Now he tells us. Scott McClellan’s memoir offers more candor in a chapter than he let loose during his three years as the president’s spokesman. Often kept in the dark by his boss and, at least in one case, deliberately sent out to mislead the public by his superiors, McClellan writes as if he went home after he left the White House in 2006 and purged. Disgorged onto the pages of What Happened, due out next week, are all of the emotions, regret, and doubt that apparently bottled up even as he eternally presented a sunny, largely unflappable demeanor while on the job selling the president’s policies.
Because McClellan was such a team player, the book comes as a bit of a shock to those of us who covered the White House during his tenure. Yes, I knew he was angry at Karl Rove and Scooter Libby for using him to spread the falsehood that they had no role in the CIA leak case. That’s in the book: “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.” But the denunciation expands from there, and it’s that breadth I never thought that his memoir would offer. McClellan outlines the “obfuscation, dissembling, and lack of intellectual honesty that helped take our country into the war in Iraq.” He suggests the president and his aides were in permanent campaign mode, putting politics above principle, and chronicles how a “state of denial” led to the mishandling of the response to Hurricane Katrina. (He also includes a critique of the press, which he says acted as “deferential, complicit enablers” of Bush administration “propaganda.”)
Slate V Video: McClellan scolds an earlier turncoat
In small ways, McClellan still seems at times like he’s working for Bush, correcting misperceptions about the president’s smarts and absolving him of intentional wrongdoing in the leak matter. But on all the major fronts, the president is still his biggest target. McClellan had worked for Bush since the president was Texas governor, and so he can show us how the scales gradually fell from his eyes over time. In one bizarre episode, during the period of Bush’s presidential campaign when the press was constantly chasing rumors about his possible cocaine use, McClellan hears a conversation in which Bush tells a friend that he can’t remember if he tried cocaine when he was younger. At the time, McClellan wonders how the then-governor could not remember such a thing but portrays it now as the first inkling of Bush’s penchant for self-deception.
In general, McClellan describes the president as someone who lacks inquisitiveness and is also deceitfully self-delusional. Long money quote: “As I worked closely with President Bush, I would come to believe that sometimes he convinces himself to believe what suits his needs at the moment. It is not unlike a witness in court who does not want to implicate himself in wrongdoing, but is also concerned about perjuring himself. So he says, ‘I do not recall.’ The witness knows no one can get into his head and prove it is not true, so this seems like a much safer course than actually lying. Bush, similarly, has a way of falling back on the hazy memory defense to protect himself from potential political embarrassment. Bush rationalizes it as being acceptable because he is not stating unequivocally anything that could be proven false. If something later is uncovered to show what he knew, then he can deny lying in his own mind.”
McClellan’s account adds another set of insider anecdotes to the already heaping stack built by previous Bush officials and advisers. Paul O’Neill first described the president’s blindness to inconvenient facts six years ago when he talked about Bush’s lack of appetite for “analytical rigor, sound information-gathering techniques and real, cost-benefit analysis.” The list of administration officials turned bashers includes John Dilulio, Larry Wilkerson, Rand Beers, Richard Clarke, David Kuo, Paul Pillar, and Matthew Dowd.
The volume of defections from the party line—enough to form a choral group!—makes it harder to knock McClellan down. That has not stopped his colleagues, both past and present, from trying. The response has been withering and coordinated. Several made the case that he’d raised no objections while in the White House and that he was not in a position to know about some policies he assailed. “I think his view is limited and some of this may be misunderstanding on his part of what he saw and heard,” said former Homeland Security adviser Frances Townsend on CNN. Karl Rove compared McClellan to a left-wing blogger. White House spokesperson Dana Perino called McClellan “disgruntled.”
McClellan’s predecessor, Ari Fleischer, suggested that McClellan had told him privately that the publisher had “tweaked” the book. This passing on of a private conversation, if it happened, is dirty pool and the kind of thing Fleischer would never have countenanced from a reporter. But Fleischer’s ghostwritten charge has been picked up by other critics who have all said a version of something like, “It just doesn’t sound like Scott.” Said one former senior Bush official, “It sounds like his publisher was ticking off a punch list making sure to hit all of the liberal complaints against the administration.”
McClellan’s publisher, Peter Osnos, denies that a ghostwriter worked over McClellan’s draft (though an extra editor, Karl Weber, was brought in to meet the fast publishing deadline). Since McClellan signed off on the work, the point is moot anyway. The other criticisms don’t really undermine McClellan’s case either. The attacks on his character tend to reinforce the heart of McClellan’s account of the CIA leak case—that the White House smears its critics. And even if McClellan was out of the loop on the response to Katrina (it appears lots of people were) and may not have been in on Iraq planning (er, neither was then-Secretary of State Colin Powell very much), that doesn’t undermine his central and most damning critique about the administration’s utter lack of candor. He describes the administration as one “that, too often, chose in defining moments to employ obfuscation and secrecy rather than honesty and candor.” As the press secretary who transmitted the president’s message, McClellan has standing to talk about whether the messages he was transmitting and shaping had truth behind them.
It’s hard to feel great sympathy for McClellan. If he felt strongly that the president was deceiving the country, or that he had been deceived by Karl Rove, he should have left his job. That’s what former press secretary Jerald terHorstdid when he disagreed with Ford’s pardon of Nixon, a minor offense compared with what McClellan says are the deceptions that led to an unnecessary war. It’s also hard to feel bad for the treatment McClellan is getting when he said this about Richard Clarke’s tell-all book in 2006: “Why, all of a sudden, if he had all these grave concerns, did he not raise these sooner? This is one-and-a-half years after he left the administration. And now, all of a sudden, he’s raising these grave concerns that he claims he had. And I think you have to look at some of the facts. One, he is bringing this up in the heat of a presidential campaign. He has written a book and he certainly wants to go out there and promote that book.”
And yet, I do feel a certain compassion for McClellan after reading a book that is full of regret, soul-searching, and shame. McClellan certainly isn’t presenting himself as a hero for finally coming out against policies he once advocated. If he’d left in the middle of the CIA leak scandal, he would have given an enormous gift to the president’s political opponents. It would have been the right thing to do. But I can imagine when you’re in the thick of political combat, your bosses are keeping you in the dark, and you are constantly being praised for your loyalty, it can be hard to find your way to the right thing. In the end, though, that the author of this book stayed, given his strong views, still seems as puzzling as Bush’s claims that he couldn’t remember whether he’d once used cocaine.