Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The state of McClellan

Otherwise titled Sympathy for the Devil.

So Scott McClellan has written his "tell-all" book. And, as I’m sure everyone is more than well aware, the all that he tells is not complimentary to the Shrub gang, who have come out in force to denounce him as "disgruntled" and to whine in what McClellan himself described as a coordinated campaign, “this is not the Scott we knew.” Apparently not.

That, however, is not surprising, any more than the right-wing columnist whose “media web question of the day” asked people how they would describe McClellan now, with the choices being capitalist, opportunist, weasel, and rat.

(However, for a so-deeply-warped-it’s-funny take, check out Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, who, fully embracing the “not the Scott we knew” meme, says McClellan actually was a “useful idiot” for publisher Peter Osnos, who is, it seems, irredeemably evil. The proof of that latter contention is that in the 1960s Osnos worked for I. F. Stone.)

Nor, in fact, was it surprising that the initial response among members of the left was something akin to delight: Here was somebody from Shrub’s inner circle confirming what we’d known all along about both the administration and the media, whose flabby response to the crimes committed by the administration in Iraq and elsewhere was “deferential, complicit” enabling of the propaganda.

Soon, however, an undercurrent or perhaps countercurrent emerged among lefty commentators, and it’s that other current that I wanted to comment on and where my sympathy comes in.

The focus of this second-thinking was that McClellan was a Scotty-come-lately, that he should have said all that he said five or even more years ago, “when it would have really mattered.” We at least imply that he’s a hypocrite: Both Keith Olbermann (in a pretty softball interview with McClellan) and Jon Stewart (interviewing Richard Clarke) made a point of noting that McClellan had criticized Clarke’s first book in much the same language as the White House is directing against McClellan now. (Sidebar: In the course of his more contentious interview with Stewart, McClellan said he had recently apologized to Clarke.)

Some charges go well beyond implications. He’s “still the same,” we say: “a scumbag.” We sneer “what took you so long.” We denounce him as a pariah and accuse him of “trying to wash the blood off his hands and add a chunk of change to his bank account.” We demand he be more contrite (specifically, by giving all the proceeds to wounded Iraq veterans), that he should offer stronger mea culpas, act more guilty, bow and scrape and wear sackcloth and ashes and otherwise make repeated apologies and confessions of personal venality and moral failure which for some would never be loud enough or long enough.

Ultimately, instead of being grateful for and pleased with the distance he’s come, we condemn him for not having come further while at the same time declaring him incapable of doing so.

And frankly, I’m sick of it. I’m sick of that whole attitude. I’m sick seeing sneering dismissal of people going through a process of change on the grounds that they haven’t gone further, faster. I’m sick of seeing people who have come to agree with us in some way getting slammed for not having done it sooner. If it was only Scott McClellan, I doubt I’d feel nearly so strongly, but I’ve seen it over and over again in various times and places and the sheer arrogance of it, coming as it so often does from among those who have not had any sort of personal conversion, who have not had to go through the often-disorienting experience of change, is infuriating.

Change rarely comes easily to any of us and too often does not come at all. In fact, we are remarkably adept at finding ways and reasons to not change, to maintain our current image of ourselves, whatever that image may be. To change in any fundamental way - and ways that affect your loyalties are included here - is to potentially challenge your established way of looking at the world, that is, to challenge the entire way you philosophically orient yourself in, make sense of, the world around you.

Some years ago, a friend wrote to me about some changes he was going through at the time and laid into himself for, he said, “not having the stones” to have done it sooner. I advised him to cut himself some slack, because we as humans are very reluctant to rethink ourselves, possibly from scratch. To do so means facing the terrifying “threat” of change - terrifying because that very change also means a new responsibility: It means becoming responsible not only for what you have been but also for what you are to become. You are, at least to some degree, emotionally and psychologically on your own in a way you may well never have been before.

Scott McClellan, it’s clear, really believed in Bush. He really believed Bush wanted to be “a uniter, not a divider” and that his war in Iraq really was about a desire to bring “change” to the Middle East. Yes, those beliefs were futile, and quickly would have been seen by anyone not involved to be at best foolish.

But McClellan was not uninvolved. He was committed. He was a believer. To get out of that, he had to give up that belief, give up the notions to which he had given his loyalty, had to cash in the emotional investment he had made. And that is never, ever easy.

Change, in fact, usually comes slowly over time unless driven by some dramatic event that penetrates the emotional armor in a way that can’t be ignored - and sometimes it’s slow to come even then. McClellan mentioned such a moment in his interview with Olbermann when he said he was “taken back” and “disillusioned” when Bush told him that he, Bush, had authorized selective leaking of classified NIE information as part the campaign to discredit Joe Wilson.

But as if to prove my point, even in the wake of an avowedly disillusioning experience it's still hard for McClellan to give up the beliefs entirely and you can still sense traces of it in his words. For example, in his interview with Stewart, he said
I still have personal affection for the president. But you’ve got to separate your personal affection from his actions and deeds and I was able to do that when I stepped out of that White House bubble.
Note the key phrase: “When I stepped out of that White House bubble.” Some distance, some perspective, yielding some insight. But even now, in that quote, you can sense signs of a lingering emotional commitment, as if he's still clinging to the notion that in other circumstances, surrounded by people other than Rove and Libby and Cheney, Bush could have been the uniting, bipartisan figure McClellan imagined him being as president. Change, again, rarely comes easily.

But even after allowing for that, the fact remains that Scott McClellan has moved. He has shifted. He has gained some perspective. Even though that shift is not what it could be or should be, even though it happened only now instead of then, it does exist, it did happen. It exists to the point where he left open the possibility that he would vote for Barack Obama. Yes, that remark might have been purely political, a simple reversion to the say-nothing statements at which any press secretary is adept. But seeing how easily he could have said that he’s still a Republican, still believes in the principles of the party, and so is supporting John McCain because he believes McCain can fulfill that promise of “reaching across the aisle” that he’d hoped to see from Bush, leaving open the option of Obama is worthy of note. Scott McClellan, a member of George Bush’s inner circle, has moved toward us. Even if not very far, it is still toward us. We should be glad.

But some among us are not. For some among us, that shift is not good enough. For some among us, it could never be good enough. Indeed, I suspect that some among us would have preferred that it hadn’t happened at all, some who would prefer that all enemies remain all enemies and regard anything less than absolute total conversion as proof of deception - and so see McClellan as, again, “still the same.” There are among us, in short, people who hear McClellan say, albeit indirectly but still in essence, “you were right” and respond with “yeah, who the fuck cares what you think, bozo?”

But that is nothing more than moral condescension, merely an excuse to declare our insight deeper, our ethics higher, our humanity superior; and even to the extent that is true, which it is, it still becomes a masturbatory ego trip when directed against someone who has taken a step in our direction, an ego trip which, as satisfying as it might feel, ultimately makes it harder for them to continue to move toward us because to the degree they look to us to that same degree they see dismissal and rejection.

What should we do instead? How about focusing on what McClellan said, on his admissions and acknowledgments, instead trying to show how clever and worldly we are by sussing out his moral shortcomings. How about an attitude of “we’re glad you’ve finally wised up, that you’ve finally gained enough perspective to see there was truth to our words. We won’t refrain from criticizing you where differences remain (and they surely do) but we welcome your growth and hope that this will lead you to reconsider other issues and attitudes as well.”

Ultimately, what has happened is that on a couple of points and admittedly without a direct admission of it, Scott McClellan has surrendered to us. And I wonder about people who seem determined to not accept that surrender.

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