chris Matthews, Bill Moyers or the other top politicos who went from professional partisan to media pundit.

They were strategists, speechwriters and advisers for people and causes they respected.  None of them were the willing, public face of fraud. And that is McClellan’s only claim to fame. He has staked his brand on a record of spin and deception, and that doesn’t qualify him to inform, persuade and enlighten.

He’s on the lecture circuit now, and he’ll no doubt be getting offers from media hungry for a hot new political celebrity. That’s too bad. The media response to McClellan should be to thank him for his belated candor and to send him on his way, wherever that may be, as long as it’s far from the public arena.

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