New Memoir Questions White House Loyalty
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the Democratic National Committee is set to meet tomorrow to decide how to handle delegates from the disputed Florida and Michigan primaries. We'll talk about it with former Clinton White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers.
But first, the bounds of loyalty are tested in Washington. Former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan criticizes the Bush administration in a new book.
Mr. SCOTT MCCLELLAN (Former White House Press Secretary, Author, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception"): What we did 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 any other policy issue you'd want to get passed in Congress.
MARTIN: That's McClellan on NPR's Morning Edition yesterday talking about his new memoir, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception." Joining me to talk about that and other political news is Michael Steele. He's the former lieutenant governor of Maryland the current chairman of GOPAC. That's a group that supports Republican candidates for state and local offices. He joins us by phone from his home in Maryland.
Also with us with is Anna Perez, she's a former high ranking communications official to both Presidents Bush. She was press secretary to then first lady Barbara Bush and counselor to the National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice for communications. She was a deputy assistant of the president. She joins me on the phone from her home outside San Francisco. I thank you both so much for speaking with me.
Mr. MICHAEL STEELE (Chairman, GOPAC): Great to be with you, Michael.
Ms. ANNA PEREZ (Former Press Secretary to Barbara Bush, Former President's Deputy Assistant): Happy to be with you, Michel.
MARTIN: And first, I have to ask each of you if you've been in touch with the White House or the Republican National Committee for talking points on how to respond to this book, and if so, what are they?
Mr. STEELE: I have not. I don't do talking points, never have, never will, so I've not talked to anyone about this particular issue that surrounds the book. I haven't read the book yet as well - just the excerpts and so forth.
MARTIN: Sure. Anna, what about you?
Ms. PEREZ: Nope. I haven't talked to anybody, any of my old colleagues at the White House, and I used to actually write talking points so.
Ms. PEREZ: But I am familiar with the dust-up around it.
MARTIN: So, Anna, let me start with you. You have been behind the scenes. You overlapped - I'm not sure how much you overlapped with Scott McClellan. I know you were in the National Security Agency from 2001 to 2003. Scott was press secretary from July of 2003 to 2006, so I'm not sure how much you overlapped, but other colleagues of McClellan are using the term, surprised. Are you surprised at what he's had to say?
Ms. PEREZ: Well, as Michael said, I haven't read the book, I have read the excerpts. I don't know that I'm surprised, but it does seem a little incongruous coming from Scott because he was very soft spoken. You just never knew how deep those still waters ran I suppose. But surprised, no. I think one of the best takes I've read about the book is from Peggy Noonan, her piece I think in the Journal yesterday. And her tag line was feeds history. She wasn't criticizing, she wasn't supporting, she was just saying we need more of those kind of inside memoirs, because it feeds history.
MARTIN: We need them or?
Ms. PEREZ: We need them.
MARTIN: We need them because - you've found it useful? Have you found it useful?
Ms. PEREZ: I have read some of them. I haven't read a lot. Since I've left the White House mysteries have been more my game, but I agree with Peggy. I think we need more of them because it's the first draft - it's the second draft. If journalists are the first draft of history then these kinds of memoirs are the second. Do I think that it's tough when you're loyal to the people that you serve, absolutely, but I think as public officials we also need to serve subsequent generations.
MARITN: Michael, what about you, useful??
Mr. STEELE: I agree with that too. I really do appreciate and like the idea of feeding history, but my caution is what is the background noise that goes along with the history you're feeding, and you know, if there are questions about, you know, whether or not this is bad blood, is this payback and all that stuff, you've got to weigh it and take it all in with a small grain of salt, particularly as was noted, you know, you got an individual who wasn't a rabble rouser, didn't make a lot of noise, didn't wear his emotions on the sleeve. So how much of this is pent up frustration about other things? You don't know. But again, it does feed into the process of creating a narrative about the last eight years generally, and more specifically about the war. And I think that for a lot of Americans, it feeds a particular type of history or their understanding of that recent history with respect to the war and how it unfolded.
MARTIN: Well, let me ask about that. Let me ask about that. There are two key criticisms in the book, and I want to take them each in turn. Anna, to you first, because you were there at the NSA which is a critical juncture for discussion of the nation's intelligence obviously and critical to advising the president. His first criticism is that the administration essentially cherry picked intelligence. That they sort of seized on intelligence that fed the narrative they wanted and kind of ignored that which did not. Do you find that credible, Anna?
Ms. PEREZ: No. No. And here's why. I can think of at least one example. About three or four weeks I think it was before Secretary Powell's speech before the United Nations, senior White House and NSC communicators, I was one, Karen Hughes was there, I think Ari was there, Dan Bartlett. I don't think Scott was there because he handled domestic policy. But I remember the meeting was held in the situation room because we were going over classified material for the speech, and I remember Karen Hughes saying at least three times to Scooter Libby who had been in charge of gathering some of the information, not the draft of the speech per se, but the information that would be the basis of the speech. And I remember her saying this very strongly, prove it. You can't just say it, Scooter. The American people shouldn't and won't accept that. You have to prove it.
And Scooter on occasion would say well, that's classified material. She says, well, if we can't declassify it without hurting sources - without revealing sources and methods, then we can't use the information. She said this over and over again. I remember other public documents that were prepared by other White House communicators that we had to throw out because it just didn't stand up to scrutiny. So this notion that we cherry-picked, I don't agree with Scott on that. I was there, and I saw too much to agree with that.
MARTIN: The second criticism that he makes is that he says that Karl Rove, among others close to the president, perpetuated a culture of deception at the White House, and Mr. Rove responded this way on Fox News.
SOUNDBITE OF KARL ROVE ON FOX NEWS
Mr. KARL ROVE (Former Deputy Chief of Staff): If he had these moral qualms, he should have spoken up about them, and frankly I don't remember him speaking up about these things. I don't remember a single word.
MARTIN: Well, what about that, and Anna, and you first and Michael I want to hear from you on this. As a person who's worked at every level of the government. You've worked on the Senate, you worked in the House, you worked in the White House, is that realistic? Did he have the standing to speak up? Anna?
Ms. PEREZ: You always have the chance to speak up, if you're willing - and if there are consequences you have to be willing to take those consequences. I never felt that there was anything I could not say to Condi Rice. I never felt that there was anything I could not say to Karen Hughes. Now I didn't work very closely with Karl Rove, I didn't work very closely with the president, I mean I had meetings with him, we handled his international press, but there was never a sense that I could not go to Condi and say here's what I think, because in fact that's why she brought me in. She wanted people around her who would say here's what I think.
MARTIN: So you think if he had had these qualms he could have and should have aired them at the time.
Ms. PEREZ: I think so. I think the onus was on him to speak up to say I don't think this is right, and you can't just complain. Depending on what the issue is, you also - and this is what Condi expected, you also had to come with what you think would be the solution.
MARTIN: Michael Steele, what about you? What do you think?
Mr. STEELE: I agree with that. I think, and I've known a number of folks who've worked at that level in the White House, including Karl Rove. I know him very well, and the one thing I can tell you, my encounters with Karl, whether it was in a political context or otherwise was that he always wanted to know what you knew. And he very much appreciated the feedback because particularly if he's going to be advising the president, or they're going to be talking about something, you know, later on, he wanted to be able to feed that information through. So I would agree that the onus is on the individual to step up, particularly if you're in a communication role and you've got to them go out and try to, quote, "sell something," that if you're not feeling it, if it's not rooted in you some kind of way to be able to go out there and sell it, guess what, we've got a pretty sharp White House press corp. They'll pick that up. They'll sense that something else is going on.
MARTIN: Well, it has to be said he's pretty critical of the press core too for being not aggressive enough in pursuing this information, so I'm not quite sure what your take on that would be, but Michael, can I ask you, both of you are in the business of helping to craft messages and how damaging do you think this book is now that you've got candidates in the field, the GOP has already lost three special elections so far this year, how damaging do you think this is?
Mr. STEELE: I think people who want to believe this is another aha moment on this administration, this will be a vindication for how they feel about the war and for everyone else it'll be, you know, just one more attack on the administration, and it'll be part and parcel of what's been happening over the last three years. So I think in the end on balance, it's probably a neutral in terms of what it' going to do this fall and what it's going to for candidates downstream, down ticket, you know, running for various races.
MARTIN: Why? You think because it just confirms people's existing believes, if you believe it, you believe it, if you don't believe it you're not going to believe it?
Mr. STEELE: I don't think it's a revelation, you know, a revelatory experience and people go oh my God, I didn't know that, you know.
MARTIN: OK. Anna, what about you? Anna, what do you think?
Ms. PEREZ: I think it's a wash. I really do. I think right now you have this media infrastructure that's been built up, particularly in wake of the presidential primaries this year, you have this media infrastructure that creates this enormous echo chamber that almost anything, if it gets caught in that echo chamber, you're going to hear about it over and over and over again until you don't.
MARTIN: All right. Anna Perez was a high ranking communications official serving both President George Bush - the first George H. W. Bush, and President George W. Bush. Bushs 41 and 43. She had high positions in both administrations. Michael Steele is chairman of the Republican organization GOPAC. They both joined us on the phone. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.
Mr. STEELE: Thank you.
Ms. PEREZ: Thank you, Michel.
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