Russert Watch 6-1-08

In which Tim baits hooks, McClellan wriggles, and big fish swim away

It shouldn’t be news that the Bush White House is a nest of intellectual bankruptcy—and if Meet the Press and equivalent shows had been doing their jobs for the last seven-and-a-half years, Scott McClellan’s “scathing new book” about “Washington’s culture of deception” (Tim Russert’s introductory phrases) would not look like the revelation that McClellan himself and his interlocutors everywhere believe it to be. Still, it’s always refreshing when the conventional wisdom takes the smallest turn toward holding anyone to account.

This week’s show featured several amusing ritual moments. Russert confronted McClellan with Republican charges that he is “a turncoat, a snitch,” citing an impressive tirade by Bob Dole, who seems never to have met a commercial advertising opportunity he didn’t like, accusing McClellan of having been “spurred on by greed.” McClellan evidently spent enough time immersed in “Washington’s culture of deception” to know the properly anodyne way to begin his response: “I have a lot of respect for Senator Dole….” (I look forward to Russert’s forthcoming interview with Jesus: “Satan says you are ‘a snare and a delusion, a stripling of pompous piety who offers promises that, by chance, turn out to be true twice a day but otherwise fill the nostrils with sulfur.’ Let’s watch.” Jesus: “I have a lot of respect for Satan….”)

“Why,” Russert asked, did McClellan “say one thing at the podium and another in his new book”? Why indeed? Russert asked him whether, when told to pass on information you know is false, you should “be willing to resign,” and McClellan drifted off into a stream of equivocation. Russert asked, “Why didn’t you say, Mr. President, I’ve had it?” when he was confronted with Bush’s “selective declassification” smear job on Valerie Plame, and by extension her husband, Joseph Wilson. McClellan chose not to throw himself on his knees and ask for mercy, but he knows his Washington phrases¬¨—he is about as adroit in selling himself as he was selling George W. Bush for years. His recourse is to commit to memory boilerplate sentences like “I got caught up in the Washington permanent campaign culture” and “presidents come into this atmosphere.” People do not lie, display reckless indifference to truth, act immorally, but stuff happens to them. McClellan was not intellectually lax, incurious, gullible, but he “got caught up.” Bush himself was not a man who made a career playing fast and loose with the truth, but he “came into this atmosphere.” This from people who affect a high order of moral seriousness, who normally greet anthropological lingo about “cultures” as the feeblest excuse for their most cardinal of sins, moral relativism, but when it suits them, context is everything. No buck ever stops anywhere.

Although he is capable of admitting, “I was part of this propaganda campaign,” McClellan still cannot make the break from his inner toady. Asked by Russert about defending the war, McClellan default position was, “you get caught up in advocating and defending the president’s stance. And he’d already made the decision, and the president’s someone that, once he makes a decision, as you know, he expects everyone to march in lockstep.” He’s the decider, I just work here. On the evidence of his Self-Resurrection Tour, he’s yet to take the Twelfth Step.

Speaking of steps untaken and failures of self-awareness, a footnote: On All Things Considered Friday afternoon, David Brooks was saying that the unexplored story about McClellan is that the White House is full of dim bulbs and that, by his estimation, only twenty percent of the staff there are up to the job. Let’s suppose he’s right, even if it has come to be called “elitist” to insist that the people who run the most powerful government in the world have brains and know what they’re doing. Now I’ll wonder the next wonder: When did Brooks notice this deficiency in the White House? During the years when he was earnestly retailing their declarations that they were winning the war in Iraq, which was in turn the “central front in the war on terror,” were they a brainier bunch? Did he miss something? If so, why?

Speaking of David Brooks, is America a great country or what that a boy can grow up to be the indispensable go-to guy for the country’s most serious newspaper, television, and radio show all in the same week? Is it a sign of his acumen vis-√†-vis the most important government decision of the Bush administration that he has so conspicuously, as they used to say in Hollywood, failed upward? Is it a sign of the conservative implosion that no other right-minded pundit is available at The New York Times, Jim Lehrer’s NewsHour, and All Things Considered but the selfsame David Brooks—a very smart fellow who somehow missed the central story about the crowd that’s been running the White House for years?

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Todd Gitlin , who chairs the interdisciplinary Ph.D program in Communication based at the Columbia Journalism School, is the author of 17 books, of which the next is a novel, The Opposition.