By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan writes in a new memoir that the Iraq war was sold to the American people with a sophisticated "political propaganda campaign" led by President Bush and aimed at "manipulating sources of public opinion" and "downplaying the major reason for going to war."
McClellan includes the charges in a 341-page book, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," that delivers a harsh look at the White House and the man he served for close to a decade. He describes Bush as demonstrating a "lack of inquisitiveness," says the White House operated in "permanent campaign" mode, and admits to having been deceived by some in the president's inner circle about the leak of a CIA operative's name.
The book, coming from a man who was a tight-lipped defender of administration aides and policy, is certain to give fuel to critics of the administration, and McClellan has harsh words for many of his past colleagues. He accuses former White House adviser Karl Rove of misleading him about his role in the CIA case. He describes Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as being deft at deflecting blame, and he calls Vice President Cheney "the magic man" who steered policy behind the scenes while leaving no fingerprints.
McClellan stops short of saying that Bush purposely lied about his reasons for invading Iraq, writing that he and his subordinates were not "employing out-and-out deception" to make their case for war in 2002.
But in a chapter titled "Selling the War," he alleges that the administration repeatedly shaded the truth and that Bush "managed the crisis in a way that almost guaranteed that the use of force would become the only feasible option."
"Over that summer of 2002," he writes, "top Bush aides had outlined a strategy for carefully orchestrating the coming campaign to aggressively sell the war. . . . In the permanent campaign era, it was all about manipulating sources of public opinion to the president's advantage."
McClellan, once a staunch defender of the war from the podium, comes to a stark conclusion, writing, "What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary."
McClellan resigned from the White House on April 19, 2006, after nearly three years as Bush's press secretary. The departure was part of a shake-up engineered by new Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten that also resulted in Rove surrendering his policy-management duties.
A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on the book, some contents of which were first disclosed by Politico.com. The Washington Post acquired a copy of the book yesterday, in advance of its official release Monday.
Responding to a request for comment, McClellan wrote in an e-mail: "Like many Americans, I am concerned about the poisonous atmosphere in Washington. I wanted to take readers inside the White House and provide them an open and honest look at how things went off course and what can be learned from it. Hopefully in some small way it will contribute to changing Washington for the better and move us beyond the hyper-partisan environment that has permeated Washington over the past 15 years."
The criticism of Bush in the book is striking, given that it comes from a man who followed him to Washington from Texas.
Bush is depicted as an out-of-touch leader, operating in a political bubble, who has stubbornly refused to admit mistakes. McClellan defends the president's intellect -- "Bush is plenty smart enough to be president," he writes -- but casts him as unwilling or unable to be reflective about his job.
"A more self-confident executive would be willing to acknowledge failure, to trust people's ability to forgive those who seek redemption for mistakes and show a readiness to change," he writes.
In another section, McClellan describes Bush as able to convince himself of his own spin and relates a phone call he overheard Bush having during the 2000 campaign, in which he said he could not remember whether he had used cocaine. "I remember thinking to myself, 'How can that be?' " he writes.
The former aide describes Bush as a willing participant in treating his presidency as a permanent political campaign, run in large part by his top political adviser, Rove.
"The president had promised himself that he would accomplish what his father had failed to do by winning a second term in office," he writes. "And that meant operating continually in campaign mode: never explaining, never apologizing, never retreating. Unfortunately, that strategy also had less justifiable repercussions: never reflecting, never reconsidering, never compromising. Especially not where Iraq was concerned."
McClellan has some kind words for Bush, calling him "a man of personal charm, wit and enormous political skill." He writes that the president "did not consciously set out to engage in these destructive practices. But like others before him, he chose to play the Washington game the way he found it, rather than changing the culture as he vowed to do at the outset of his campaign for the presidency."
McClellan charges that the campaign-style focus affected Bush's entire presidency. The ill-fated Air Force One flyover of New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina struck the city, was conceived of by Rove, who was "thinking about the political perceptions" but ended up making Bush look "out of touch," he writes.
He says the White House's reaction to Katrina was more than just a public relations disaster, calling it "a failure of imagination and initiative" and the result of an administration that "let events control us." He adds: "It was a costly blunder."
McClellan admits to letting himself be deceived about the unmasking of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson, which resulted in his relentless pounding by the White House press corps over the activities of Rove and of Cheney aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby in the matter.
"I could feel something fall out of me into the abyss as each reporter took a turn whacking me," he writes of the withering criticism he received as the story played out. "It was my reputation crumbling away, bit by bit." He also suggests that Rove and Libby may have worked behind closed doors to coordinate their stories about the Plame leak. Late last year, McClellan's publisher released an excerpt of the book that suggested Bush had knowledge of the leak, something that won McClellan no friends in the administration.
As McClellan departed the White House, he said: "Change can be helpful, and this is a good time and good position to help bring about change. I am ready to move on."
He choked up as he told Bush on the South Lawn, "I have given it my all, sir, and I have given you my all."
Bush responded at the time: "He handled his assignments with class, integrity. He really represents the best of his family, our state and our country. It's going to be hard to replace Scott."
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.