Ex-Colleagues Ask, 'What Happened?'

Barbara Carpenter looks at former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan's memoir at Politics and Prose in Washington.
Barbara Carpenter looks at former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan's memoir at Politics and Prose in Washington. (By Alex Wong -- Getty Images)
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008

Scott McClellan was the ultimate Bush loyalist. He went to work for George W. Bush when he was Texas governor in 1999, helped Bush gain the White House in 2000, and then came to Washington to defend the president for the next six years on such issues as the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina.

But McClellan's explosive new book, which alleges that the Bush administration waged a "political propaganda campaign" in favor of the Iraq war and bungled the response to the storm that devastated the Gulf Coast, prompted a counterattack yesterday from some of his oldest political colleagues, who accused him of disloyalty and questioned his credibility.

Dana Perino, the current White House press secretary, said the president was "surprised" by McClellan's assertions. "He is puzzled, and he doesn't recognize this as the Scott McClellan that he hired and confided in and worked with for so many years," Perino said, adding that Bush was "disappointed that if he had these concerns and these thoughts, he never came to him or anyone else on the staff."

Former Bush political adviser Karl Rove compared McClellan to a "left-wing blogger," and former White House counselor Dan Bartlett told CNN it was "misguided for him to make these kind of broad accusations and draw these big conclusions about the president."

Several former Bush administration officials have written tell-all accounts. In one book published this month, retired Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez accuses Bush and his top advisers of "gross incompetence and dereliction of duty" for their handling of the Iraq war.

But none was as close to Bush or his inner circle as McClellan, 40, an amiable Texas native who was widely known for his cautious demeanor. He started out in politics by managing several state election campaigns in the 1990s for his mother, who became Texas comptroller, and was recruited to the governor's mansion by Bush confidante Karen Hughes.

Ari Fleischer, who served as White House press secretary before McClellan took over in 2003, said he first met McClellan in Austin in 1999 when the two worked on the Bush presidential campaign.

"That's one of the reasons this book comes as such a shock," Fleischer said. "It comes from the last person that anyone would have thought would have said these things or written these things. . . . All you can do is scratch your head when you see how far he's turned."

Trent Duffy, who worked as McClellan's deputy for more than two years, said of the avid University of Texas sports fan: "Tomorrow maybe we're going to learn he's rooting for the Oklahoma Sooners."

"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," Duffy said. "He appears to be dancing on his political grave for cash."

McClellan, who did not respond to a request for comment yesterday, suggests in his preface that he expected a negative reaction. "My friends and former colleagues who lived and worked or are still living and working inside that bubble may not be happy with the perspective I present here," he wrote.

In the book, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," McClellan says he retains great admiration for Bush but portrays the president as stubborn and isolated. Calling the Iraq war "unnecessary" and a "strategic blunder," McClellan alleges that senior administration officials began a campaign in 2002 to "aggressively sell the war," even as he and other officials insisted that all options were on the table.

He also accuses Rove of misleading him about the leak of a CIA officer's name, and he suggests that Rove and former vice presidential adviser I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby may have improperly met to discuss the case. Perino and other officials sharply criticized that assertion yesterday.

When he was press secretary, McClellan made some of the same arguments against other ex-officials that he now faces. In 2004, for example, former counterterrorism adviser Richard A. Clarke published a book sharply critical of Bush's anti-terrorism policies.

"Why, all of a sudden, if he had all these grave concerns, did he not raise these sooner?" McClellan said. "This is 1 1/2 years after he left the administration. . . . 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."

Staff writers Michael Abramowitz in Colorado Springs and Thomas E. Ricks in Washington and staff researcher Madonna Lebling in Washington contributed to this report.

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