May 29th, 2008
01:29 PM ET

Scott McClellan’s Ethics

Editor's Note: Bruce Weinstein, "The Ethics Guy" will analyze the ethical issues at stake with former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan and his new book, tonight on 360° 10p ET.

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Bruce Weinstein
The Ethics Guy, BusinessWeek

For the past several days, there has been a lot of discussion about Scott McClellan and why he has written his tell-all book, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception.” Much of the criticism has focused on McClellan’s motivation for writing this book. Is he disgruntled? Does he feel guilty? Is he simply trying to cash in on his former position in the Bush administration?

As provocative as these questions may be, they are not nearly as important as the central ethical question raised by this story: was it right for McClellan to write such a book?

Looking at the ethical issues at stake, I argue the following:

  1. McClellan not only had a right to pen this book. He had an ethical obligation to do so.
  2. Yes, it is important to be loyal to one’s friends, colleagues, and employer, but it is more important to tell the truth, particularly when lives are at stake, as they are in this case.
  3. Yes, it would have been better for McClellan to have spoken up earlier, but there is no statute of limitations on telling the truth.
  4. Ethics is the ultimate non-partisan issue. The above argument applies not just to Scott McClellan, but to everyone. Had Jody Powell, the press secretary in the Carter administration, or Dee Dee Myers, the press secretary in the Clinton administration, made similar revelations, these too would have been ethically justified.

Of course, not all kiss-and-tell books are ethical. In 2004, I argued on AC360 that it was wrong for Michael Bergin to write “The Other Man,” which detailed his purported love affair with Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. Her untimely death prevented her from responding to the claims in the book. (On that program, Randy Cohen, who writes the ethics column for the New York Times Sunday magazine, argued against my position.)

In recent columns for BusinessWeek.com, I’ve considered the ethics of talking politics at work, the ethical responsibilities of the presidential candidates, and the art of losing well.

Filed under: Bruce Weinstein • Ethics • Scott McClellan
soundoff (54 Responses)
  1. samatha

    I think the Scott McClellan book is an eye opener of how the media get distracted with minute stories. Case and point "pastors" they make no policies, but a lot of precious cable news coverage is wasted on them. Image what our society would be like if the media focus on what is important to the American people.

    May 29, 2008 at 11:42 pm |
  2. Dorian

    I was watching tonight's interview & was amazed. I've practiced law for many years & am familiar with the attorney/client privilege, physician/patient privilege, religious confession privilege. However, I've never heard of the President/Press Secretary (or any other Secretary for that matter) privilege. Have I missed a revision to the Federal Rules of Evidence?

    May 29, 2008 at 11:39 pm |
  3. Pat M

    Until I read the book I won't comment on Scott's reasons for making it public, his timing in doing so, or whether it was ethical or not.

    But I do feel the long and short of this debate is, nobody but Scott knows those answers and he is not in any way indebted to enlighten us on the same.

    If the book covers what the reports have said it does it is not news or a breathtaking revelation. Like the New Testament, most of us felt angst to realize what our last days might entail. Still, I would wager most of us already knew given our human sinful characteristics the end would most ikely have some kind of a dark side.

    And I believe most of us already knew that the reason for the Iraq War was not WMD's but rather one's man fettish to even the score. I also doubt that many were shocked to hear that totally illlogical and unjust decisions were made toaccomplish the job. At least I wasn't. I said the day George Bush took our world would never be the same again. I was dead on.

    May 29, 2008 at 11:39 pm |
  4. Kevin

    McClellan has a right to tell an honest story. It is a shame that so many members of a free society are more concerned with loyalty than truth when lives have been lost.

    We need to rearrange our hierarchy of responsibility. Spiritualism first, humanism second, and patriotism third. I love my country almost as much as I love the people but not even close to how I love our God.

    May 29, 2008 at 11:18 pm |
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