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McClellan Recounts Administration's Missed Chances After '04 Election

By Michael Abramowitz
Monday, June 2, 2008

Believe it or not, even after a week of wall-to-wall media coverage, there's still grist to mull over from the new Scott McClellan memoir, "What Happened."

McClellan, the press-secretary-turned-administration critic, offers an intriguing narrative of the few months after the 2004 election -- a period that he now sees as a badly missed opportunity for a troubled White House to right itself.

Bush was coming off a narrow win over Democrat John Kerry and, as McClellan tells it, was feeling his oats. He writes of the first Cabinet meeting after the election, when Bush told his assembled secretaries that Iraqi leaders were "relieved" about his victory.

"They were toast if you lost," then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is quoted as saying.

"French toast," Bush replied, to laughter. The Cabinet meeting was illustrative of Bush's mind-set, in McClellan's view.

"He was dead set on pushing ahead aggressively, selling his big ideas, and leaving his mark on history," McClellan writes. "The election, he believed, had validated his first term policies, including the decision to invade Iraq, and it had given him a mandate for the second-term agenda he'd outlined."

It also meant that what might have been a chance to bring in fresh blood and new thinking was lost. Even then-Chief of Staff Andrew Card thought the White House would be better served by a change in his position, but that suggestion was "firmly rejected," according to McClellan. Card would stay on for another year and a half before being replaced by Josh Bolten.

Meanwhile, Bush installed such longtime trusted friends as Condoleezza Rice at State and Alberto Gonzales at Justice, while giving expanded powers to Karl Rove-- "ensuring that political considerations would never be far from the center of any policy conversation during the second term." At the same time, Secretary of State Colin Powell was out -- taking away, in McClellan's estimation, a source of independent perspective.

"All in all, the shape and direction of the second term were clear," McClellan concludes. "The administration did not infuse fresh blood and new thinking from outside sources. . . . Caught up inside the White House bubble, I publicly defended all of Bush's decisions. It was my job. I didn't fully appreciate their implications for the future of the administration, nor did I recognize the serious problems they would help to create during the next four years."

Don't Let the Door Hit You . . .

McClellan has been taking guff for stating positions in his book that are at odds with what he said from the White House podium: One such case is his departure from the press secretary's job in spring 2006.

At the time, McClellan suggested that his resignation came at his own instigation, but "What Happened" makes it clear that while McClellan was ready to go, he was basically fired by Bolten. In an anecdote that is revealing of the new chief of staff's tough-minded approach, McClellan recounts sitting down on a couch in Bolten's office and being politely shoved out even before he had a chance to open his mouth.

"This is not something pleasant for me," McClellan quotes Bolten as telling him. "You are really liked around here. I really like you. But I believe this is a White House that is severely crippled and in need of change. One area that I have decided needs to change is your position."

Now You Tell Us

The McClellan kerfuffle has brought out a standard White House talking point whenever it is confronted with criticism from former staffers: Why didn't they complain at the time?

"I have always had the opportunity to have a seat at the table, to make my opinions known whenever and to whomever I wanted to or felt I needed to," press secretary Dana Perino told reporters on Air Force One last week. "So it's just curious to me why all of a sudden it seems that these were his actual feelings."

That brought to mind the response by then-White House press secretary Tony Snow-- that he was "a little bit perplexed" -- to a critical book by former White House staffer David Kuo. "It does seem at odds with what he was saying inside the building at the time he departed," Snow told reporters at the time.

McClellan had this to say about another book, by former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, back in 2004: "I mean, why, all of a sudden, if he had all these grave concerns, did he not raise these sooner? This is 1.5 years after he left the administration. And now all of a sudden, he's raising these grave concerns that he claims he had."

McClellan appears to be having second thoughts about what he said about Clarke. In a chat Friday on washingtonpost.com, McClellan said he "actually saw [Clarke] last night in New York and expressed my regret for the way I handled that situation."

'We Must Be Tougher Than Hell!'

Getting lost in the media furor over McClellan's memoir is the new autobiography of retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the onetime commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, who is scathing in his assessment that the Bush administration "led America into a strategic blunder of historic proportions."

Among the anecdotes in "Wiser in Battle: A Soldier's Story" is an arresting portrait of Bush after four contractors were killed in Fallujah in 2004, triggering a fierce U.S. response that was reportedly egged on by the president.

During a videoconference with his national security team and generals, Sanchez writes, Bush launched into what he described as a "confused" pep talk:

"Kick ass!" he quotes the president as saying. "If somebody tries to stop the march to democracy, we will seek them out and kill them! We must be tougher than hell! This Vietnam stuff, this is not even close. It is a mind-set. We can't send that message. It's an excuse to prepare us for withdrawal."

"There is a series of moments and this is one of them. Our will is being tested, but we are resolute. We have a better way. Stay strong! Stay the course! Kill them! Be confident! Prevail! We are going to wipe them out! We are not blinking!"

A White House spokesman had no comment.

The Eagles Have Landed

As he jets around the country for events, Bush is often met at airports by local GOP officials, dignitaries, military officers and others. One of the more unusual greetings came Tuesday, when the White House arranged for the president to be met in Phoenix by four generations of Eagle Scouts, all in the same family and all bearing the same name -- Tho mas S. Boggess.

Family patriarch Tho mas S. Boggess Jr., 93, a retired chemist, was on the tarmac with son Thomas Boggess III, grandson Th omas Boggess IV and 13-year-old Thomas Boggess V, who hustled to get his badge while his ailing great-grandfather is still alive, according to the Arizona Republic.

The four Eagle Scouts had a tour of Air Force One after Bush zipped off to Scottsdale to collect cash for the McCain campaign.

It's an Honor

In an East Room ceremony today, Bush is to present the Medal of Honor, posthumously, to Ross A. McGinnis, a private in the U.S. Army. The White House says that in December 2006 McGinnis covered a live grenade with his body and saved four men from serious injury or death. It will be the 12th time in his presidency that Bush has awarded the military's highest honor.

Quote of the Week

"And so the fact that they purchased the machine meant somebody had to make the machine. And when somebody makes a machine, it means there's jobs at the machine-making place."

-- President Bush, at Silverado Cable Co. in Mesa, Ariz., on May 27.

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this column.

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