By Dan Eggen and Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 30, 2008
Scott McClellan says he did not set out to write a memoir that was sharply critical of the White House. Indeed, one publishing industry insider described his early concept as "a not-very-interesting, typical press secretary book."
But somewhere between proposal and publication, as McClellan told it yesterday, the scales dropped from his eyes, leading him to write a book that accuses his former boss, President Bush, and his senior aides of abandoning "candor and honesty" to wage a "political propaganda campaign" that led the nation into an "unnecessary war."
"Over time, as you leave the White House and leave the bubble, you're able to take off your partisan hat and take a clear-eyed look at things," McClellan, a former White House press secretary, said in an interview yesterday. ". . . From the beginning, the focus was what had happened to take things so badly off course. I don't know that I can say when I started the book that it would end up where it was, but I felt at the end it had to be as honest and forthright as possible."
The book, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," is a scathing critique of the Bush presidency that vaulted this week to the top of the bestseller lists. It has also prompted many of McClellan's oldest friends and colleagues to brand him, among other things, a turncoat and a fraud.
During his first round of media interviews yesterday in support of the book, McClellan, 40, portrayed himself as "increasingly dismayed and disillusioned" during the end of his three-year tenure as Bush's press secretary. He also strongly defended some of the most incendiary allegations in the book, including that Bush was intent on confronting Saddam Hussein from the beginning of the debate on Iraq and that the White House's "permanent campaign" mode crippled its ability to cope with Hurricane Katrina and other crises.
There is a grand American tradition of former press secretaries writing tell-all, or at least tell-some, books. Larry Speakes, who worked for President Ronald Reagan; Marlin Fitzwater, who worked for Reagan and President George H.W. Bush; and others have penned memoirs.
McClellan and Peter Osnos, the founder of PublicAffairs, the small company that published "What Happened," rebutted suggestions from some Bush defenders, including former press secretary Ari Fleischer, that McClellan may have had a ghostwriter or undergone heavy-handed editing. Fleischer and others have repeatedly said that the book does not "sound like" McClellan, who is known as genial and soft-spoken.
McClellan said that he started focusing on writing the book about a year ago and that the work was especially intense over the past several months as the publishing date approached.
Osnos said McClellan just needed editorial guidance to tell the story he wanted to tell all along.
"First we had to ascertain what kind of book he wanted to write," said Osnos, a former Washington Post reporter and editor. "We are journalists, independent-minded publishers. We weren't interested in a book that was just a defense of the Bush administration. It had to pass our test of independence, integrity and candor."
In his interviews yesterday, McClellan repeatedly highlighted two incidents that he said helped sharpen his criticism of the administration: when White House officials Karl Rove and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby inaccurately told him they were not involved in the leaking of a CIA officer's name, and a conversation in 2006 when Bush admitted that he had authorized the selective release of classified information about Iran.
There are a number of signs that McClellan's focus hardened over time. A book cover still depicted yesterday on Amazon.com, for example, had the subtitle ending with "What's Wrong with Washington" rather than "Washington's Culture of Deception." Osnos said the subtitle evolved.
Osnos called the book "a really sophisticated, thoughtful, reasoned and, in many ways, pained portrait of a president" and said, "The Bush he came to serve went off the rails."
He also dismissed suggestions that McClellan is merely hoping to cash in. Unlike some larger publishing houses, he said, PublicAffairs almost never pays more than a five-figure advance. "No one has ever done a book for PublicAffairs for the money," he said.
Book editors working on political memoirs often seek to "draw out the story and make sure the story is complete," said Paul Bogaards, the publicity director at the Alfred A. Knopf publishing house.
If McClellan had not been pushed by PublicAffairs to be candid, Bogaards said, he could have been accused of holding back. "If publishers balk at the proposal, it's usually because they get a sense that the writer is going to give an incomplete accounting of what happened. And no one is interested in publishing those kinds of books," he said.
Former colleagues continued their sharp criticism of McClellan yesterday.
Dana Perino, the current White House press secretary, questioned his depiction of a pro-war propaganda campaign, saying it did not appear to be substantiated in the book. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking to reporters in Sweden, said that there was no intent to mislead Americans about Iraq and that Bush "was very clear about the reasons for going to war."
And former presidential counselor Dan Bartlett, appearing after McClellan on NBC's "Today" show, called the book "beyond the pale."
"I would not personally participate in a process in which we are misleading the American people, and that's the part that I think is hurting so many of his former colleagues," Bartlett said.
McClellan said many of the early reactions are based on excerpts rather than the whole book, which has just begun to appear on store shelves.
"They're trying to look at the book in these 'gotcha' terms," he said. "It's exactly what I talk about in the book -- it's playing the Washington 'gotcha' game."
McClellan acknowledged his own role in what he called the "spin and political manipulation" during his time as press secretary, from 2003 to 2006, including attacks on other former Bush administration officials who penned critical books or articles.
"I was caught up in the Washington game, just like everybody else," he said.