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Fault isn't just Bush's

McClellan cites media. But voters share the blame.

Jay Bookman

writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

'This doesn't sound like Scott - not the Scott McClellan I've known for a long time," Karl Rove said this week, referring to his former colleague's new book from inside the Bush administration. "It sounds like a left-wing blogger."

And that's exactly the point.

Nothing in McClellan's book is surprising or new. Its power lies in the fact that its author, a former White House press secretary who had worked loyally for Bush since his days in Texas, does indeed confirm what the president's harshest critics have said about him and his administration.

That includes the public take on Rove. McClellan calls him "an operative who places political gain ahead of national interest," which is a damning indictment of anyone who serves in a high position in the White House.

As McClellan now concedes, the invasion of Iraq was poorly thought out and an act of gut instinct on the part of Bush, who believed that only wartime presidents were ever remembered as great.

The invasion was sold to the American people as something it was not, says McClellan, because "Bush and his advisers knew that the American people would almost certainly not support a war launched primarily for the ambitious purpose of transforming the Middle East."

But part of the blame, McClellan says, falls on a national media that served as "complicit enablers" of the Bush strategy.

"If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq," he writes. "In this case, the 'liberal media' didn't live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served."

That's exactly right.

At a critical time in the nation's history, the media failed to do their duty under the First Amendment, and they - we - failed the American people as well.

In one of the most compelling scenes in the book, McClellan recalls a private moment in the first presidential campaign when Bush, angered by press questions about past cocaine use, claimed not to remember whether he had used the drug in the wilder days of his youth. McClellan could not believe it was possible to forget such a thing.

"It's the first time when I felt I was witnessing Bush convincing himself to believe something that probably was not true, and that, deep down, he knew was not true," McClellan writes, a "penchant for self-deception" that Bush would later use to avoid coming to grips with far greater issues, such as Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, with great consequences.

But as many have pointed out, McClellan himself found a way to avoid confronting the truth during his years at the White House. None of his former coworkers can recall any instance in which he voiced the sentiments he now states so forcefully.

"Scott never did that on any of these issues as best I can remember or as best as I know from any of my White House colleagues," former homeland security adviser Frances Townsend said on CNN. "For him to do this now strikes me as self-serving, disingenuous and unprofessional."

But here's the hard part: Much of what is now being said of Bush and his administration can also be said of the nation as a whole. The president was far from alone in preferring to think with his gut, not his brain, in deciding to invade Iraq. If he had not reflected the national mood so well, he could not have led us so easily into such a bad war.

Furthermore, the fact that Bush was re-elected in 2004 suggests that self-deception can be a national as well as personal phenomenon.

It is wrong - tempting, but wrong - to try to scapegoat one man for the mistakes of the last seven years, even if that man is as powerful as the president.

Our institutions have failed us, and we have failed ourselves. For that failure, we will pay a heavy price for years to come.