Scott McClellan is having a “Matrix” moment — the moment when you wake up, with a jolt, from the reassuring fictions of the media dreamworld to the face-slapping reality of unspun fact. Remember that scene in “The Matrix” where Laurence Fishburne parts the veil of illusion — the computer-generated simulation humanity experiences as everyday reality — to reveal the movie’s post-apocalyptic world for the irradiated slag heap it really is? Like that. “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” he tells Keanu Reeves, a riff on the postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s pronouncement, in his book Simulations, that we live in a “desert of the real” — an ever-more-virtual reality where firsthand experience and empirical truth are being displaced by media fictions. He offers an example tailor-made for the Bush presidency: “Propaganda and advertising fuse in the same marketing and merchandising of objects and ideologies.”
This, in a word, is life inside the Bush administration’s Ministry of Truth, as described by McClellan in What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception. In his frag ’em-and-run memoir, the former White House press secretary — whose Secret Service code name, I kid you not, was “Matrix” — recounts how he and the rest of Team Dubya got caught up in the “permanent campaign,” a nonstop propaganda war whose tactical weapons were “the manipulation of shades of truth, partial truths, twisting of the truth, and spin,” and whose goal was to stage-manage the media narrative and thus public opinion.
Now that McClellan has broken free from what he calls the “Washington bubble,” he can see the “massive marketing campaign” (his words, my italics) to sell the war in Iraq for the steaming heap of dookie it was: a PR operation characterized by a, er, “lack of candor and honesty,” as the author so masterfully understates it, having just told us that the administration dropped the trap on chief economic adviser Larry Lindsey for telling the Wall Street Journal that Bush’s war would likely cost between $100 billion and $200 billion — a fatal misspeak at a moment when “talking about the projected cost of a potential war wasn’t part of the script.” Neither was talking about “possible unpleasant consequences” (the choice of adjective is sheer virtuosity, like a grace note in a Paganini caprice); “casualties, economic effects, geopolitical risks, diplomatic repercussions,” and other buzz-killers might jeopardize what advertisers call the “supportive atmosphere” that puts consumers in that impulse-buying mood — in this instance, buying the dubious case for war from a president who famously prefers faith to facts, a president who listens to his gut. Unfortunately, the trustworthy gurglings of the Bush gut were indistinguishable, in this case, from the offstage urgings of the neocons Colin Powell derided as “fucking crazies.”
What Happened is a dyspeptic mixture of born-again confessional and media culpa; it’s The Confessions of St. Augustine, as written by Michael Deaver. Four sentences in, McClellan lets us know that today’s homily will take as its text John 8:32: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Our pilgrim spends much of his progress bogged down in that Slough of Despond, Washington, D.C., where even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, like the “fundamentally decent” George W. Bush, can fall prey to the rancorously partisan, win-at-any-cost mindset of the Permanent Campaign Mentality. Narrow is the gate and straight is the way, and lying in wait in the tall grass are the news media, whom McClellan somewhat redundantly insists on calling “complicit enablers.” (Personally, I prefer the more precise Enabling Enablers Who Enable Too Much.) The media oversimplify complex issues, batten on scandal, are “too deferential” to power (yet another nail in the coffin of the liberal-media canard, not that it will stay buried), and focus on the horse-race aspects of politics rather than the weighty matters that furrow the American brow, between episodes of “Flavor of Love.”
The book ends with some halfhearted bromides, on loan from Billy Graham: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” The organ swells, sobbingly. “It would be difficult if not impossible to find anyone who has lived in this destructive world of Washington … who is truly ‘without sin.'” All together now: “A-maz-ing grace, how sweet the sound/ That saved a wretch like me!”
Of course, the Winston Smith of the West Wing knows too well that, in a media age, “shaping the narrative before it shapes you” is how you win hearts and minds and, not incidentally, sell books. Watching him stay relentlessly on message as he makes the talk show rounds, one can’t help but wonder: Is the man still spinning? The White House and its flying monkeys in the right-wing blogosphere and over at Fox News think so: They’ve launched a counterspin offensive, Richard Clarke-ing him as a shameless prevaricator who will do anything to boost his book sales. (It was ranked No. 1 on Amazon.com shortly after its release, although it had slipped to No. 52 as of this writing.)
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