Exclusive: McClellan whacks Bush, White House
By: Mike Allen
May 27, 2008 07:25 PM EST
Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan writes in a surprisingly scathing memoir to be published next week that President Bush “veered terribly off course,” was not “open and forthright on Iraq,” and took a “permanent campaign approach” to governing at the expense of candor and competence.
Among the most explosive revelations in the 341-page book, titled “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception” (Public Affairs, $27.95):
• McClellan charges that Bush relied on “propaganda” to sell the war.
• He says the White House press corps was too easy on the administration during the run-up to the war.
• He admits that some of his own assertions from the briefing room podium turned out to be “badly misguided.”
• The longtime Bush loyalist also suggests that two top aides held a secret West Wing meeting to get their story straight about the CIA leak case at a time when federal prosecutors were after them — and McClellan was continuing to defend them despite mounting evidence they had not given him all the facts.
• McClellan asserts that the aides — Karl Rove, the president’s senior adviser, and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, the vice president’s chief of staff — “had at best misled” him about their role in the disclosure of former CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity.
A few reporters were offered advance copies of the book, with the restriction that their stories not appear until Sunday, the day before the official publication date. Politico declined and purchased “What Happened” at a Washington bookstore.
The eagerly awaited book, while recounting many fond memories of Bush and describing him as “authentic” and “sincere,” is harsher than reporters and White House officials had expected.
McClellan was one of the president’s earliest and most loyal political aides, and most of his friends had expected him to take a few swipes at his former colleague in order to sell books but also to paint a largely affectionate portrait.
Instead, McClellan’s tone is often harsh. He writes, for example, that after Hurricane Katrina, the White House “spent most of the first week in a state of denial,” and he blames Rove for suggesting the photo of the president comfortably observing the disaster during an Air Force One flyover. McClellan says he and counselor to the president Dan Bartlett had opposed the idea and thought it had been scrapped.
But he writes that he later was told that “Karl was convinced we needed to do it — and the president agreed.”
“One of the worst disasters in our nation’s history became one of the biggest disasters in Bush’s presidency. Katrina and the botched federal response to it would largely come to define Bush’s second term,” he writes. “And the perception of this catastrophe was made worse by previous decisions President Bush had made, including, first and foremost, the failure to be open and forthright on Iraq and rushing to war with inadequate planning and preparation for its aftermath.”
McClellan, who turned 40 in February, was press secretary from July 2003 to April 2006. An Austin native from a political family, he began working as a gubernatorial spokesman for then-Gov. Bush in early 1999, was traveling press secretary for the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign and was chief deputy to Press Secretary Ari Fleischer at the beginning of Bush’s first term.
“I still like and admire President Bush,” McClellan writes. “But he and his advisers confused the propaganda campaign with the high level of candor and honesty so fundamentally needed to build and then sustain public support during a time of war. … In this regard, he was terribly ill-served by his top advisers, especially those involved directly in national security.”
In a small sign of how thoroughly McClellan has adopted the outsider’s role, he refers at times to his former boss as “Bush,” when he is universally referred to by insiders as “the president.”
McClellan lost some of his former friends in the administration last November when his publisher released an excerpt from the book that appeared to accuse Bush of participating in the cover-up of the Plame leak. The book, however, makes clear that McClellan believes Bush was also a victim of misinformation.
The book begins with McClellan’s statement to the press that he had talked with Rove and Libby and that they had assured him they “were not involved in … the leaking of classified information.”
At Libby’s trial, testimony showed the two had talked with reporters about the officer, however elliptically.
“I had allowed myself to be deceived into unknowingly passing along a falsehood,” McClellan writes. “It would ultimately prove fatal to my ability to serve the president effectively. I didn’t learn that what I’d said was untrue until the media began to figure it out almost two years later.
“Neither, I believe, did President Bush. He, too, had been deceived and therefore became unwittingly involved in deceiving me. But the top White House officials who knew the truth — including Rove, Libby and possibly Vice President Cheney — allowed me, even encouraged me, to repeat a lie.”
McClellan also suggests that Libby and Rove secretly colluded to get their stories straight at a time when federal investigators were hot on the Plame case.
“There is only one moment during the leak episode that I am reluctant to discuss,” he writes. “It was in 2005, during a time when attention was focusing on Rove and Libby, and it sticks vividly in my mind. … Following [a meeting in Chief of Staff Andy Card’s office], … Scooter Libby was walking to the entryway as he prepared to depart when Karl turned to get his attention. ‘You have time to visit?’ Karl asked. ‘Yeah,’ replied Libby.
“I have no idea what they discussed, but it seemed suspicious for these two, whom I had never noticed spending any one-on-one time together, to go behind closed doors and visit privately. … At least one of them, Rove, it was publicly known at the time, had at best misled me by not sharing relevant information, and credible rumors were spreading that the other, Libby, had done at least as much. …
“The confidential meeting also occurred at a moment when I was being battered by the press for publicly vouching for the two by claiming they were not involved in leaking Plame’s identity, when recently revealed information was now indicating otherwise. … I don’t know what they discussed, but what would any knowledgeable person reasonably and logically conclude was the topic? Like the whole truth of people’s involvement, we will likely never know with any degree of confidence.”
McClellan repeatedly embraces the rhetoric of Bush's liberal critics and even charges: “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.
“The collapse of the administration’s rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as such a surprise. … In this case, the ‘liberal media’ didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.”
Decrying the Bush administration’s “excessive embrace of the permanent campaign approach to governance,” McClellan recommends that future presidents appoint a “deputy chief of staff for governing” who “would be responsible for making sure the president is continually and consistently committed to a high level of openness and forthrightness and transcending partisanship to achieve unity.
“I frequently stumbled along the way,” McClellan acknowledges in the book’s preface. “My own story, however, is of small importance in the broad historical picture. More significant is the larger story in which I played a minor role: the story of how the presidency of George W. Bush veered terribly off course.”
Even some of the chapter titles are brutal: “The Permanent Campaign,” “Deniability,” “Triumph and Illusion,” “Revelation and Humiliation” and “Out of Touch.”
“I think the concern about liberal bias helps to explain the tendency of the Bush team to build walls against the media,” McClellan writes in a chapter in which he says he dealt “happily enough” with liberal reporters. “Unfortunately, the press secretary at times found himself outside those walls as well.”
The book’s center has eight slick pages with 19 photos, eight of them depicting McClellan with the president. Those making cameos include Cheney, Rove, Bartlett, Mark Knoller of CBS News, former Assistant Press Secretary Reed Dickens and, aboard Air Force One, former press office official Peter Watkins and former White House stenographer Greg North.
In the acknowledgments, McClellan thanks each member of his former staff by name.
Among other notable passages:
• Steve Hadley, then the deputy national security adviser, said about the erroneous assertion about Saddam Hussein seeking uranium, included in the State of the Union address of 2003: “Signing off on these facts is my responsibility. … And in this case, I blew it. I think the only solution is for me to resign.” The offer “was rejected almost out of hand by others present,” McClellan writes.
• Bush was “clearly irritated, … steamed,” when McClellan informed him that chief economic adviser Larry Lindsey had told The Wall Street Journal that a possible war in Iraq could cost from $100 billion to $200 billion: “‘It’s unacceptable,’ Bush continued, his voice rising. ‘He shouldn’t be talking about that.’”
• “As press secretary, I spent countless hours defending the administration from the podium in the White House briefing room. Although the things I said then were sincere, I have since come to realize that some of them were badly misguided.”
• “History appears poised to confirm what most Americans today have decided: that the decision to invade Iraq was a serious strategic blunder. No one, including me, can know with absolute certainty how the war will be viewed decades from now when we can more fully understand its impact. What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary.”
• McClellan describes his preparation for briefing reporters during the Plame frenzy: “I could feel the adrenaline flowing as I gave the go-ahead for Josh Deckard, one of my hard-working, underpaid press office staff, … to give the two-minute warning so the networks could prepare to switch to live coverage the moment I stepped into the briefing room.”
• “‘Matrix’ was the code name the Secret Service used for the White House press secretary."
McClellan is on the lecture circuit and remains in the Washington area with his wife, Jill.
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