By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2008
In an interview three years ago, when he was waging daily warfare against the White House press corps, Scott McClellan told me: "The media's trying to get under our skin and get us off-message."
Now it's McClellan who's gone way off-message -- and been embraced by some of his liberal media detractors, even as he is denigrated by his onetime conservative allies.
In writing a book that castigates the man he so loyally served, the former presidential press secretary is following a well-worn tell-all path, made surprising mainly because of his reputation as an unyielding George W. Bush loyalist. The media love turncoats, if only to chronicle the teeth-gnashing among the defector's old pals.
Indeed, the White House called McClellan "disgruntled," Matt Drudge branded him a "snitch," and National Review Online ran six pieces on Friday trashing him as "pasty," "maladroit," "plodding" and "shameful." Liberal pundits aren't exactly kind -- "Where's the apology?" demanded David Corn of Mother Jones -- but many have welcomed McClellan as a belated truth-teller. After all, McClellan's portrait of Bush as an inflexible, isolated leader who misled the nation into an unnecessary war matches what the left has been saying all along.
McClellan granted his first cable news interview last week to Bush-bashing MSNBC host Keith Olbermann, while Bill O'Reilly accused the ex-spokesman of initially blowing off his Fox program in favor of "far-left venues." Olbermann hailed the book, "What Happened," as "a primary document of American history" that contained "poetry." Talk about role reversal: It was Olbermann who said in 2005 that "whenever I hear Scott McClellan talking about 'media credibility,' I strain to remember who it was who admitted Jeff Gannon to the White House press room and called on him all those times." (Gannon, a conservative blogger with an X-rated past, now says, "Scott McClellan's credibility is zero.")
McClellan wrote the book, says historian Michael Beschloss, knowing that "the president's opponents will pick it up and use it very zealously." And that is a tradition as old as the republic.
After George Washington fired his second secretary of state, Edmund Randolph, Beschloss says, Randolph published an anti-Washington pamphlet, but the president "was so popular that it made Randolph even more of a pariah." FDR speechwriter Raymond Moley quit and published a book attacking the New Deal.
More recently, David Stockman and Donald Regan wrote books critical of Ronald Reagan, and George Stephanopoulos and Robert Reich did so about Bill Clinton, while the presidents were still in office.
Douglas Feith, a former Pentagon official who published "War and Decision" in April, says his book, while acknowledging serious problems with the Iraq planning, is "very analytical" and basically supportive of Bush. He says he has been "punished" by having major book review publications ignore the work. "It seems journalists are more interested in vitriol than substance," Feith says.
In "What Happened," McClellan is walking away not just from the president but from his own words. Asked days after Hurricane Katrina about the charge that Bush was in denial about the rescue effort, McClellan said: "You all are well aware of how engaged this president is in the response efforts and making sure that we're meeting the immediate needs."
In his book, McClellan says that after Katrina the White House "spent most of the first week in a state of denial."
What changed? McClellan says his views evolved during the writing process. Did he have a sudden attack of conscience over having been a fount of misleading information? Or did he conclude that a book defending his longtime political patron would not sell?
The book makes clear that McClellan felt badly burned after Karl Rove and Scooter Libby assured him they had no involvement in leaking the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, leaving the spokesman to be pummeled by the press when that turned out to be untrue. "It was my reputation crumbling away, bit by bit," he writes. "The ridicule was dispiriting and humiliating. . . . All I could do was go into a defensive crouch and stonewall."
But McClellan's critique is undercut by former colleagues who insist he never aired any misgivings about Bush in private. "Scottie was the truest of the true believers," says former Bush press aide Adam Levine. "Even in the most difficult of times he never wavered or showed any signs of disagreement or doubt. So to see him do this now is beyond comprehension."
Although McClellan staunchly defended Bush's Iraq rationale, he now writes that the national press corps "was probably too deferential to the White House" and that "the 'liberal media' didn't live up to its reputation" by exposing the flimsy rationale for war. This reignited a long-running argument about whether journalists fell down on the job.
Several news organizations, including the New York Times and Washington Post, have acknowledged that they should have been more aggressive in challenging the claims about Saddam Hussein harboring illegal weapons. Skeptical stories were underplayed and dissident voices largely marginalized.
CBS anchor Katie Couric, who was at NBC during the run-up to war, told "The Early Show" last week that this was "one of the most embarrassing chapters in American journalism. . . . There was a sense, a pressure from the corporations who own where we work, and from government itself to really squash any kind of dissent."
CNN correspondent Jessica Yellin, recalling her time at MSNBC, told viewers that "the press corps was under enormous pressure from corporate executives, frankly, to make sure this was a war that was presented in a way that was consistent with the patriotic fervor in the nation. . . . The higher the president's ratings, the more pressure I had from news executives to put on positive stories about the president."
MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines calls Yellin a "disgruntled . . . news reader" who worked there for one year and who had "little to no contact with editorial decision-makers." Yellin says she stands by her comments but did not mean to imply that corporate executives were directly giving her orders.
In the end, the journalists' turncoat-of-the-week turned on them as well. Both sides are trying to distance themselves from the administration's failures. Reporters admit they should have pushed back harder; McClellan joins Matthew Dowd, Richard Clarke, Paul O'Neill and others who have assailed their former boss.
But it is McClellan, previously regarded by the press as pleasant but ineffective, who is hawking a harsh book that few imagined he would write. Media outlets that once denigrated him may be giving him a platform, but the lasting image is of McClellan stammering at the White House podium, delivering what he now calls propaganda.
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."