Thursday, June 5, 2008

When it Pays to Betray

Was it always thus, or am I being a self-righteous, moralistic, fuddy duddy old fart locked in some long abandoned warehouse crammed full of cast off virtues no longer viable or useful in today’s world?

What set me off on this rant was roaming the boob tube on a single Sunday morning, watching the chubby talking head of Scott McClellan flacking his book based on the absurd premise that he was moved to tell the “truth” after telling “lies” for three years as the spokesman for the Bush Presidency. What struck me as bizarre was that he was on every talk show that came up on my browsing flicker. By any measure it was a publicity home run for the author and the publisher. The lucky bastard. Then nausea set in.

As a former PR flack myself, I could imagine the Cheshire Cat smile on the editor who persuaded, bribed and cajoled McClellan to take the bait and juice up his book with a so-called damning exposé of the “manipulation” of the Bush White House in “propagandizing” our justification for going to war in Iraq. Can’t you just hear that cash register purring away?

And why not. The timing was exquisite. Like the giant O.J. Simpson bonanza in the publishing business past, the Bush bashing publishing hype is reaching its zenith in this election season. Alas, it will soon be over and Scott’s book will be remembered as one of its last highly profitable gasps. The aftermath will lose steam fast as the publishing business reaches for the next new non-fiction thing, probably a raft of justifications by former members of the administration rationalizing the war, Katrina, the energy crisis and other sins of the Bush years, real and imagined, but it won’t have the zing of a contemporary confessional.

What appalls me is not the political aspect of this faux revelatory act of blatant, cunning and ultimately despicable exploitation, but the fact that it is being marketed by the publishing industry as something gloriously honest and shamelessly flacked by McClellan himself as something that needed to be said “in the interests of the American people.” I’m all for honest impassioned critiques of any politician from the President on down. Flame away is my mantra. Such is the nature of politics and any politician with a thin skin had better go into gardening or knitting or any of a thousand serene professions.

Never mind that McClellan was an eager cog in the administration’s manipulative machine, which was his job, which he wouldn’t have had unless he was anointed through family ties and eager beaver butt kissing in the early days of young Bush’s political rise. Never mind that he was appointed by the President to be his spokesman in the most visible flack job in the world. Never mind that he was a loyal, albeit boring, practitioner in the art of justifying Presidential actions on all fronts, maybe even moved or commanded to tell a fib or two or more. Never mind that he would be just another anonymous worker bee somewhere far less visible if he had not been appointed to this job by the man he has reviled in his book and would not have ever been noticed by publishing sharpshooters looking for some highly visible Bush basher to take advantage of the down draft of this most unpopular administration.

The question in my mind is who is the biggest whore, the publishing industry or poor Scott, soon to be loaded with lucre for his exercise in payback. But then, content whoring is now the norm in an industry that must depend upon such outbreaks of shamelessness to survive.

That said, I do understand the business considerations and the clichéd truism that one should never blame the messenger. In this case, however, the messenger is the co-creator of the message and its prime profiteer. Publishing, unfortunately, is no longer the gentlemanly business it used to be and has now been taken over by the international bean counters who couldn’t care less what they were hawking if it turns a profit. Let’s face it, we are living in the age of sleaze and vulgarity and the beast must be served.

I suppose all this high dudgeon is the result of being schooled early in life as a Boy Scout. Really! At age 12 I joined that illustrious group and memorized the Scout Law which I vowed to uphold. It went like this. A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. It amazes me how such verities stick with one and, believe it or not, offer a guide worth pursuing in an increasingly selfish, indifferent and heartless world. Pardon my cynicism. It comes with the aging process.

I continue to cherish my Boy Scout experience although I never made Eagle Scout. Oddly, before he died, I got into a conversation with the actor James Stewart. We found ourselves reminiscing with great relish about our Boy Scout days. Stewart made Eagle and was still proud of that accomplishment. I had the impression it was one of those life experiences that resonated along with his service as General and the acting career that had made him a mega celebrity for most of his adult life.

I make this Boy Scout reference knowing that my ultra sophisticated and worldly friends might poo poo such a thought as naïve corny claptrap and might wonder why it comes to mind via the Scott McClellan memoir. I guess I’m just a sucker for loyalty. Scott sure wasn’t loyal to the man who gave him such a leg up, who once trusted him implicitly, who made him a celebrity and gave him enough notoriety to get a lucrative book deal. He knew, as every press secretary before him knew, that his one over-riding assignment was to make the President look good and explain and justify his policy actions to an unruly and often sinister and cynical press corps who under the cover of truth seekers are, as they would acknowledge themselves, in the tear down business.

He was, in effect, an information technician, a spinner, who occasionally dispensed shovelfuls of bull and he knew it. If the stink was too gamey and he didn’t like what he was doing, he should have packed his suitcase. American history is replete with people who left their jobs because of matters of conscience. There will, of course, be many who will buy into Scott’s redemption scenario depending on their personal feelings about the President and the war in Iraq. When bucks are involved, my tendency is to ask “who benefits?" In this case it is patently clear.

Every employer knows the drill. A disgruntled former employee can be a dangerous missile, especially if he is canned. Payback is an old story and if you can get paid for sweet revenge so much the better.

In my opinion, there are few things worse than being betrayed. I’ve been there. I know how the President must feel to discover that he was harboring a turncoat in his midst, a young friend of the family for whom he opened doors and eventually gave a job that every PR man in America would die for. Hell, you may detest the President, but if you put yourself in his moccasins for a second or two, you’ll know what I mean.

I don’t know what future is in store for Scott McClellan. Notoriety has its appeal in our celebrity drenched society, and Scott will get his solid 15 minutes of fame. But, despite all the rampant cynicism infecting our present worldview, there is still something to say for honor and trust and loyalty and all those other references in the Boy Scout law.

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