McClellan's Scathing Version of 'What Happened'

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Scott McClellan, former press secretary for President Bush, talks about the response to his new tell-all book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation, I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today from the Night Studio at the Newseum.

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CONAN: Washington, D.C.'s newest museum devoted to journalism and the news business.

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CONAN: For almost three years from 2003 to 2006, Scott McClellan fielded questions from reporters in the White House briefing room every day as President Bush's Press Secretary, questions about Iraq and Afghanistan, questions about how the Administration responded to Hurricane Katrina and questions about how CIA operative, Valerie Plame's name was leaked to the press. After leaving the Administration, Scott McClellan wrote a book, critical of his boss, the people he worked with and the current state of American politics. It's called "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception." In just a minute, he joins us to talk about it and it's the first time he'll be taking questions from the public.

There is also, of course, a little political news today. Senator Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination last night. You might have heard something about that and he and Senator Hillary Clinton spoke at the AIPAC Conference here in Washington today. We'll get to that in a bit with guest political junkie, NPR's Washington, Senior Washington Editor, Ron Elving. But first, it's your chance to ask what happened?

If you have questions for Scott McClellan, give us a call. We have two phone lines today. Republicans can call (800) 344-3893, again that's (800) 344-3893 for Republicans, Democrats (800) 344-3864. The email address is the same, talk@npr.org. You can also weigh in on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation and joining us here in the night studio at the Newseum, former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. SCOTT MCCLELLAN (Former White House Press Secretary, Author): Neal thanks for having me. I look forward to this discussion and you've got a great audience here today. I look forward to their questions as well.

CONAN: A hell of a week.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: It has been quite a week going back and forth between New York and Washington. I'm glad to be back in Washington for at least this afternoon, then back to New York again.

CONAN: Did you anticipate the level of vitriol that's been directed at you from your former colleagues and from the White House?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: I was a little surprised by it. I knew - I expected a pretty strong reaction from some of my former colleagues. I was a little bit surprised by how personal some of it has become. It's really interesting that they aren't really refuting the larger themes and perspectives that are written in the book, but engaging in some of these personal attacks that really are part of the problem with Washington that I talk about in the book. And it's what we need to get beyond so we can focus on the bigger issues.

CONAN: And some people, well uh maybe uncharitably would say well what goes around comes around.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Well they might say that. I certainly got caught up in this Washington game like everybody else, and I knew that by speaking up on this, on these events that I lived, and what I learned from them was going to stir a little bit of a reaction up. I tried to speak openly and honestly in this book so we can learn from it and that history will benefit from it, but more than anything I believe that this is a perfect time for this book. Washington needs to change and it needs to change now in the way that it governs. And this is about improving the way Washington governs so that we can move beyond all the vitriol that you mentioned at the beginning, and the partisan warfare that has existed now, uh it proceeded us. It's existed now for at least 15 years, how bitter it's become.

CONAN: One of the things you do in your book is site examples of other people's books who have in the past pointed out the creation of this constant campaign culture and the...

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Right.

CONAN: Kinds of situations we're in and well their books didn't change Washington's culture...

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CONAN: Why do you think yours will?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Well maybe their books will get more attention because of my book. This book is certainly getting a lot of attention. I think some of the initial reaction tried to turn the book into gotcha points and it's really a larger message in book than that. The larger message, as we were talking about the permanent campaign culture and one of the things I talk about in there is the permanent campaign and its future.

It's a book that I did during my research as I was working through, trying to draw conclusions about why things went so badly off course with this administration and it really helped me clarify some things in my mind about why that happened. And when I came to Washington I was working - I worked for then Governor Bush. He was 70 percent plus approval rating in Texas. Strong bipartisan record and I was just a young idealistic political person who thought we could do the same here in Washington, and I wanted to know why it didn't turn out that way.

CONAN: Why don't we get a question from the audience here at the Newseum, up at the microphone to my left?

Ms. LISA KLUBAS (Audience Member): Sure, hi Scott.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Hi.

Ms. KLUBAS: My name is Lisa Klubas. I'm with John Hopkins University here in Washington and first I would just like to say I have tremendous respect for the office of the White House Press Secretary so that I commend you for surviving that position as long...

Mr. MCCLELLAN: I have respect for it, too.

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Ms. KLUBAS: But my question is this. Why did you choose or allow your book to be released at this time? Should you have not waited until President Bush was out of office and even released on January 21st?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: That's a consideration, but I don't think so. There weren't easy words to write, but again if we're going to change the way Washington works we need to start addressing these issues head on. Not only that, but I also want to make sure that we don't repeat the same mistakes in the build up to the war in Iraq again, and you know there's certainly a discussion about going to war in other areas. I don't want those same mistakes to be repeated. We need to go to war in an honest and forthright way so that the American people know what the expectations are going in.

Ms. KUBLAS: Thanks.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Sure.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the question. There were earlier versions of this book that were less pointed I think. There was even...

Mr. MCCLELLAN: A proposal.

CONAN: An earlier title to the book that was less pointed. Was there a moment when you had an epiphany?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Well, I think it was over the course of writing the book. I think you're referencing the initial proposal I think I wrote back in December 2006. And really the themes that developed in this book are in that initial proposal. It was looking at why did this president become such a controversial and polarizing figure.

And initially I was looking at everything else, but us in that proposal. It was like all these other reasons, uh it's you know whoever may be. The forces on each side of the political aisle that push presidents, that push elected leaders to the ideological end of the spectrum, so that they don't come together and get things done. But I'm a centrist at heart, and you know as I went through and was writing this book I constantly questioned my own interpretations and assumptions of events because I wanted to get to the right conclusions that I felt comfortable with that it was the truth from my perspective and I think I've done that.

CONAN: But was there a day where you said, wait a minute, I've got to go back in and change this, I've got to reword this?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: No. It wasn't a day. It was a process over a long period of time. I put a lot of thought and a lot of hard work into this book and really thought through it carefully so that I could share my experiences with the American people and others who - and for history's sake it will hopefully benefit this country.

CONAN: I uh - you know you are a hard guy to get off message.

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Mr. MCCLELLAN: Well it's the message in the book, it really is and it really did take a lot of time working through this manuscript.

CONAN: Uh, Ron Elving?

RON ELVING: Scott, I think a lot of us had the feeling we had gotten to know you during your period of time in that famous podium, being there doing battle with the front row of correspondents day in and day out. We had some idea of who we thought you were and I'm sure many of your colleagues in the White House also felt that they had a sure sense of who you were and an almost uniform response from many of them, and also of course from some commentators and columnists and so on, has been that this book sounds so unlike you, that they actually imply that you might not have written it.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Well it's interesting - well for one that's not true. Even if you have editors working with you it's your words, these are my beliefs and words, but people that know me and have known me all my life say that this is exactly me and I think White House reporters who know me have also said he's a very straight shooter. And that they know that when I said way back when I was going to write a book and it was going to be candid because I wanted to leave something that we could all benefit from. And I think that White House reporters have stated that you know he's speaking from his heart.

CONAN: Do you feel as though the editing process that you went through with your publisher changed the book in the sense that the proposal was one thing in December of 2006 and in working with these editors and consulting with other people the content of the book underwent...

Mr. MCCLELLAN: No. Well, the conclusions were different from where I may have started. I said that in the preface of the book, I point that out. But, I didn't actually start writing this book until about July, sometime probably early July of 2007. And that's when the initial process began. And then it was all the way through, I guess it was about early to mid April when I finished it. And yeah, we missed a couple of early deadlines because I wanted to make sure it was right. I didn't want to rush it. I wanted to make sure I got things exactly right from my perspective, of what I believe about things. And we did.

CONAN: Another question from the Audience here at the Newseum.

Mr. DANIEL COLUMS (Audience Member): Hi, my names Daniel Colums (ph). I'm from El Paso, Texas. I wondered, in your opinion, does the restructuring of the intelligence community actually serve to address this culture of secrecy and withholding information? Or has it been successful at all?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: That's a good question. Because in this post-9/11 environment, are we over classifying things? And that's something - it's not something I look at in the book. But, it's something that, we the public, should make sure that it being carefully scrutinized. And I think the media is doing a pretty good job of that. And they need to continue to. But, with all the new agencies coming together, and the closer coordination, that's a good thing. But, let's make sure that we're not over classifying things, and keeping secrets that do nothing to harm our national security.

CONAN: Thank you. We're taking questions on two different phone lines today. Democrats, (800) 344-3864. Republicans, (800) 344-3893. But, let's get a call in. This is Jennifer from Minneapolis on the Democratic line.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi, Mr. McClellan. I wondered, you had talked in your book about how you believed President Bush self-deceived, or he was self-deception. I wondered if you also deceived yourself about certain things when you were standing up there on the podium talking to reporters about different issues. I know you've had some regrets later, now that you've left the White House. But, at the time do you think you were also engaged in self-deception?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Oh, absolutely. It's a very common human trait. I think we all engage in it at times. And absolutely there are times when I did that. My affection for the president is real. I really like him, I continue to like him personally. One of the hardest things to do during the writing of this book was separating my personal affection from him, from his policies and governance. And you had to be able to do that if you're going to arrive at some of these conclusions.

But, sure I engaged in it. You get caught up in this atmosphere, you're in Washington, you're working 18 hour-long days. Some of it may be conformity with those around you, but I've always been someone who has - I write about it in the book, my upbringing in politics. Someone who has believed in governing from the center, focusing on problem solving, but, D.C. today is too caught up in the battle for power and influence, and the next election. And they lose sight and deliberation and compromise comes a distant second, and that's unfortunate.

CONAN: Thanks so much for the call, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: Thank you.

CONAN: Just briefly, before we go to a short break, one of your colleagues said when first excerpts of this book got publishes, I think last December, he spoke with you and said, wait a minute. And you said, oh, it's not going to really come out like that. The book is - that's sort of a distortion.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: I hadn't finished the book at that point. I think I said that everybody's reacting to it and I'm still in the process of writing it. And people need to wait till it's finished.

CONAN: But, he felt deceived. A lot of people in the White House felt deceived.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: I don't think he should have. I think he is someone who's been unable to take off his partisan hat. I did take off my partisan hat, and accomplished what I wanted to with this book.

CONAN: Coming up, more on "What Happened" with former White House Press Secretary, Scott McClellan. We're live at the Knight studio at the Newseum, here in Washington, D.C. And we'll take more of your calls and emails as well. Ron Elving will join us later as our guest political junkie. Ken Rudin is off today. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan broadcasting live today from the Knight studio inside the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Scott McClellan used to speak for the White House as Press Secretary, now he's speaking for himself. His new book, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," calls the Iraq war a strategic blunder, a war he helped sell from the podium in the White House Press briefing room. He joins us here at the Newseum today, along with NPR Senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

If you'd like to read an excerpt from the book, go to npr.org/talk. And if you'd like to ask a question yourself, well, we have two phone lines today. One for Republicans, (800) 344-3893. One for Democrats, (800) 344-3864. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Or send us an email question, and that address is talk@npr.org. And, well, Scott McClellan is used to getting questions. Well, maybe not quite this pointed, these are some of the questions he's gotten since writing this book, or the book came out, about a week ago.

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Unidentified Man #1: Why didn't you say to him, Mr. President, this is the fundamental issue confronting our country. Why didn't you go to your superiors? And say, guys, ladies and gentlemen, we have a problem here this is the fundamental issue, choice or necessity, and the president seems unaware of it.

Unidentified Woman: Weren't you the ultimate, complicit, enabler though? I asked a tough question before the Iraq war, and you personally called an executive...

Mr. MCCLELLAN: There were some tough...

Unidentified Woman At NBC News, and you threatened to deny access to us.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: I did?

Unidentified Woman: Yes, you did. Once the war began.

Unidentified Man #2: What do you say about that? The entire presidency was a facade of public manipulation.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: I don't agree with that...

CONAN: Enjoying yourself?

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Mr. MCCLELLAN: If it takes talking about unpleasant truths to force some change in Washington, then I'm all for it. People are now discussing this book, they're starting to read it, they're starting to see for themselves my sincerity in the book. And that's a good thing. They're starting to realize there is that larger message there. I didn't expect it would be quite this much attention, but I do welcome it. And I want to - this is something that I will continue to focus on even after the book tour is over.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Rob. And Rob's with us Hill Town in Pennsylvania, on the Republican line.

ROB (Caller): Hey, how are you doing today?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

ROB: Yeah, I just have two quick questions. My first one is, didn't your administration see any flags when you guys were making the decision to go to war? Like I said to my wife, I said, you know, Colin Powell made this case between the - before the UN, and all of a sudden the guy just kind of faded out of the woodwork. And I know he's a very conservative man, and takes all things into consideration before making a move. And from my understanding, he kind of wanted the administration to hold off. And they kind of, just kind of said nope. You know, let's kind of move him out of here.

Second question, I'm a Republican, I voted for this guy, it just seems like this guy Bush is so insulated. And just doesn't really - I mean, look at the Baker Commission, with that report that came back. Which he basically, really didn't even listen to it. I don't know, what's the guy's deal?

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Mr. MCCLELLAN: Well, on the first part of your question about Colin Powell. I think your assessment is pretty much right on. He was probably one of the lone dissenters, if you will, in the buildup to the war, who was saying go slow, you don't have to do this Mr. president. But what happened was that there's no flexibility left in the approach. I mean, the president, and I say this in the book, I believe, after having become Press Secretary - first of all, in the build up to the war, I was the Deputy Press Secretary. Most of my focus was elsewhere, and other priorities, but I did fill in from time to time for my predecessor, I did participate in a couple of the White House Iraq meetings which were set up to, basically, market the war to the American people. But the second part of the question, what was that again?

CONAN: What's the deal with this guy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCLELLAN: I think this happens to every president, to an extent. It's something you've got to counter for, you've got to watch. Is senior advisers have to make sure that he's getting a diversity of viewpoints. He did, to an extent, but not close enough to where it needed to be. Bring in more people, and bringing critics in, bringing expert critics in that have different points of view. To make sure they're challenging the president's thinking.

What happened, and I say this in the book, is that his advisors, I think his National Security Adviser Condi Rice was too accommodating of the president and too accommodating of some of the other strong personalities around the table which was weighted with the vice president, Secretary Rumsfeld, against Secretary Powell, basically in the build up to the war. And they should have been more challenging of the presidents thinking.

But once the president makes a decision, he tends to - he says, you know, I expect everybody to follow. There is no descent about the decision once it's made. And he had made the decision, very early on, that we were going to confront Saddam Hussein. And it was either he comes clean, or we remove the regime. There was no flexibility what's so ever in the plan, and there probably should have been flexibility. As a press secretary, one of the things I always did was leave myself some flexibility. So I didn't tie the president's hands. That didn't happen with the build up to the war.

CONAN: Thanks, Rob.

ROB: Thanks, sure. Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Question from here at the Newseum.

Mr. SIDNEY WOLK (Audience Member): My name is Sidney Wolk and I'm from Silver Spring, Maryland. And my question is, Scott, if you became president, what would you do or change?

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Mr. MCCLELLAN: I don't have any intention of running any time soon. And no intention of running, really ever, I'll never say never. But, what I would change is, this White House has been too secretive, and too compartmentalized, and not open and candid enough. And the first thing you've got to have, if you're going to change the atmosphere in Washington, is an embrace of openness and candor.

Government in the sunshine is something I've always been taught about. I was raised in a political family. My mother was an elected official. A trailblazer for women in politics, back in the late 70s and early 80s. And I was very young at that, around your age. And I was taught the importance of public service. I was taught the importance of speaking up and making a positive difference, and solving problems. I wasn't taught a very ideological, rigid approach to things. I was taught that politics is about compromise.

And if you're going to have trust between yourself and those across the aisle, then you've got to have openness and candor. You've got to give that to the American people, too. We didn't do that to the build up to the war. And that's why this Presidency veered so terribly off course.

CONAN: Thank you. Here's an email question from Danny in Oakland, California. Given the grave harm the administration lies have caused our country, and military, and your part in perpetrating those lies, is it possible for you to make a simple declarative statement, just about yourself, that you lied? If you could, I'd feel much more forgiving toward you for what you've done.

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Mr. MCCLELLAN: Well, I certainly did with the leak episode, unknowingly. I passed along false information, because I was assured of certain things. In terms of the others, I engaged in the political spin, and manipulation, just like everybody else. Got caught up in this game, I wish I hadn't, but most of what I said back then I really believe was sincere.

But, some of it, in reflection, is - I view as misguided. And, you know, we get into - this is a very good question, this is part of where the hatred and venom in Washington really comes into play. Both sides tend to look at each other - there are a lot of good people who come here for the right reasons to make a positive difference. Both sides tend to get caught up in looking at each other as enemies. We're not enemies, we're working together to try to solve problems.

And when you start engaging in lie - you start implying it was deliberate, that it was conscience. And for the most part, I don't think - there might have been individuals, but there was no grand conspiracy going on behind the scenes where this group of people were coming together and said, let's go out and lie to the American people.

What happened was, they got caught up in the culture, the permanent campaign culture. And it's very destructive when that gets transferred from domestic policy issues, and other issues, to issues of war, where - issues as grave as a war making process. When you go to war, you've got to build a bi-partisan support and you've got to maintain that support. You can't maintain that support if aren't as open and honest as possible about things.

CONAN: Perhaps the most difficult episode for you, you mentioned, was the Valerie Plame incident. When you say you unknowingly told lies. And here's what must have been a very awkward moment for you, standing there at the lectern in the Brady briefing room.

(Soundbite of press release)

Mr. MCCLELLAN: If you'd let me finish.

Unidentified Reporter: No, you're not finishing. You're not saying anything. You stood at that podium and said that Karl Rove was not involved. And now we find out that he spoke about Joseph Wilson's wife. So, don't you owe the American public a fuller explanation? Was he involved, or was he not? Because contrary to what you told the American people, he did indeed talk about his wife, didn't he?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: David, there will be a time to talk about this, but, now is not the time to talk about it.

Unidentified Man: You think that people will accept that? What you're saying to them?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Again, I've responded to the question.

CONAN: Wow. That incident, seemingly, reading in your book, and all the varying twists and turns. That seemed to, more than anything else, weigh on your decision that, well this White House had really gone down the tubes.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Well, it was one of, really two that were prominent that began some of my disillusionment. That was about 10 months before I left the White House right about two years into my time as press secretary. And during that time, when it became known that Karl Rove had been involved in the revealing the Valerie Plame's identity, I was told by White House counsel's office, and it had been our policy prior to that even, that I could not talk publicly about it. We were not commenting, it was ongoing investigation, ongoing legal proceeding. My hands were tied, I couldn't defend words that I had said previously, based on conversations with both Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.

When I asked, point blank, were you involved in this in any way? Both of them, unequivocally, told me no. I took those assurances, and said to White House reporters they assured me they were not involved in this. And when I couldn't defend myself, it - your credibility, the credibility for the press secretary is all he's got. Those reporters knew me and they knew that I was a straight shooter, but - in actually came to my defense during that period. The reporters were the ones who came to my defense and said I think he really wants to talk about this. Look, his credibility is unquestionable and words to that effect. These were White House reporters, but if he can't defend himself we've got our job to do and the American people need, deserve these answers. So it was a very tough period to go through.

CONAN: As you know Chairman Henry Waxman has now requested transcripts of interviews regarding Vice President Cheney and, well, Scooter Libby's assertion that the vice president may have told him deliberately to that - leak the name. This comes out in part from your book. Did Vice President Cheney to your knowledge order his aide's to leak the name of a CIA operative?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: I don't know, and I say that in the book. I can't say that one way or the other. There's Patrick Fitzgerald the special prosecutor during the Libby trial. In his concluding remarks said - well he was responding to Libby's lawyers that said the prosecutors trying to put a cloud over the vice president's office. Fitzgerald said, no, it's Libby that's put the cloud over the vice president's office by not being forthright in answering these questions. And I think he's - that's true, very true. The cloud has been left there. I don't know the answer. The president and Vice President did direct me through the White House Chief of Staff to exonerate Scooter Libby and I said the only way I will do that, is if he gives me the same assurances that Karl Rove gave me. And I spoke to him personally, got those assurances. I took him at his word and I shouldn't have.

CONAN: Let's get another question from the audience here at the Newseum.

Mr. DENNIS JOHANSSON (Audience Member): Hi, thanks for taking my question.

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. JOHANNSON: My name is Dennis Johansson, and I'm from Maryland County, Iowa. And my question was, what age Scott did you determine you wanted to become involved in politics and did that then - and from the answer you gave here when Sidney was up here a minute ago, you were quite young. So that young age influence your ability to accept what the Bush administration had to say, the philosophies of that administration, and kind of slide into that, which you call kind of the philosophy of Washington that allowed you to maybe have a full view of some of these issues?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: No, actually I don't think that philosophy did. I - when I was four years old, some of my earliest memories. My mother was elected to the Austen School Board - it was a non-partisan election but she was a Democrat at the time - became a Republican in the mid-80s when I was about a senior in high school, just before my senior year in high school.

But I grew up, my grandfather taught all his life at the University of Texas Law School, he was dean of that law school for 25 years, really took it to its national prominence. And he used to tell us that it's not the dollars you make, it's the difference you make. Those kind of - that's the kind of philosophy that I was raised on, and that's the kind of philosophy that I'm continuing now in this book.

You know, it's an extension of my career and public service. A way to give something back and a way to speak up about what I really believe in.

Mr. JOHANNSON: Thanks.

CONAN: Thanks very much. We are talking with Scott McClellan about his new book, "What Happened inside the Bush White House in Washington's Culture of Deception," and you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Ron?

RON ELVING: Scott you're surely aware then, that this book has become a weapon in Washington. It's become part of the war, it's part of the Punch and Judy Show between the parties and among the various parties within the Bush administration, still warring over the decisions that were made while you were there.

So, what's the solution? What can you do, what can any of us do to make Washington different?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: We'll actually talk about some of that at the end of the book and it has become a little bit of the partisan back and forth. That's the reason for that, is because we weren't candid enough in the first place. If we'd been candid then this book would never have been written in the first place, but what we can do about it is, as I said, the most important thing is to embrace openness and candor in government.

Then, secondly what I propose, we've got a presidential election going on here, both candidates have been talking about changing the way Washington works. Senator Obama talks about changing the way Washington works. Senator McCain has talked about ending the permanent campaign culture, a central theme in my book.

I don't think you can completely end it, but you've got to minimize it, by putting counterweights in place to the political machine that any administration is going to have in this day and age.

And the political advisors have very strong influence. I actually propose a deputy chief of staff for governing, who is a statesman or stateswoman like figure who focuses constantly, you've got to focus day in and day out on these issues of making sure you're reaching out, you're engaging in bi-partisan deliberation and compromise. That your tone you're setting is elevated, that you're not getting, engaging in all this politics as war mentality, the scorched earth politics.

What happens is and I've been involved in plenty campaigns including two presidential ones. The campaign mentality doesn't stop when the elections over, it trans - because it becomes so heated and so partisan that it transfers over into the governance, and we've got to be cognizant of that.

The presidential candidates need to be starting now about how looking at how you're going to get beyond this, how specifically you're going to make sure you change the way Washington works and we all ort to be asking them. What's your plan for doing this? Because it's one thing to talk about it - it's very difficult once you get in there to be able to do it, as I learned.

CONAN: Email question from Steven in Minneapolis. "Is this your last word or do you know more than what you're saying now?"

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCLELLAN: I don't plan to write another book if that's what he's asking, but this is not my last word I intend to continue talking about these issues. If, he's asking is there some information that I held back? No, there's not. There's a certain focus in this book, the narrative was very specific. I mean, I didn't get into, a lot of the briefing room activities. I kept a focus on some big picture items.

CONAN: And what are you going to do? You're, you are currently on the tour and you have a very successful book, out beyond that I assume you want to make a living?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Yes, I'm exploring opportunities. I have been continuing to do some communication work in the meantime, but I am looking at some new opportunities. Obviously, I think there are certain doors that have been closed to me, but…

CONAN: A few.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Also some doors, I think, that this opens up to where I can continue - continue building on what I wrote in this book.

CONAN: And if you had, as you watch now, this presidential campaign, from outside the bubble, for the first time in a long time.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Perfectly happy being outside that bubble.

CONAN: But, what's the conduct of the campaign look like to you? Is this a normal politics or is this especially nasty?

Mr. MCCLELLAN: I think it remains to be seen. Senator McCain has said that, on the Republican side he's going to make sure it stays focused on the issues. Senator Obama has pledged the same. Whether or not they can actually - you're going to have all these 527 groups and other side partisan organizations come into play. And you can't control them completely, but are they going to really be able to have a substantive debate on the issues. I think that remains to be seen. They're certainly saying they're going to, but we need to make sure we hold them to that commitment. The nation will be better served.

CONAN: Scott McClellan thanks very much for your time, today.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: Thank you. Enjoyed being here Neal and Ron.

CONAN: Former White House Press Secretary, Scott McClellan his book is "What Happened inside the Bush White House in Washington's Culture of Deception."

(Soundbite of clapping)

CONAN: Coming up, well Ron Elving is not the political junkie but nevertheless he is a political junkie. He'll be with us to recap what happened last night and look ahead to some of the races that we are going to have in November, including the race for, well, McClellan's old bosses' job. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, it's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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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.

Excerpt: 'What Happened'

'What Happened'

Preface

The University of Texas has always been special to my family and me. My grandfather, the late Page Keeton, was the legendary dean who led its law school to national prominence. I was born and reared in Austin, Texas, where it is located, and earned an undergraduate degree from the university.

I am very familiar with the UT Tower, the main building in the center of campus, with words from the Gospel of John carved in stone above its south entrance: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free."

Those powerful words have always piqued my curiosity, as a person of faith and as an ordinary human being keenly interested in the larger meaning of life. But not until the past few years have I come to truly appreciate their message.

Perhaps God's greatest gift to us in life is the ability to learn from our experiences, especially our mistakes, and grow into better people. That uniquely human quality is rooted in free will and blossoms in our capacity for knowledge, based on understanding the truth — not as we might imagine or wish it to be, but as it is. And that includes recognizing our faults and accepting responsibility for them. Through contrition we find the truth and the freedom that comes with it, even as we improve ourselves and grow closer to the image that God our Creator has in mind for us to become.

My mother, who began her career in public service as a high school civics and history teacher, likes to say, "It is people, not events, that shape history." She couldn't be more right. History is rooted in the choices made by people — flawed, fallible people.

This is a book about the slice of history I witnessed during my years in the White House and about the well-intentioned but flawed human beings — myself included — who shaped that history. I've written it not to settle scores or enhance my own role but simply to record what I know and what I learned in hopes that my account will deepen our understanding of contemporary history, particularly the events that followed the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001.

I began the process of writing this book by putting myself under the microscope. In my efforts on behalf of the presidential administration of George W. Bush I fell far short of living up to the kind of public servant I wanted to be. Having accepted the post of White House press secretary at age thirty-five and possessing scant experience of the Washington power game, I didn't fully understand what I was getting myself into. Today, I understand it much better. This book records the often painful process by which I gained that understanding.

I frequently stumbled along the way and failed in my duty to myself, to the president I served, and to the American people. I tried to play the Washington game according to the current rules and, at times, didn't play it very well. Because I didn't stay true to myself, I couldn't stay true to others. The mistakes were mine, and I've suffered the consequences.

My own story, however, is of small importance in the broad historical picture. More significant is the larger story in which I played a minor role — the story of how the presidency of George W. Bush veered terribly off course.

As press secretary, I spent countless hours defending the administration from the podium in the White House briefing room. Although the things I said then were sincere, I have since come to realize that some of them were badly misguided. In these pages, I've tried to come to grips with some of the truths that life inside the White House bubble obscured.

My friends and former colleagues who lived and worked or are still living and working inside that bubble may not be happy with the perspective I present here. Many of them, I'm sure, remain convinced that the Bush administration has been fundamentally correct in its most controversial policy judgments, and that the dis-esteem in which most Americans currently hold it is undeserved. Only time will tell. But I've become genuinely convinced otherwise.

The episode that became the jumping-off point for this book was the scandal over the leaking of classified national security information-the so-called Plame affair. It originated in a controversy over the intelligence the Bush administration used to make the case that Saddam Hussein's Iraq represented a "grave and gathering danger" that needed to be eliminated. When a covert CIA officer's identity was disclosed during the ensuing partisan warfare, turning the controversy into the latest Washington scandal, I was caught up in the deception that followed. It was the defining moment in my time working for the president, and one of the most painful experiences of my life.

When words I uttered, believing them to be true, were exposed as false, I was constrained by my duties and loyalty to the president and unable to comment. But I promised reporters and the public that I would someday tell the whole story of what I knew. After leaving the White House, I realized that the story was meaningless without an appreciation of the personal, political, and institutional context in which it took place. So the story grew into a book.

Writing it wasn't easy. Some of the best advice I received as I began came from a senior editor at a publishing house that expressed interest in my book. He said the hardest challenge for me would be to keep questioning my own beliefs and perceptions throughout the writing process. His advice was prescient. I've found myself constantly questioning my own thinking, my assumptions, my interpretations of events. Many of the conclusions I've reached are quite different from those I would have embraced at the start of the process. The quest for truth has been a struggle for me, but a rewarding one. I don't claim a monopoly on truth. But after wrestling with my experiences over the past several months, I've come much closer to my truth than ever before.



Many readers will have come to this book out of curiosity about the man who is a leading character in my story, President George W. Bush. You'll learn about my relationship with him and my experiences as part of his team as you read these pages. For now, let me observe that much of what the general public knows about Bush is true. He is a man of personal charm, wit, and enormous political skill. Like many other people, I was inspired to follow him by his disarming personality and by his record as a popular, bipartisan governor who set a constructive tone and got things done for the people. We all hoped and believed he could do the same for the nation.

Certainly the seeds of greatness seemed to be present in the Bush administration. Although Bush attained the White House only after an extended legal battle over the outcome of the 2000 election, he began his presidency with considerable goodwill. He commanded a rare, extended period of national unity following the unimaginable national tragedy that struck our nation in September 2001.

On paper, the team Bush assembled was impressive. Vice President Dick Cheney was a serious, vastly experienced hand in the top levels of government. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had already enjoyed one successful run at the Pentagon and boasted a résumé listing a string of business and government achievements. Secretary of State Colin Powell, an able and widely respected military leader, was easily the most popular public figure in the country and could well have been the first African American president of the United States had he been interested in the job. Even Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, had a powerful reputation as a brilliant strategic thinker who was helping to make the Republican party the nation's greatest political force.

I believed in George W. Bush's leadership and agenda for America, and had confidence in his authenticity, integrity, and judgment. But today the high hopes that accompanied the early days of his presidency have fallen back to earth.

Rumsfeld and Powell are gone, their tenures controversial and disappointing. Vice President Cheney's role is widely viewed as sinister and destructive of the president's legacy. And Rove's reputation for political genius is now matched by his reputation as an operative who places political gain ahead of the national interest.

Through it all, President Bush remains very much the same. He is self-confident, quick-witted, down-to-earth, and stubborn, as leaders sometimes need to be. His manner is authentic, his beliefs sincere. I never knew Lyndon Johnson (another Texan with a stubborn streak whose domestic accomplishments were overshadowed by a controversial war) or Richard Nixon (a president whose historically low poll ratings following Watergate have been rivaled only by Bush's). But according to historians, both men were consumed with defensiveness, anger, and ultimately anguish as their presidencies unraveled under the pressure of war and scandal, respectively. George W. Bush is different. He is very much the man he always was-though not quite the leader I once imagined him to be.

It was the decision to go to war in Iraq that pushed Bush's presidency off course. It was a fateful misstep based on a confluence of events (the shock of 9/11 and our surprisingly-and deceptively-quick initial military success in Afghanistan), human nature (ambition, certitude, and self-deceit), and a divinely inspired passion (President Bush's deeply held belief that all people have a God-given right to live in freedom). For Bush, removing the "grave and gathering danger" that Iraq supposedly posed was primarily a means for achieving the far more grandiose objective of reshaping the Middle East as a region of peaceful democracies.

History appears poised to confirm what most Americans today have decided-that the decision to invade Iraq was a serious strategic blunder. No one, including me, can know with absolute certainty how the war will be viewed decades from now when we can more fully understand its impact. What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary.

Waging an unnecessary war is a grave mistake. But in reflecting on all that happened during the Bush administration, I've come to believe that an even more fundamental mistake was made — a decision to turn away from candor and honesty when those qualities were most needed.

Most of our elected leaders in Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike, are good and decent people. Yet too many of them today have made a practice of shunning truth and the high level of openness and forthrightness required to discover it. Most of it is not willful or conscious. Rather it is part of the modern Washington game that has become the accepted norm.

As I explain in this book, Washington has become the home of the permanent campaign, a game of endless politicking based on the manipulation of shades of truth, partial truths, twisting of the truth, and spin. Governing has become an appendage of politics rather than the other way around, with electoral victory and the control of power as the sole measures of success. That means shaping the narrative before it shapes you. Candor and honesty are pushed to the side in the battle to win the latest news cycle.

Of course, deception in politics is nothing new. What's new is the degree to which it now permeates our national political discourse.

Much of it is barely noticeable and seemingly harmless, accepted as par for the course. Most of it is done unconsciously or subconsciously with no malicious intent other than to prevail in the increasingly destructive game of power and in?uence.

Some of it is self-deceit. Those engaging in it convince themselves to believe what they are saying, though deep down they know candor and honesty are lacking. Instead of checking their political maneuvering at the door when the campaign ends, they retain it as part of the way Washington works. The deception it spawns becomes the cancer on our political discourse, greatly damaging the ability of our elected leaders to govern effectively and do what is best for America.

Too many politicians and their followers have become passionately committed to a preconceived, partisan view of reality that allows little room for compromise or cooperation with the other side. The gray nuances of truth are lost in the black-and-white ideologies both parties embrace. Permanent division, gridlock, and a general inability to constructively address the big challenges we all face inevitably follow.

President Bush, I believe, did not consciously set out to engage in these destructive practices. But like others before him, he chose to play the Washington game the way he found it, rather than changing the culture as he vowed to do at the outset of his campaign for the presidency. And like others before him, he has engaged in a degree of self-deception that may be psychologically necessary to justify the tactics needed to win the political game.

The permanent campaign also ensnares the media, who become complicit enablers of its polarizing effects. They emphasize conflict, controversy, and negativity, focusing not on the real-world impact of policies and their larger, underlying truths but on the horse race aspects of politics — who's winning, who's losing, and why.

In exploring this syndrome and the way it helped damage at least one administration, I've tried to contribute to our understanding of Washington's culture of deception and how we, the American people, can change it.

Although my time in the Bush White House did not work out as I once hoped, my optimism regarding America has been strengthened. I've met many, many people who are eager for positive change and are ready to devote their lives and energies to the future of our country. I still believe, in the words of then-Governor Bush, that it's possible to show "that politics, after a time of tarnished ideals, can be higher and better." I'm convinced that, if we take a clear-eyed look at how our system has gone awry and think seriously about how to fix it, there's nothing we can't achieve.

This book, I hope, will contribute to that national conversation.


Excerpted from What Happened. Copyright 2008 by Scott McClellan.

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