What is the best explanation of the moral, legal, economic, and strategic failures of the Bush Administration? Scott McClennan's What Happened offers a series of illuminating answers. While the book has received a great deal of attention, one of his principal, and most interesting, themes has been barely noticed.
As McClennan describes the Bush White House, it is the very opposite of the team of rivals described in Doris Kearns Goodwin's account of Lincoln's executive branch. McClellan describes failures, not merely of Bush and Cheney, but also and crucially of their multiple advisers, who failed to bring up objections and counterarguments. What McClellan captures is a team of unrivals--a set of conformists who repeatedly echoed the prevailing line, even when they had private doubts, or relevant information that pointed in a quite different direction.
In a sense, McClellan's account offers a much more dramatic and sustained version of Arthur Schlesinger's description of the disastrous invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Schlesinger says that Kennedy's advisers silenced themselves, even though they had serious qualms. Indeed, Schlesinger suppressed his own doubts but did not object: "In the months after the Bay of Pigs I bitterly reproached myself for having kept so silent during those crucial discussions. ... I can only explain my failure to do more than raise a few timid questions by reporting that one's impulse to blow the whistle on this nonsense was simply undone by the circumstances of the discussion." As McClellan describes it, this form of self-silencing has been pervasive during the Bush Administration, and it has contributed to terrible errors of morality, law, economics, and strategy.
The Bay of Pigs disaster is often used as an illustration of "groupthink," above all by Irving Janis in his book that coined and elaborated that term. But the concept of groupthink is not well-specified, and McClellan's account is better described as capturing the process of group polarization, by which like-minded people entrench one another's inclinations, producing greater confidence, more firmness, more opposition to dissenting views, and greater extremism. In fact, McClellan might be understood to have produced a series of stories of group polarization in action. His book offers important lessons, not merely for those who seek to understand why and how the Bush Administration went so badly wrong, but also for those who want White House processes to work better in the future.
--Cass R. Sunstein