RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Thanks for Clearing That Up

We all thank you, Scott McClellan, for writing What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.

The fans of Sunday morning punditry and weekday NPR thank you for relieving the tedium of the election non-news. There’s only so much we can take of campaign commanders revealing their innermost reflections on the polls. Here’s an idea: Give each political campaign director a pile of dishes and let them throw them at the wall. It wouldn’t cost much. You can get heaps of dishes at the Goodwill store, and that would make for better TV, for sure, and maybe better radio as well.

But back to the Scott McClellan appreciation moment: The Democrats thank you for taking the spotlight off the fiasco of Chicago preachers. The Republicans thank you for the opportunity to call you an ungrateful opportunist and give a focus to their disdain for all things thoughtful. And, on behalf of English teachers everywhere, I thank you, for providing a new example of the power of the writing process.

McClellan started off to write a puff piece on the Bush administration, especially George Bush. He had begun working for Bush when he was just a kid—less than 30 years old—and had spent his career with GW. Not hard to imagine a starstruck kid believing everything his boss and mentor put out.

As McClellan wrote, however, he began to think. He put events in historical context. He looked for defense for his own arguments. In writing, he began to recognize unclear thinking on his part, and the part of his bosses. And when he looked for back-up data and arguments, they weren’t there. Could it be that he was deceived?

This is what we teach in freshman English 101. Write an argumentative essay. Start with a thesis, make an outline of your supporting ideas, put your argument in context and find experts or studies to back up your thesis.

Every semester, I ask 20 college students to follow that plan, and every semester I have one or two that get halfway through the first draft and realize they’re on the wrong side of the issue. That’s 5% to 10% that ask to change their thesis. And, when they do, I know they’re on the way to a thoughtful paper.

McClellan’s thesis was something like, “George Bush got us into the Iraq War to spread democracy and if he has made mistakes they are honest mistakes.”

Along the way to supporting his thesis, McClellan began to reflect on the many excuses he had heard about why we were in Iraq. The Saddam Hussein excuse. The Weapons of Mass Destruction excuse. The al Qaeda excuse. The oppressed people excuse. Why, thought McClellan, trying to put his thesis into a defensible form, didn’t Bush just say we were spreading democracy?

Bush didn’t say such a thing because Americans wouldn’t pay for a war to spread democracy. Even the freshman English student would see right through that one—there are dozens of places that need democracy, and we don’t send troops to all of them.

Anyway, starting a war isn’t the best way to spread democracy. Indeed, where there are examples of democracy, they’ve gotten to people through diplomacy or even revolution rather than war.

But war is a good vehicle to spread corporate imperialism. Oil. Food. The things an army needs can be exported with an army. If the US was sympathetic to oppressed people, or scared of WMD, the money an army needs can be moved from domestic spending to military spending.

If McClellan had thought about it, of course, he would have been replaced by another starry-eyed youth, but there’s no doubt about it. To the Thinking person, this war was about corporate empire.

There was never an effort to evaluate the culture of Iraq, or to put events in any kind of context. Consider a moment the early war years’ U.S. diplomatic representative, Paul Bremer. He never had any real job description to benefit U.S. citizens that I could figure out. Today, writers refer to him as “the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority.”

Back in June 2004, when the US “handed over” governance to Iraq, Bremer issued edicts requiring Iraq to adopt many measures to protect corporate interests.

The Washington Post reflected on Bremer’s rules: “Many of them reflect an idealistic but perhaps futile attempt to impose Western legal, economic and social concepts on a tradition-bound nation that is reveling in anything-goes freedom after 35 years of dictatorial rule.”

There was a 76-page law prohibiting piracy of intellectual property and protecting microchip designs. Farmers were supposed to stop saving seeds from year to year, and supposed to buy seeds from approved sources.

As an insider, McClellan was part of the team that disseminated the false information but he didn’t invent the deceptions. He was just the inside-the-beltway guy full of self-congratulation but lacking in thought or self-evaluation. If you want to see this type up close and personal, but don’t want to spend the money to go to Washington, visit your state capitol when the assembly is in session.

McClellan is a brave man. Every time I’ve seen him on TV, I’ve had the distinct impression that he’s scared of the administration. Not of Bush, who he still seems to admire, but of the rest of them. He can’t say “Karl Rove” without getting that deer-in-the-headlights look.

So here’s the question. It’s a little late, indeed, but how can we get the rest of the Bush administration to write a book?

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2008

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