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McClellan Defends Controversial Account of White House Years

May 30, 2008 at 6:20 PM EST
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Scott McClellan reflects on his new memoir about his time as White House press chief, which has stoked controversy for its pointed criticism of the Bush administration. Then, analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks weigh in on McClellan's book.
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RAY SUAREZ: Now to our conversation with former White House insider Scott McClellan. Jeffrey Brown talked with him a short time ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Early in his new book, Scott McClellan writes that he will tell a, quote, “story in which I played a minor role, the story of how the presidency of George W. Bush veered terribly off-course.”

McClellan served President Bush in several positions in Texas and Washington, including three years as White House press secretary before he left the administration in 2006.

The book is called “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.” Scott McClellan joins us now from New York.

Scott, I’d like to start with a constant theme in the book, that the Bush administration was in what you call a “permanent campaign mode.” What exactly do you mean by this? And how did it help get us into what you now call an unnecessary war in Iraq?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, Former White House Press Secretary: Sure. I’m glad you asked that question. This is something that I cover in some detail in the book and provide examples of in the book.

I give a little bit of history. Over the course of time, particularly with the advent of polls and public — you know, the expansion of cable news networks and so forth, the permanent campaign, it goes back years, but it has evolved into some potentially more destructive excesses these days, where the whole focus used to be on more just winning over public opinion to your side.

It has now become more about manipulating those various sources of public approval — media outlets and so forth, the overall media narrative — to one side’s advantage. And both parties get caught up in this game.

It’s more about power and influence than it is about, you know, honest deliberation and compromise and trying to solve things, solve problems for the American people.

White House's 'permanent campaign'

Scott McClellan
Former White House Press Secretary
There are many good people that come to D.C. for the right reasons, to get things done for the American people [...] but they get caught up in this permanent campaign culture that exists [...] And that's what happened with this administration.

RAY SUAREZ: But you're writing about it -- but you're writing about it specifically in the Bush administration, where you're suggesting that -- you say, he, the president and his advisers, "confused the propaganda campaign with the high level of candor and honesty that was needed."

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: That's right. Particularly in a time of war, when that permanent campaign mentality transfers over into the war-making decision process, or the war-making process, then it becomes particularly troubling, because the focus on manipulating sources of public approval to your advantage loses sight sometimes of the high level of openness and honesty that are really needed, openness and forthrightness, to bring the American people along, build bipartisan support for the war, and then maintain that bipartisan support.

And I think it was a chief reason why the president's approval rating has dropped so significantly, because he has lost a lot of credibility, because we didn't embrace that high openness and forthrightness that was needed to go along with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But how far are you pushing this? Are you saying this happened with the president's acquiescence or approval or leadership? You use terms like "shading the truth." Is that a euphemism for lying or for purposely misleading?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Well, I think that this is the example that there are many good people that come to D.C. for the right reasons, to get things done for the American people and make a positive difference, but they get caught up in this permanent campaign culture that exists and they lose sight of some of the more important objectives of working across the aisle.

And that's what happened with this administration. We set up this massive political operation, and we didn't have the proper counterweights in place to make sure we minimized as much as possible some of the excesses of that permanent campaign, and focus on this bipartisan outreach and compromise and reaching out to the American people.

And that's where we ran into problems when this transferred -- now, you know, the Clinton administration was noted for political spin and manipulation and so forth. And most of it's incidental and harmless that happens in Washington, D.C.

But it can become particularly problematic, again, when it goes into the war-making decision -- or the war-making campaign, to get the American people's support.

And I can -- you know, from my standpoint, looking back and reflecting on this, the Iraq war was clearly not necessary. There are other ways we could have addressed the potential threat that was there. And the grave and gathering danger that we portrayed it at was overstated, at least.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that leads to something...

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: So -- yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sorry. But that leads to something that a lot of people are wondering here about why you waited to say it until now. Why not speak up when there was a chance to, if not change things, at least let people know that there was some what you're now calling propaganda or misleading going on?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Right. Well, during the buildup to the war, I was the deputy press secretary at the time. And I, like a lot of Americans, was concerned about how quickly we were rushing into this.

But we were in this post-9/11 environment and mindset. And at the same time, the president's foreign policy team was viewed very favorably. It had won widespread accolades for what we had done in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

And so I gave the benefit of the doubt. I trusted the president. I trusted his national security team that this was the right decision, to go ahead with this.

But after leaving the White House and having time to step back out of that White House bubble that exists, you can go back and reflect on this a little bit.

And that's what I've done. I've set aside that partisan hat, reflected on this, looked back at, how did things get so badly off-course? What was the reason for that?

And I asked a lot of questions. And I challenged the assumptions and interpretations I had in the past and came to some very different conclusions. And I think they're conclusions that are as honest as I can be about my perspective on things. And that's what this is, the truth from my perspective.

JEFFREY BROWN: You use that term "bubble." That's something you use in the books and often in the interviews you've been doing. I want to ask you what you mean by that.

And you say that you want this to be a lesson for people in learning how to play or not play, I guess, what you call the "Washington game." For example, is it possible for an aide to the president, a press secretary, which you were, to be both loyal and serve the president and serve the public at the same time?

And what should happen when there is a conflict between those two? What have you learned? What would you suggest now?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Well, I think you have to serve both. Sometimes it can be awfully difficult. But your ultimate responsibility is to the American people when you're serving, and your ultimate loyalty is to the truth.

And that's what this book is about. It's an extension of my public career, in a lot of ways.

You know, I've had a career in public service. And this book is a way to continue to make a positive difference by exploring these often tough, hard realities.

I mean, it wasn't easy writing this book. Some of the -- like I said, the conclusions I drew as I wrote it weren't necessarily the thoughts I had at the beginning or my assumptions at the beginning of this book, but I constantly challenged myself.

It was a tough piece of work to go through this process, but I feel very comfortable about my conclusions that I've drawn. And I hope, I think that, in some small way, it will help us move beyond this destructive partisan warfare that has existed in Washington for 15 years and really slowed us down from solving some of the most pressing priorities that we need to get done together...

Press as 'complicit enablers'

Scott McClellan
Former White House Press Secretary
I do think that, as a general matter, the media was complicit. The emphasis and focus was too much on the selling of the war or the march to war [...] instead of looking at the necessity of war as much as they should have.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another issue that you raise is about the press corps. You refer to the White House press corps as, quote, "complicit enablers." You say, "Their primary focus would be on covering the campaign to sell the war rather than aggressively questioning the rationale for war or pursuing the truth behind it."

Now, I've seen several responses from journalists in the last couple of days. Some, Katie Couric, for example, agreed, that, "I do think we were remiss," she said, "in not asking some of the right questions."

Others, Ron Suskind, an author and journalist who was on our show last night, was saying, "How can you say this when you were in the midst of misleading the journalists in the White House press corps at that time?"

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Well, there certainly is a -- it is a fair statement to say that the White House put up some walls and made it difficult for reporters to get some information or get some of the questions answered. That's very fair to make that point, too.

And there were exceptions to the overall rule that the media was -- and it's the national press corps I'm referring to. And there are a lot of national security correspondents and others that were focused on looking at some of these issues.

And some of it was focused too much on just reporting the intelligence that was being told to them from some of the analysts and some of the policymakers. And that's where it ran into problems.

And I do think that, as a general matter, the media was complicit. The emphasis and focus was too much on the selling of the war or the march to war, whether the president was making the case to the American people or whether he was not, instead of looking at the necessity of war as much as they should have.

And it was a post-9/11 environment. And Katie Couric did point out that, yes, there was this patriotic sentiment going through the news corporations and so forth.

I also believe that this is another example of how the media sometimes gets caught up in these issues of who's winning, and who's losing, and who's up, and who's down, instead of focusing on who's right and who's wrong, and focusing and putting the emphasis on understanding the larger underlying truth.

High hopes, disillusionment

Scott McClellan
Former White House Press Secretary
I expected some of the response that came, but some of it is surprising, in terms of how personal it is.

JEFFREY BROWN: You write a lot about your high hopes for the Bush presidency. You had worked with the president in Texas and Washington. And now you talk about being disillusioned.

How did that -- how do you conclude that it happened, that the administration, as you say, went off the tracks, when you talk about falling into the Washington game? These were, after all, very strong men and women who you worked with. How could that have happened?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Well, it happens to a lot of people in Washington, D.C., these days, unfortunately. And that's what I look at throughout the course of the book.

The Iraq decision, obviously -- or clearly to, I think, most people -- was one of the primary reasons the president went off-course. But I think there was a more fundamental mistake and that was, yes, we were caught up in this permanent campaign atmosphere and we didn't embrace that openness and candor that was so needed in the buildup to that war.

And what happened was, after things didn't turn out the way the expectations were set, we started running into more problems. And the president couldn't go back and say, you know, "We made mistakes."

Very understandable. That's part of human nature. These are good people, and there's not a deliberate or conscious effort to do this.

But when you get caught up in that Washington game, yes, you do lose sight of stepping back from it and being able to focus on bringing the American people along in a very open and forthright way.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me ask you, briefly, a lot of these former colleagues have been very harsh since your book has started to come out. Are you surprised by the personal nature of much of the criticism?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Yes. I mean, I expected some of the response that came, but some of it is surprising, in terms of how personal it is.

I knew that the White House did not want me to go out there and openly look at my experience and honestly and forthrightly discuss what I learned from it.

This is not a White House that is used to reflecting, unfortunately, because reflection is important. That's how we learn, and that's how we avoid these mistakes in the future.

And that's one of the key objectives, is to make sure we don't repeat these mistakes, but also to get us beyond the permanent campaign culture or the excesses of permanent campaign culture.

It's very interesting that the two leading -- or the two nominees, almost-nominee, in terms of Senator Obama, have been talking about some of these very issues.

Senator McCain went out two weeks ago and said he was going to end the permanent campaign. Senator Barack Obama has talked about change the way Washington works. It's very similar to the message the president advocated or ran on in 2000 when he won the presidency.

Now, I don't think you can end the permanent campaign, but you've got to minimize those destructive excesses. And that's what I talk about in the book, and I offer some ideas for doing that, such as appointing a deputy chief of staff for governing inside the White House that is a statesman or stateswoman who is focused on making sure that they're a counterweight to all the political influence.

There's always going to be a strong -- in this day and age, a strong group of political advisers that are focused on politics.

But we need to make sure we're also focusing on, how are we going about deliberation and compromise with members of Congress and working in a spirit of bipartisanship, so that they restore the trust and not continue the suspicion and warfare that exists in Washington today.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Scott McClellan, thank you very much.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Jeff, thanks.

Reaction to the book

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
The blandness and clichedness of this sort of book exemplifies a lot of the clones that were walking around the White House, who never could challenge the president [...] because, frankly, they didn't know anything about policy.

RAY SUAREZ: For some reaction, we're joined once again by Mark Shields and David Brooks.

Mark, does Scott McClellan's book help fill in the story of the last seven years of the Bush White House?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think there's a couple of good points in the book that have kind of been lost in much of the discussion about why he did it and why he did it now and all the rest.

The first, Ray, is that the decision to go to war, according to Scott McClellan, was basically made in the summer of 2002. There was no real consideration given to what the Congress or the allies or anybody else, the United Nations. That decision was made, signed, sealed and delivered long before the marketing plan was rolled out on or about Labor Day.

And the second was that the president was driven, the president for whom he worked, and came to Washington with, and admittedly professes still to be quite fond of, was driven by that desire not to experience what his father experienced and to lose after a first term, to win a second term.

And that had to have been further fueled and re-fueled, Ray, by the results of the 2000 election, where they thought they were going to win easily, ended up losing the popular vote, and only prevailing on a Supreme Court one-vote decision.

RAY SUAREZ: Did you learn anything from reading this?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Nothing.

RAY SUAREZ: Really?

DAVID BROOKS: I read most of the book. And I found it -- no original stories, no interesting observations, cliche-ridden, and bland.

And to me, it exemplified what the problem with the Bush administration was. There was spin, and God knows there was a lot of spin. But the real problem was there was no debate.

There were 20 percent of the people in that administration, in this administration, or especially in the first term, who were smart and were capable of having a debate. There were a lot of intellectual mediocrities who would never have a debate, did not have the intellectual chops to have a debate. And McClellan, frankly, is one of them.

And the blandness and clichedness of this sort of book exemplifies a lot of the clones that were walking around the White House, who never could challenge the president, never could challenge anybody, because, frankly, they didn't know anything about policy. They didn't have the intellectual smarts to make that kind of challenge.

And so what you had was a culture without debate. And to me, nothing was ever tested. And you had a few people making the decisions, nobody asking questions.

And McClellan -- he's not expected to. He was the press secretary. He's not expected to. But essentially, you had no culture of testing decisionmaking, and that was the problem.

And then the book exemplifies the mediocrity that pervaded parts of the administration.

RAY SUAREZ: That lack of culture of debate, was it only really a problem because of the times we were living in, the attack against the United States and the preparations for war and such?

DAVID BROOKS: 9/11 shut down the debate even more. There was also an element of worship of the president of people like McClellan. They worshipped him, and they couldn't challenge him.

I told this story recently. I went in for an interview with the president with a couple columnists. This was a couple of years ago. One of my colleagues was a guy named Max Boot, is a guy named Max, a military columnist then at the L.A. Times.

He challenged Bush hard on troop levels, on the conduct of the war, and they had a very tense exchange for 10 or 15 minutes, really going back at each other, Bush getting red and really going back.

But Bush kept saying in the middle of it -- it was a little scary, because Bush was really hot -- but he kept saying, "I want you to know I'm enjoying this. I'm enjoying this."

And it was like a guy who had never had a chance to actually have an argument. And he didn't mind it, but nobody ever came in. I think very few people came in and gave him that argument.

I think he would have welcomed it. I certainly know the presidency would have benefited from that kind of argument.

RAY SUAREZ: One area, Mark, where there seems to have been some revelations, some people who followed the original case closely say that McClellan's narrative about the Scooter Libby trial, the exposure of Valerie Plame, fills in some gaps in what we knew before and also brings us as close to the top as we've ever gotten from an insider.

MARK SHIELDS: Ray, he's been accused of disloyalty by all the loyalists in the Bush campaign and the Bush operation. And Scott McClellan actually -- it's esprit de corps about disloyalty. And he feels that he was disloyally treated and that he was lied to by both Karl Rove and Scooter Libby and quite possibly the vice president of the United States, who then robbed him of his integrity and his own self-respect by sending him out to lie.

They knew he was lying. He did not know, according to him, that he was lying. He also pointed out the president of the United States, upon being questioned by him, admitted that he had released a National Intelligence Estimate, declassified it, so that the vice president could leak it to friendly press people.

I think the story on the press by the press secretary is one that has to be told. The president, this administration took this country to war against a nation that had never attacked us, never threatened us, had no weapons of mass destruction, could not attack us, even if it wanted to, under the bogus B.S. of a mushroom cloud and all of this other fabrication.

And they did it only because they had a supine Congress that did not question, a Republican Party that abdicated its responsibility, a Democratic Party in Congress that cowered, for the most part, and a complicit...

RAY SUAREZ: And a compliant press corps, then?

MARK SHIELDS: And a complicit press corps.

DAVID BROOKS: No, I don't think so. Listen, if you've got the Clinton administration, the CIA, every defense agency, every intelligence agency in France, in Germany, and around the world all saying, "He has WMD," there's no way reporters are going to be able to challenge it. There was an absolute consensus about this.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I don't think Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei were in the consensus. But let's move on. I've got to go. Have a great weekend, fellows.

MARK SHIELDS: OK. Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: The Online NewsHour will have live coverage of the Democratic committee meeting throughout the day Saturday. Their reports can be found on our Vote 2008 site at PBS.org. So check in over the weekend for updated reports.