“Bombshell” is the word that comes to mind.
It’s hard to imagine Bill Moyers telling the public that Lyndon Johnson had it all wrong or Ron Ziegler confirming that Richard Nixon was a crook after all. Former presidential press secretary Scott McClellan’s tale of White House deceit, issued while the George W. Bush corpus is still warm and filling a chair in the Oval Office, ranks as an astonishing turn, even by Washington standards.
Most interesting on Thursday was how Bush’s critics honed in on the substance of McClellan’s new book “What Happened,” especially the accusations that Bush and his inner circle used propaganda to “shade the truth” in selling the Iraq war, while Bush’s defenders quickly shifted the focus to McClellan himself, especially his motives and character.
The Progress Report blog called it “the automatic smear response,” often deployed by the White House to discredit others who have disagreed.
Karl Rove, the president’s former campaign guru, compared McClellan to a “left-wing blogger.”
Bush’s current press secretary, Dana Perino, described him as “disgruntled” and “not the Scott we know.” She said the president was “puzzled” about the book and “disappointed that if he had these concerns and these thoughts, he never came to him or anyone else on the staff.”
Stabbed in the back
Trent Duffy, who worked as McClellan’s deputy, said of his former boss: “Here’s a man who owes his whole career to George W. Bush, and here he’s stabbing him in the back and no one knows why.”
McClellan offered reasons, however. He claimed that there’s a higher calling in politics than loyalty. “The White House would prefer I not speak out openly and honestly about my experiences, but I believe there is a larger purpose,” he said on NBC’s “Today” show. “I had all this great hope that we were going to come to Washington and change it. Then we got to Washington, and I think we got caught up in playing the Washington game the way it is being played today.”
That game involves staying in a kind of permanent campaign mode that, in Bush’s case, led to an “unnecessary” war in Iraq, one that McClellan labeled a “strategic blunder.”
“I don’t think it was intentional or deliberate,” he told National Public Radio. “What happened here was we got caught up in the very thing the president campaigned against when he first was running for president back in 2000 — the destructive, partisan tone in Washington.”
The administration “set up a massive political operation that was aimed at really continuing that permanent way of governing — going out and shaping and manipulating the narrative in the media to one’s advantage,” he said. That’s the nature of Washington, he told NPR, and “that’s something I think most Americans are ready for us to move beyond.”
But, as Washington Post book reviewer Jonathan Yardley pointed out, there were instances in which McClellan felt deliberately misled. His disillusionment appears to stem largely from the Joe Wilson/Valerie Plame affair in which the White House punished a war critic by revealing his wife as a CIA agent. In his book, McClellan says that he unknowingly passed along false information to the public about the matter and that was led to do so by five top officials, including the president.
Once outside the White House bubble, it was clearer to him that this had happened on other occasions as well. On Hurricane Katrina, he said the White House spent the first weeks after the devastating storm “in a state of denial.”
Yardley summed it all up this way: “It is the fate of the presidential press secretary to be among an administration’s most visible public faces yet to be comparatively impotent within the circles of real power. McClellan struggled with this as did all press secretaries before him, but it was his misfortune to be the spokesman for an administration in which deceit and prevarication were commonplace.”
Many in the media were quick to point out ironies about McClellan.
“Now he tells us,” writes John Dickerson on Slate.com. “Scott McClellan’s memoir offers more candor in a chapter than he let loose during his three years as the president’s spokesman.”
Blogger Michelle Malkin, among others, unearthed a pithy 2004 quote. When asked about Richard Clarke’s critical book about the administration, McClellan had said: “Why, all of a sudden, if he had all these grave concerns, did he not raise these sooner? … 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.”
Well, four years later, it’s McClellan who is promoting a tell-all book in the midst of a heated presidential campaign. Blogger John Mercurio of the National Journal offers this tidbit: “OK, one more item, which isn’t a sure thing per se: Could McClellan actually support Barack Obama this fall? Talking to Meredith Vieira on ‘Today,’ he said he hopes his book will become part of the current presidential campaign’s dialogue, and he said Obama’s message of changing Washington is ‘very similar to the one the president ran on in 2000.’ “
Steve Berg, a former Washington, D.C., bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.