A John Dean-like betrayal

It was 1973 and the White House was under siege. I was working for then-Vice President Spiro Agnew, who was under investigation by the Justice Department and peripherally involved in dealing with the day-to-day hits the Nixon administration was taking as a result of the Watergate break-in and cover-up.

In the midst of all this, a journalist friend made a suggestion. “Keep a diary,” he said, “because when this is over there will be a book in it and you could write it as an insider.” I thought about it and for a few days jotted down what I saw and heard, but when I reviewed what I had written, I tore up my notes and kept no more.

While reviewing my notes, I realized that if I ever used them, I would be writing about or reporting on conversations and deliberations with people who trusted me and had a right to expect that I could, in fact, be trusted. If I later turned on them and used what they said during these meetings (or even conversations in the hallways of the White House and Executive Office Building), I would be betraying that trust. I didn’t think I could live with myself if I did that.

Scott McClellan obviously had no such qualms when it came to betraying those who trusted him. While folks today are obsessing over why he did what he did, the fact that he did it tells us more about him than about the people he betrayed. I don’t know the man myself, but I have to say I wasn’t all that impressed with the job of spokesman that he did before White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten sent him packing.

In his book, he rails on about the fact that the Bush White House engaged in an effort to “sell” the war to the American people. That should come as no surprise to anyone. Every administration engages in an ongoing campaign to “sell” the public on its policies, both foreign and domestic, and every wartime president has realized that support for his goals at home is as important as the success of our armies on the battlefield.

As one of Bush’s salesmen, McClellan strove mightily to convince the public of the justness of policies he now says were wrong. Whether the policies were or not is, in evaluating McClellan, less important than his enthusiasm for them when things were going well and his willingness to abandon them and his former friends when he perceived it to be in his interests to do so.

 McClellan was and is like too many people one finds in today’s Washington. Politicians attract at least three kinds of people. They come to town surrounded by those dedicated to them personally and others who share their ideals and beliefs, of course, but their entourage also includes people who signed on for the ride not out of a sense of public duty or dedication to certain principles, but to further their own ambition.

Scott McClellan was obviously one of the latter. His actions in office and since leaving strike one as those of a man seeking “the main chance.” He was Bush’s man when the president was riding high, but once the public mood soured on the president and his policies, McClellan turned on his former patron and will make money for doing so.

John Dean, who turned on Nixon during Watergate, got his start as a staffer for then-Rep. Bill Cramer of Florida, befriended Attorney General John Mitchell at the poker table and managed to use Mitchell to land the job as White House counsel. When it became clear to him that Nixon was in trouble, it took him no time at all to turn on the president and his former mentor and join the chorus of those after their hides.

Cramer had soured on Dean even before he’d moved on. He thought he was little more than, to put it euphemistically, a rank opportunist who would walk over his best friend if he thought for a minute he would benefit from doing so. “That’s the kind of people they wanted at the White House,” Cramer told me back then, “so how can they be shocked by the fact that he’s acting just as they should have known he would?”

Cramer said the real problem then was with a White House that would employ such people in the first place.

Maybe McClellan used John Dean as a character reference when he sought employment in the Bush White House. If he didn’t, he should have.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.