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Shades of Nixon: Scott McClellan as George W. Bush’s John Dean

A brief comment on the hot political story of the hour.

Former Bush administration Press Secretary Scott McClellan has written, for big bucks, a blistering memoir of his time in the Bush White House that savages many key administration figures and led one of them, former adviser and eminence grise, Karl Rove, to compare McClellan to a “ left-wing blogger“. Regardless of the truth of the memoir, an alleged “loyalist” who writes such a book is truly “disgruntled”. Why might that be ?

The Bush administration, in my mind, was never the second coming of Ronald Reagan but of Richard Nixon Redux. Set aside Watergate ( hard for those on the Left, I realize, but bear with me) for a moment; in Bush II you have a foreign policy presidency, a president with a polarizing personality, more partisan than ideological, an insular White House that shuts out even the GOP bigwigs, a reputation for “hardline” toughness, ruthlessness and secrecy. it is not surprising to me that ex-Bush “loyalists” are proving no more loyal to Bush in their scribblings than were the Nixon men.

I’ve read through every word of all of the memoirs of the Nixon era as well as a boatload of primary source documents. Even before Watergate, the Nixon White House was not a happy place and it showed in the recollections of those who labored for Richard Nixon; the descriptions of his White House are those of a shark tank. Henry Kissinger, despite his frequent brilliance was an insufferable prima donna and bully; Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Mitchell were widely (and justifiably) feared; Laird was an intriguer, Colson a thug, Liddy a fanatic and Dean a sycophantic snake.   Some of these men later changed their views but none painted a flattering picture of the administration in which they served nor felt any obligation to Nixon to do so.

Given that so many senior figures in Bush II were once ” Nixon men” – Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz among many others – it would be a small wonder if some of the dysfunctional, slightly paranoid, corporate macho “pressure cooker” atmosphere of the Nixon era didn’t resurface in the Bush years. Rove complains that McClellan never spoke up at the time and he’s probably right – kissing ass and playing office politics probably was the order of the day moreso than being the bearer of bad tidings.

14 Responses to “Shades of Nixon: Scott McClellan as George W. Bush’s John Dean”

  1. Michael Kozlowski Says:

    James Carville predicted on Good Morning America that when Bush is out of office and with a Democrat in the White House, there will be a full-scale investigation into the Iraq war, 9/11, and many of the scandals and secrets of the Bush administration. This is why we need Clinton as President so that we can reverse the Bush presidency.I don’t want Bush men or Nixon men working in a McCain administration. You will probably also enjoy perusing through the Bush library when available. I worked at Gerald R. Ford library. You should visit there, too. Great comparison between John McClellan and John Dean! I’ll check back later.

  2. Jim Says:

    Thank You Scott

  3. CKR Says:

    Not to mention that Reagan was a nuclear abolitionist, while Bush II seems to like the things.

    And, oh dear, Reagan was willing to talk to the head of The Evil Empire.

  4. Mithras Says:

    And, oh dear, Reagan was willing to talk to the head of The Evil Empire.

    Let’s also remember he was willing not only to talk to the Iranians, but to sell them weapons. What an appeaser.

  5. munzenberg Says:

    Mark, what books do you recommend as a good overview of internal politics, or "office politics," within the Nixon administration? I have Dean’s book on my toread list, which someone else told me about. Are there any others that are good?

  6. zen Says:

    Hi Cheryl,
    Reagan was an idealist and visionary who made pragmatic political moves. Nixon was a pragmatic politician who used ideals tactically.

    "What an appeaser."
    Perhaps, Mithras but the proceeds helped fund the war against the Sandinistas, which in my view was useful in keeping the Contras in the field until the USSR collapsed and the Marxists lost their sugar daddy and had to cut a deal for free elections. Say what you will about Reagan but funding insurgencies worked out better for the US than fighting them – to paraphrase Colonel Boyd, it’s a lot more fun to be on the winning side.
    Hi Munzenberg,
    Dean is not a reliable source ( ok – not many of these memoirs are though I’ll give The Haldeman Diaries high marks) but he does give the flavor of the administration very well. Richard Reeves Nixon: Alone in the White House is excellent as an overview.If you want disconnected but interesting minutia, I’d suggest From: The President edited by Bruce Oudes. Stanley I. Kutler’s Wars of Watergate is a classic but a heavily biased one. While Kutler has done more than any other historian to bring Nixon papers to light he has great difficulty with balance. Nixon was a flawed man but he also had great strengths and Kutler has trouble acknowledging them or the fact that even paranoids have enemies. Dallek has a similar problem though to a much lesser extent.
    As an aside, Nixon’s own memoir, RN is one of the most interesting presidential memoirs and worth reading even though, like John Dean, Nixon is not a reliable source but when Nixon is speaking generally on politics or foreign policy he can be exceptionally insightful. Useful to read with sections from Anatoly Dobrynin’s  In Confidence and the first volume of Kissinger’s (seemingly unending) three volume memoirs.

  7. zen Says:

    Hi Michael

    Thank you very much.  Were you a Federal historian or archivist ? If so do you know Maarja Krusten by chance ?

    Even setting aside policy differences, I can’t endorse a Clinton presidency though as there are few ppl in politics today who, in my view, more resemble Richard Nixon in terms of personality and political style (if not ideology) than does Hillary Clinton. 

  8. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » Kissinger: Establishing Priorities, Tolerating Our SOBs Says:

    […] Good Zenpundit post about, inter alia, the Nixon White House. Mark suggests some Nixonian books in the comments. […]

  9. munzenberg Says:

    Awesome. Thanks for the reading recommendations Mark.

  10. Eddie Says:

    Adult commentary on this! Amazingly rare eh?

    Isn’t a key difference between Nixon Admin and Bush Admin figures the overwhelming mediocrity of most of those in the latter?  Perhaps history will be more generous but its doubtful.

    Will this talk about compelling McClellan to testify before Congress about what he wrote carry any water down the road or is it just wishy-washy nonsense?

  11. zen Says:

    Rare indeed. 🙂
    Many on Nixon’s Cabinet appointees were as mediocre as they were disloyal. Rogers was totally unqualified to be SecState, Laird, while well qualified as SecDef, already had a machiavellian rep. hickel and others were jokes. OTOH, Connally and Shultz were smart operators, the latter was brilliant actually.

  12. Eddie Says:

    Zen,  Thank you for the re-education. I had thought highly of Laird and Shultz, as well as Kissinger but not considered the others.  Gates and Paulson seem to be the only ones who stick out for me in the Bush years.

  13. Lexington Green Says:

    Schultz was a standout. He managed to be a successful operator, and survive in the shark tank, yet be effective on substance, and have character and public spirit. One of the greatest products of the U of C.

    He was a solid Sec State for Reagan, and his memoirs are good.

  14. stuart abrams Says:

    Nightmare by J. Anthony Lukas is an excellent journalistic account of Watergate written roughly contemporaneously.  I have not seen anything written about Watergate since the revelation of Mark Felt as "Deep Throat".  The relationship between Cointelpro and Watergate and the competition between Hoover loyalists in the FBI and the Nixon White House puts a different perspective on the history of Watergate.  I’m not sure I see the parallel between McClellan and Dean.  Dean was simply the classic case of a mid-level member of a criminal conspiracy who got squeezed in an investigation and made a deal for leniency by implicating higher-ups.  McClellan  strikes me as someone who is bitter about being unceremoniously pushed out of his job.  I doubt that we will see any significant criminal investigations of the Bush White House even if a Democrat is elected.

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