Former White House Press Secretary
Friday, May 30, 2008 12:00 PM
Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan was online Friday, May 30 at noon ET to discuss his new book, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," and the administration and media reactions to it.
McClellan's book recently was reviewed by The Post's Jonathan Yardley.
The transcript follows.
Washington: Did you inform the White House at any time about your intention to write the memoir? If so, what was the reaction then?
Scott McClellan: The White House reviewed the final manuscript for classification and privilege issues. After the review I met with some members of the White House counsel's office at their request to discuss the review. As I expected, there were no issues relating to classified information. They did bring up some issues relating to what they might consider executive privilege, including presidential conversations and conversations between senior advisers to the president.
Scott McClellan: Good afternoon everyone. I look forward to answering your questions and discussing my new book, What Happened.
Vienna, Va.: Scott: In judging your credibility, what relevance should people place upon the fact that your publishing house is affiliated with The Nation magazine, a very liberal publication, and that it has published books by liberal critic George Soros and even a book linking George W. Bush with murder?
Scott McClellan: My publisher has published books from people across the political spectrum focused on important public policy topics, including Nathan Sharansky, an author whose work the president has encouraged a number of people at the White House to read.
Atlanta: Scott, from reports on TV it appeared that you saw a meeting with Rove and Libby discussing their response about the Plame leak ... without telling what they said, did you actually hear them discussing their plans on what excuse they would tell? Also, is their anything that you wanted to discuss in your book but didn't because it would be on the verge of further incriminating someone?
Scott McClellan: I wrote in the book that I did not hear their conversation because they went behind closed doors. The timing and closed-door nature of the meeting seemed suspicious to me. I promised the press and the public that someday I looked forward to openly discussing what I knew about the Plame leak episode. While at the White House, I was prohibited from doing so by the counsel's office. I did not leave out anything that might be on the verge of further incriminating someone.
Washington: Mr. McClellan, having been in the position of defending the White House from past officials writing their own books, how do you feel about comments you made previously regarding such tell-alls? How do you respond to criticisms that you might have left your job rather than defend the administration's positions, if you felt moral qualms about doing so? Very much looking forward to reading your book -- I feel there is a lot to be said about the administration, and your book may be a key piece in moving this exploration forward.
Scott McClellan: I got caught up in the permanent campaign culture just like so many others do all too often in today's poisonous Washington environment. It has become the accepted way of doing things, and I believe excessively embraced. Richard Clarke is someone I criticized from the podium. I actually saw him last night in New York and expressed my regret for the way I handled that situation.
As for as leaving, I actually write in the book about when I started to become increasingly disillusioned while serving as press secretary. It began with the revelation that I had been knowingly misled by Rove and Libby. I did consider resigning during that period. I go into some detail about this period and the months following in the book.
Like many Americans, I had qualms about how quickly we were rushing to war in Iraq. In the post 9/11 environment, I gave the president and his national security team the benefit of the doubt. Upon reflection, I should not have.
Manchester, Conn.: Scoot, earlier you mentioned White House review of "privilege" issues. Were any subjects omitted because of those concerns? If so, what were those subjects?
Scott McClellan: No. They can only prevent me from printing classified national security information. I listened to what they had to say about issues of executive privilege and made the decision to keep things the way I had written them.
Arlington, Va.: A couple of questions: How has the publishing of this book affected your relationship with your friends, colleagues, party and the administration? In retrospect, would you have handled the responsibilities of your role at the White House differently knowing what you know now? If so, how?
Scott McClellan: I knew going in that some of my former colleagues would not like or agree with what I had to said. But I felt it was important to talk openly and honestly about what are serious issues and what we can learn from them going forward.
My lifelong friends have stood fully behind me, including one who served during the first Gulf War. He said we need to know the truth so that we do not repeat the mistakes in the future. Some former colleagues have emailed me words of support as well.
In retrospect, I would have handled some things differently. By sharing what I learned, I hope that maybe it will contribute in some small way to changing Washington for the better.
Detroit: Were you prepared for all of the negative criticism that your book would create with all of the Bush supporters? It seems like you are being Bush-whacked for your efforts.
Scott McClellan: I expected much of it. I was a little surprised by the personal nature of some of it. The White House would have preferred that I not discuss my experiences openly. As someone who was raised in a family that believes strongly in public service, I felt it was important to speak up.
Rhode Island: Hi. I hope this question doesn't sound confrontational. My understanding is that you didn't become press secretary until a year or so after the Iraq war began. Can you tell us about what your role was before that? Were you privy to high-level discussions in the lead-up to the war? Thanks.
Scott McClellan: I became press secretary on July 15, 2003, a few months after the initial invasion. Prior to that, I served as the principal deputy press secretary. I was not involved in the policy-making on Iraq or in developing the overall marketing strategy for selling the war to the public. I did fill in for my predecessor at times, and even participated in some White House Iraq Group, or WHIG meetings. WHIG was set up as the marketing arm for selling the war to the public.
Northville, N.Y.: Thank you for your book, which I am eager to read. In news reports, you seem to be saying that President Bush sincerely wants to transform the Middle East and install democracies everywhere. Do you think this shows good judgment, and isn't this the opposite of what your fellow Texan, Rep. Paul, would say about blowback from our arrogant meddling in other countries' affairs? Do you subscribe to either philosophy? Also, from your knowledge of the people involved, do you think a military strike on Iran will be conducted before Bush leaves office?
Scott McClellan: I came to realize that the driving motivation behind the president's desire to remove Saddam Hussein and his regime was a sincere belief that Iraq could be the lynchpin for spreading democracy across the Middle East. In the book, I discuss a number of moments when he passionately talks about this idealistic and ambitious vision.
During his campaign for president, he asserted that we needed a strong but humble foreign policy. 9/11 clearly changed some thinking. I do believe the Iraq decision legitimately calls into question the judgment of the president and some of his advisers who were intent on toppling the Iraqi regime. My philosophy is based in a moral belief that we should not wage war unless it is absolutely necessary. It is clear to me today that the Iraq War was not.
Anonymous: I read this morning that your initial draft was seen as a boring, run-of-the-mill White House spokesperson piece that wouldn't sell. Is this true? If so, did money motivate you to be more reflective?
Scott McClellan: I do not know where you read that, but it is not true. As for the question about whether money motivated me, I encourage you to read an article in today's New York Times that addresses that question to some extent.
What motivated me was a desire to understand the truth of how things went so far off track for this White House and what we can learn from it to improve governance in Washington. I joined Governor Bush's team in Texas because of his record of bipartisan leadership, thinking he could do the same for Washington. Unfortunately, we embraced a permanent campaign philosophy and only exacerbated the destructive partisan warfare that preceded us.
Atlanta: While defending himself against your charges in an interview on FOX (yesterday I believe), Karl Rove said that your claims demonstrated just how out-of-the-loop you were on important decisions. I was astounded that he used this as a defense. The media (and the nation) depends upon the press secretary for need-to-know information about the administration's actions. Did you consider yourself out-of-the-loop, and if so, how? Was this just a little CYA on his part, or a Freudian slip?
Scott McClellan: I think that is a very good question. In the book, I discuss this very sentiment that existed among some Bush advisers. I participated in many presidential meetings--cabinet meetings, congressional meetings, foreign leader meetings, policy briefings and others. But this White House has been too secretive and too compartmentalized. Some decisions tend to be made in very small groups outside those meetings. The book covers this in pretty good detail, and my concerns about it as I was considering whether to move forward on being press secretary.
Montreal: You wrote that the liberal press had been complacent with the administration regarding the war in Iraq. What was the cause of this, in your opinion, and how can this be avoided in the future?
Scott McClellan: Yes. I see that has sparked much discussion among the media. A number of journalists have said they agree. I think some of it had to do with the post 9/11 moment and some of it was due to their complicity in exacerbating the permanent campaign culture. A number of journalists asked the right questions and raised the right questions. But, I believe the overall emphasis and focus of the national media was on the march to war--whether the president was winning the battle for public opinion--instead of on the necessity of war. I think the media has learned lessons from that experience and have taken some steps to not let it happen again.
West Coast: After you got French-fried on the podium after the Rove/Libby debacle, did anyone meet with you to express regret? Did Rove or Libby ever apologize to you? Did Bush talk to you about it at all, to make you feel better about being thrown under the bus?
Scott McClellan: A number of colleagues did express regret and even anger to me personally. The president and I did not discuss it because doing so was considered off limits by the counsel's office. Karl Rove apologized to me in an non-specific, generic way during that time period, including over the phone, in a senior staff meeting and in a personal letter to me.
Kingston, Ontario: Mr. McClellan, it must have taken a lot of courage to write this book, so I'd first like to congratulate you. My question is this: you seem to explain your change of perspective by saying that, while working for the White House, you were so much "in the bubble" that you didn't question the view of Iraq and everything else that it was your job to hand out. What about the suggestion that you merely have moved from one bubble into another one, and that in your new account you are just responding to the strong public mood of condemnation of the war and of this administration in general? Are you really sure that you are seeing things clearly?
Scott McClellan: I spent a great amount of time working on this manuscript. I missed some early deadlines because I wanted to make sure I got it right from my perspective. I cannot think of a time when I have felt that I am seeing things more clearly than I am now. It is time for Washington to move beyond the spin, secrecy and political manipulation. That is how we can transcend the bitter partisan squabbling that permeates the discourse today.
Chicago: Did Dana Milbank's shellacking of your performance yesterday in this morning's Post bring back any nostalgia?
washingtonpost.com: Monster's Ball (Post, May 30)
Scott McClellan: I actually enjoy reading Dana's pieces much of the time. I guess he did not like my sideburns!
Another piece I found interesting was Dan Balz's, which said the book should be required reading for all McCain and Obama staffers.
washingtonpost.com: The Trail: McClellan's Dish and Tell Is Required Reading for Campaign Aides (washingtonpost.com, May 29)
Scott McClellan: Wish I had more time, but I have some other interview commitments to keep. Thanks for your questions.
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.