McClellan Memoir a Scathing Critique of Media, Too

Former Bush Press Secretary Scott McClellan's memoir didn't just blast the White House, it also blasted the media for failing to ask tougher questions in the run-up to the Iraq war. Jonathan Landay, national security correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, was among the few reporters who did question the administration's claims about the war.

GUY RAZ, host:

It's not just Democrats fighting one another but Republicans as well. This week, past and present White House officials went on the attack against former spokesman Scott McClellan. McClellan, of course, released his tell-all book, a scathing critique of the president.

McClellan's book didn't just shock the White House; it also took a lot of reporters by surprise, in part because he blasts the media to failing to ask tougher questions in the run-up to the Iraq war; questions that people like McClellan himself refused to answer.

Well, we thought we'd turn to Jonathan Landay. He's the national security correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. Landay was among the few reporters who questioned the administration's claims about the war before it happened. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JONATHAN LANDAY (National Security Correspondent, McClatchy Newspapers): My pleasure.

RAZ: Why do you take this book so personally?

Mr. LANDAY: What this book has done is sort of revived the whole debate over what the administration did to sell the war to the American people and indeed the world. And it has rejuvenated the debate also on the rule that the news media played.

RAZ: When somebody like Scott McClellan comes out and in a sense reverses course, does it surprise you or does it anger you?

Mr. LANDAY: I have to be absolutely perfectly honest, I'm somewhat angered. What they were putting out rises way beyond the level of propaganda. I've become convinced that what they were doing, what they were running, was a military-style disinformation campaign.

RAZ: You're talking about the White House press secretary.

Mr. LANDAY: Absolutely.

RAZ: Under Scott McClellan.

Mr. LANDAY: That he was complicit. And to come out now and try and do this mea culpa, for me, just doesn't wash.

RAZ: I mean, doesn't Scott McClellan have a point in a sense when he argues that the media didn't do its job in questioning the administration hard enough?

Mr. LANDAY: Oh, he's absolutely right about that. Some of the news organizations that helped sell the administration's case for war are still not willing to take responsibility for what they did.

RAZ: Do you see anything positive maybe coming out of this book?

Mr. LANDAY: I think it's a good thing whenever someone like Scott McClellan decides to come out and be honest. But as the media itself having an opportunity to reexamine the role that it played in helping to sell the war, I haven't seen any indication of that. Indeed, I've seen leading media figures who seem to be trying to exonerate themselves for a failure every bit as egregious as the failure of the U.S. intelligence community to do its job in assessing properly the threat that Iraq posed.

RAZ: Jonathan Landay is the senior national security correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. Jonathan, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. LANDAY: My pleasure.

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McClellan: Bush Embraced Political 'Game' Too Often

Read an excerpt from Scott McClellan's book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception.

Scott McClellan

In his new book, Scott McClellan, who served as White House press secretary for nearly three years, offers a scathing behind-the scenes glimpse into the Oval Office. Courtesy Public Affairs Books hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Public Affairs Books

Former Bush Press Secretary Scott McClellan dropped a bombshell on the White House on Wednesday. But he insists in an interview with NPR that his new behind-the scenes book is not simply the work of a disgruntled ex-employee — as some of his former colleagues have argued — but a stab at truth-telling to help clean up Washington.

In What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception, McClellan offers a scathing behind-the scenes glimpse into the Oval Office. He left the White House in 2006 after serving as press secretary for nearly three years.

McClellan states in the book that the Bush administration used a "political propaganda campaign" to sell the Iraq war, managing the lead-up to the conflict in a way that almost guaranteed that the use of force would be the only feasible option.

"The point is that what we did was instead of really approaching this in an open and forthright way, we went to war, basically trying to sell it to the American people much like you would sell any other policy issue you'd want to get passed in Congress," McClellan tells Renee Montagne.

Although in the interview he stopped short of saying the administration purposefully misled the country, McClellan says President Bush and his advisers succumbed to what he called the Washington "game."

"I don't think it was intentional or deliberate," McClellan says. "What happened here was we got caught up in the very thing the president campaigned against when he was first running for president back in 2000 — the destructive, partisan tone in Washington."

The Bush administration "set up a massive political operation that was aimed at really continuing that permanent way of governing — going out and shaping and manipulating the narrative in the media to one's advantage."

That's the nature of Washington, McClellan says, and "that's something I think most Americans are ready for us to move beyond."

Bush's popularity has been low for so long, according to McClellan, because the administration did not work to embrace a high level of openness and candor, and lost sight of the merits of bipartisanship and negotiation.

"It's not a deliberate effort on the president's part or many of his advisers to go out there and be misleading or engage in spin. It's just the way the game's become played in Washington, and we embraced it too often," he says.

McClellan's former colleagues have issued brutal critiques of the book since word of its contents began to surface earlier this week. The book had been set to be released Monday but became available Wednesday.

Former Bush adviser Karl Rove said in an appearance on Fox News that if McClellan had concerns over the handling of the Iraq war, he should have spoken up. Others in the Bush administration have echoed Rove's remarks. McClellan himself expressed similar sentiments as press secretary when former national security aide Richard Clarke released a book criticizing White House policy.

So why didn't McClellan speak up at the time?

"I felt that it was important to give this solid team around the president and the president himself the benefit of the doubt," he says. "And as time went on I think some of my views have evolved."

McClellan, who served as deputy press secretary during the lead-up to the Iraq war and took over as press secretary in July 2003, blames his silence partly on a "bubble" that is created simply by being at the White House. The bubble, he says, "obscures the larger truths of things."

He also says he had great respect and affection for the president, whom he followed from Texas where Bush was governor.

But Bush should ultimately be held accountable for a mismanaged war, he says.

"Absolutely he has to accept responsibility for the things that went right and the things that went wrong. Unfortunately, the things that went wrong overshadowed that which went right," McClellan says.

White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said at a news conference that Bush is "puzzled" and "disappointed" at McClellan's book.

"He doesn't recognize this as the Scott McClellan that he hired and confided in and worked with for so many years," Perino said. "I think it's just a sad situation."

With additional reporting by NPR staff.

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