SCOTT McCLELLAN HAS LAUNCHED a scathing and unexpected attack on
the Bush administration. The media's punching bag will soon be its
darling. Much has already been made of McClellan's preposterous claim
that the White House operated in "permanent campaign" mode. Alas, if the campaign had been run anything like the White House, it seems unlikely Bush would have won reelection.
In no sense was I a "senior advisor" during my brief tenure at the
White House. At best, I was a junior staffer--if not a peon--within the
Communications Office. But my experience suggests McClellan is
completely off his rocker when he asserts the Bush White House operated
like the Bush campaign.
Shortly after Bush won reelection, I helped start up the White House's
first rapid response shop. The goal was a noble one--take what worked
in the campaign's communications efforts, and transplant it into the
White House. Makes you wonder, did the Bush administration ever
consider responding rapidly during its first term? I soon learned the
answer was a definitive no.
People often associate "rapid response" with the dark political art of
digging through trash and peddling dirt on political enemies. In
reality, this doesn't happen--at least not at the White House. Rapid
response doesn't even mean waging a constant political battle. It just
reflects the fact that the news cycle has changed, and if the media
makes a mistake, there is only a brief opportunity to correct it before
misconception becomes conventional wisdom. (For example, the media
often reports the Bush administration has implemented restrictions or an
outright ban on embryonic stem cell research. Such restrictions,
however, only apply to the embryonic stem cell research eligible for
This new reality about how news percolates down to the public is
precisely why the Democrats launched an "Information Center" when they
took control of the Senate, placing many more people in their rapid
response shop than the White House ever employed for such work.
Despite everyone's best intentions, it became apparent to me that the
Bush White House regarded safeguarding its image and communicating a
message to the public as low on its list of priorities. This is not
entirely to its discredit. After all, the White House is fighting a
serious war against a determined enemy. But correcting outright errors
in wire stories (including those about the war on terror) took hours,
if not days. Any document to be circulated with the press frequently
made it into the hands of dozens of staff-members who had to sign off
on them. Often this included a list of a dozen senior
staffers--Assistants to the President--who had more important things to
do and often little expertise on the particular subject.
On a good day, this took 12 hours. Often it took two or three days to
receive approval to circulate a response. By this time, the damage to
the White House's message had been done. My interaction with
McClellan's Press Office suggested it wasn't even interested in
bothering with this thankless task, and in certain instances, one
office or another simply rejected the notion we should respond at all.
Of course, McClellan is right that the Bush administration's failures
are not limited to messaging strategy. Sometimes news is just bad.
McClellan was in a unique position to make that point to the president
since he was among a select few who had routine physical access to the
man. Instead, he waited until he was out of the administration and Bush
was months away from leaving office to let loose.
Although I didn't work for the Bush campaign in either 2000 or 2004, I
knew many people who did. Many of these communications operatives
became so frustrated with the Kafkaesque requirements of navigating
executive-branch bureaucracy that they simply quit. Makes you wonder,
if Scott McClellan was so unhappy and self-aware, why didn't he?