hubris versus humility…

Posted on Friday 30 May 2008

"To err is human, to forgive, divine"
Alexander Pope
An Essay on Criticism. 1711

What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception by Scott McClellan has certainly captured our attention these last few days. Even though most of us haven’t read the book, we still attack and defend it with great passion. It’s unique to have one of the figures who daily defended the White House now saying the exact things we’ve been saying for now years – that the Bush White House, besides being a global failure, is corrupt at a very fundamental level. So, it’s little wonder that he’s the focus of a lot of ambivalence and psychologizing about his motivations.

One of the frequent comments is "[Scott McClellan] is not the person that I knew," as if that’s a criticism – like he’s a "different person." That’s obviously not the case. He is the same person – looks the same, dresses the same, has the same mannerisms and demeanor, still seems a bit shy to be someone in the public eye. His former colleagues on the Right view him as having fallen under some evil influence. The people on the Left see him as having had "an awakening" to the truth after a period of delusion. But those interpretations are both colored by the bias of the observers. And the comment would be more accurately stated, "I guess I didn’t really know Scott McClellan. I made assumptions about him that were obviously incorrect." I admit to being guilty of that myself.

A related question asked by all interviewers and quipped by most critics, "If you [he] felt this way, why didn’t you [he] speak up?" His answer is invariant, "I didn’t feel this way." We have a phrase for such things "changed his mind." There’s an everyday analogy – divorce court. No one asks, "If you loved her when you proposed, why are you asking for a divorce?" The implication is "You must not have loved her." A more likely true answer is, "Because I loved her, I overlooked things that would have told me not to marry her." Scott McClellan wanted to believe something he thought initially. It took a couple of betrayals to disillusion him: Rove lying to him; Libby lying to him; Bush acknowledging his part [authorizing the N.I.E. leak]. McClellan’s reaction to the "Why didn’t you speak up?" question is telling. He didn’t see anything to speak up about – until he did. From the interior, that’s not a problem for him. He "changed his mind."

All interviewers and some critics say, "You’re saying the President lied." McClellan tries to skirt that question, saying he doesn’t believe he [they] set out to lie. They "shaded the truth," got caught up in the endless "campaigning." One on the best interviewers in the game, Martha Radditz, got frustrated with McClellan’s evasion and said, "You’re spinning now!" Why is McClellan who is obviously implying that the Administration lied, so unwilling to be direct on this point? It has to do with the meaning of being a liar. If it’s coming from someone else, a lie is easy to define – the evasion of a known truth. If it’s something you or someone you care about is doing, there are suddenly gradations – shading the truth, "white lies," being tactful, "campaigning." McClellan is trying not to betray Bush et al. Liars are bad people. He still must care about them, and doesn’t want to think they are bad people.

    [I never cared about any of them, so I’ll say it for Scott McClellan. Bush and his associates are a bunch of chronic liars].
And finally, everyone seems to be interested in talking to Scott McClellan about losing his friends, betraying his friends. It was the first thing out of John Dean’s mouth on Countdown last night. McClellan doesn’t seem to be bothered about that. He sort of shrugs his shoulders, or says something like, "I’m not in charge of that." He obviously isn’t "moved" by the question. I think the operative principle is "fairweather friends." A common comment is that they "threw [Scott McClellan] under the bus." The divorce court analogy holds here too. His shrug says a lot. Who needs friends like that? And I doubt that these "friends" have been inviting Scott over for BBQ since he left the White House anyway.

I think that Scott McClellan’s indifference to these questions is a testimony to his authenticity rather than the opposite. The current climate in Washington is to have a ready explanation for any and every inconsistency. Campaigning has become explaining away your own inconsistencies and capitalizing on those of the other guy. There’s the unspoken absurd notion that there are perfect people and imperfect people, and the speaker is the former and the opponent is the latter. It’s all very strange since imperfection is universal. Perhaps the highest virtue is the ability to admit when you are wrong. It’s called humility – a very valuable trait.

I’ve "changed my mind" about Scott McClellan in the last couple of days. I don’t think it’s just because he now says things I agree with. It’s because he’s so consistent. He says that he became a loyal "Bushie" because he saw Bush’s bipartisanship in Texas as Governor. He believed Bush wanted to be a "uniter," to change Washington. McClellan rode that horse and did his part until circumstances forced him to see that he was wrong about how things were being done. I buy that explanation. When Olberman asked him who he was going to vote for at the end of the interview, McClellan said he wasn’t sure. Then he said he was attracted to Obama’s message of changing Washington. There’s no inconsistency in that. Hope springs eternal. The other reason I changed my mind was that when interviewed by someone who knew how to let him talk [Olberman instead of Vieira], he freely admitted that he’d been wrong. I’ll take humility over  hubris every time…
    June 1, 2008 | 8:07 PM

    Great post, thoughtful and thought-provoking. Thank you for sharing your ideas.

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