Thomas: Could Bush Have Prevented McClellan’s Tell-All?

How should the Bush team have handled Scott McClellan?

Maybe they should have taken a history lesson from Sen. Arthur Vandenberg. In the late 1940s, during the early days of the cold war, when the Truman administration wanted to get money and authority from Congress to extend the reach of American power in the world, Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would tell the Truman Democrats in the White House, "If you want me in on the landings, I have to be in on the takeoffs." In other words, he wanted to be in on the creation of strategy, not just asked to provide the votes to execute it. (As a result, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Lovett would go to Vandenberg's apartment every evening to show him top-secret cables over martinis; from that cocktail hour was born the Western Alliance that created NATO and the Marshall Plan.)

Or maybe Bush's inner circle should have watched more "West Wing." On several episodes the press secretary played by Allison Janney is sent out with inaccurate information or unwittingly made to lie to the press. She always protests—saying, in essence, if you want me to be your messenger to the outside world, you have to let me in on the true strategy and the reasons behind it (even if that involves a bit of dissembling).

Or, better yet, the Bush crew should have remembered the most immutable law of human nature: if you humiliate someone, he will want to get even.

Long before McClellan was hired, it was clear that the Bush administration's press strategy was to keep its own press secretary in the dark, at least when some lies were being told or there was a felt need to stonewall. Ari Fleischer, Bush's first press secretary, was not told everything either. The idea (I guess) was that the press secretary should not be placed in an awkward position, knowingly lying to the press, or being tempted to leak. The Bush crew has always prized discipline and shown a certain disdain for the media. In McClellan's case that meant sending him out day after day to spin, rosily and emptily, while being jeered at by an increasingly disbelieving and derisive press corps. It must have been humiliating, especially when he later discovered that he had been fed some outright lies, like the assertion that White House political adviser Karl Rove and Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby, had never spoken to reporters about Valerie Plame.

The most successful press secretaries are the ones who actually know what's going on—like Jody Powell under Jimmy Carter, Marlin Fitzwater under Bush 41, and Mike McCurry under Bill Clinton. They won the respect of reporters because they were respected by their own bosses.