McClellan Tells His Version of 'What Happened' Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan has published an account of his time as the face of the Bush administration — What Happened came out Wednesday. Louise Radnofsky of The Wall Street Journal and NPR's David Folkenflik weigh in on McClennan's perspective on Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and defining moments of Bush's presidency.
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McClellan Tells His Version of 'What Happened'

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NEAL CONAN, host: As we mentioned, here in Washington several reporters got hold of copies of Scott McClellan's new book in time to get stories on the web last night and in the newspapers this morning. The book is called "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," and it's the former White House press secretary's explosive account of his time in front of the microphones and television cameras as the face of the Bush Administration, defending the decision to go to war in Iraq, explaining that presidential and vice-presidential advisers played no part in leaking the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame, and about the administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, among many other issues. In a moment, we'll hear from one of those reporters, Louise Radnofsky of the Wall Street Journal, who's on her way over here to the Newseum. She'll join us in a couple of minutes. We also want to talk, however, with NPR's David Folkenflik, who'll join us from New York. If you have questions about what the book says, about the president, the vice president, and how the White House managed the media, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us at talk@npr.org, and you can also weigh in on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik, is with us from NPR's bureau in New York. David, good of you to be with us today.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Good to join you and good to join the people at the Newseum.

CONAN: And David, remind us about who Scott McClellan is and was and his role in the Bush Administration.

FOLKENFLIK: Scott McClellan was somebody who was considered very much a loyal Bush insider who had worked for him diligently in his days as Texas governor. McClellan was, I believe, the deputy chief of communications for him under Karen Hughes in Texas, signed on to be spokesman and communications guy for the campaign of then-Governor Bush in '99 and came to Washington. He was seen as sort of perhaps the gentler face of the Bush Administration, if you recall.

Ari Fleischer was the first White House spokesman, and I had known Ari from the Hill a little bit a few years before, when he had been a Republican congressional aide, and very clever, very quick-witted, very glib and very quick with the spin. McClellan came out. He's a bit of a softer guy, a little bit suggestive of, hey, we're not necessarily in a contentious relationship. I'm going to do what I can to work with you and to work on your behalf.

Didn't seem necessarily to be in the room as all of the key decisions were made on controversial policies. He seemed as though he was kept at a slight remove. But he was able to be a slightly gentler force as reporters began to pick up a head of steam over contentious issues, like going to war.

CONAN: And joining us now here in the Newseum is Louise Radnofsky, who has read Scott McClellan's new book, one of the few who has, and she is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and had a piece about the book in the paper this morning. Nice of you to be with us today.

Ms. LOUISE RADNOFSKY (Journalist, Wall Street Journal): I'm sorry I'm late. I was just finishing up.

CONAN: Just finishing up. When did you actually get a copy of this book?

Ms. RADNOFSKY: Late last night. I was on my way home.

CONAN: And you just happened to see it in a bookstore?

Ms. RADNOFSKY: Yes, on sale in a Washington bookstore.

CONAN: Interesting. And then you start reading the book. There's an interesting question that I guess reporters - it's unique to this time and place, but the Wall Street Journal, like every other newspaper, has a website. When did you - you must be torn between how much of the book do I read, and when do I start filing?

Ms. RADNOFSKY: It's a tough call. We actually managed to get in a story, into the paper out today.

CONAN: There was a story in the paper today, and I've read it.

Ms. RADNOFSKY: A short story in the paper today and a longer story on the web.

CONAN: And by the time you filed that story, had you finished the book?

Ms. RADNOFSKY: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So the part where he confesses to murder in the last chapter, you didn't have that in?

Ms. RADNOFSKY: It's pretty clear-cut. There is long bit in the book, you can all enjoy it very soon, about his growing up in Texas, which is important context and also worth reading.

CONAN: Well, for those who haven't read it, which is everybody, tell us what's in it. First of all, it is a remarkable - well, I guess some of the people in the White House feel like, you know, a betrayal by somebody who was in the inner circle of the Bush Administration.

Ms. RADNOFSKY: I think people will read it in a lot of different ways, but on the face of it, it seems to be a very contrite account of the guy who said he was just doing his job and realized that he got it wrong.

CONAN: One of the things he said is that the Bush administration in the run-up to the war in Iraq relied on a campaign of propaganda.

Ms. RADNOFSKY: Propaganda, yeah. He talks about a state of permanent campaign, misinformation, and perpetuated to people in - by many people including him.

CONAN: He - presumably unknowingly.

Ms. RADNOFSKY: Unknowingly. He says he was just doing his job.

CONAN: And in the run-up to the war in Iraq, he said the Bush administration chose to emphasize one part which they could communicate well on, and that's the search for weapons of mass destruction, as opposed to what he says was the real cause of the war, the real purpose they were going to war.

Ms. RADNOFSKY: Yes.

CONAN: And what was the real purpose they were going to war, he said?

Ms. RADNOFSKY: Well, he isn't close enough to the president to be able to tell you that for sure, but as he understands it, it's an idea that started very soon after 9/11 and grew.

CONAN: And the other thing you mentioned, the permanent campaign, McClellan writes. I think that the president was determined to do something that his father had not done, which is to win a second term, and therefore the campaign never stopped. From the day he went into the White House, he was looking ahead to that campaign.

Ms. RADNOFSKY: That's it. And he also says that they relied an awful lot on what had gone before them in the Clinton administration, that they learned their lessons from them. What McClellan finds so disappointing is that they weren't able to do a better job of what he hoped they would have.

CONAN: That phrase, permanent campaign, does go back to the Clinton administration, indeed. On NPR's Day to Day, Scott McClellan's predecessor as White House secretary, Ari Fleischer, spoke to our colleague Alex Chadwick about Scott McClellan's book and let's listen in.

(Soundbite of NPR's Day to Day)

Mr. ARI FLEISCHER (Former Press Secretary, George W. Bush Administration): If Scott thought it was propaganda, then Scott should not have accepted the job as White House Press Secretary. If Scott viewed what the White House was saying was so irresponsible or wrong that it rose to the level of propaganda for him, it's not a job he should have accepted. He should, on principle, have declined it.

ALEX CHADWICK: Did you have any discussions with him about this at the time, about the - what you all were saying about the war in Iraq? About getting ready for it?

Mr. FLEISCHER: I did, and Scott was 100 percent fully on board. Scott helped me prepare for the briefings. Scott and I would talk about what I was going to say. His job should have been to report them to me. He should have said, I wouldn't say that if I were you, Ari, or I'm not so sure I could say that, Ari.

CONAN: That was Ari Fleischer speaking with Alex Chadwick on NPR's Day to Day. I should also mention, tomorrow on NPR's Morning Edition, you could hear Scott McClellan address many of these questions himself in an interview with NPR's Renee Montagne. And a week from today, Scott McClellan would be here with us at the Newseum for an interview. This will be your chance to call in and talk with him. He'll take listeners' calls and questions from the audience, so be sure to join us at that time.

And let me bring you back in, David Folkenflik. This was arranged - this is part of a campaign a lot of publishers try to control, the media rollout of their books. I guess Scott McClellan isn't the next "Harry Potter," but nevertheless, there were a lot of agreements reached with publishers and news organizations, including Talk of the Nation, to say, we'll send you an advance copy of the book, but it's embargoed and you will take your interview in turn when we have agreed to it well in advance. Well, we agreed to it two weeks from now. We're trying to move that up, as you heard. Are these kinds of deals common?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, for a newsworthy book, you know, for highly commercial books like "Harry Potter," they try to build all the excitement so that it builds like a dam and then it bursts, you know, at 12 midnight and three seconds, you know, on the day that the Potter book is released.

You know, a publication date is a pretty loosey-goosey item. You know, you have to ship books in advance. They're big and bulky. They have to be able to put them on the shelves, and you know, the book - actually stores tend to receive them in advance. They're told, in particularly sensitive moments, to hold it back, but you know, not everybody does.

I remember when Jayson Blair, the serial fabricator who had worked at the New York Times, his memoir was out and there was a lot of hype about that. It was interesting getting the story. He'd gone to the University of Maryland at the time I was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, and I went to eight book stores until I've found a superstore that had one and I bought it. His lawyer sent a very cute note explaining how we were going to be sued for all sorts of things, but you know, if you can find the book on the shelves, you can buy it.

CONAN: Louise Radnofsky, you and reporters for the New York Times, the Washington Post and Politico, the website, all happen to come across it in bookstores here in Washington last night.

Ms. RADNOFSKY: I didn't know if it was the same bookstore, but yes.

CONAN: It's very interesting. Let me ask you, Ken Rudin. There's another quote from Dan Bartlett. He was a White House communications director who said if he, speaking of Scott McClellan, if he thinks he's going to ingratiate himself to his critics, he's sorely mistaken and unfortunately, the only friends he had he just lost.

KEN RUDIN: Well, that's probably true, and obviously, he's releasing the book now as opposed to next year when people will be less interested. I think one thing that this could certainly affect is perhaps John McCain's campaign, and I think that everywhere John McCain goes, he will be asked this question, certainly in the next couple of days. Yesterday, John McCain and President Bush were at this fundraiser in Arizona, and obviously, John McCain has this interesting kind of relationship with the president. He needs him to raise the money, but at the same time, he wants to distance himself from these kinds of questions.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a listener in on the conversation. By the way, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And this is Sara, Sara's with us from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

SARA (Caller): Yes. I just have a question for your guests. Basically, why did Scott McClellan write this book? I mean, was it because his conscience got the best of him, he was tired of lying, he felt like he had blood on his hands? Does he ever answer in this book any of those questions of why now? Why come clean now?

CONAN: Louise Radnofsky?

Ms. RADNOFSKY: He does try to describe it as a kind of atonement. It's up to you to decide whether or not he actually means that. I think a lot of people in Washington are asking exactly that question, including many of his former colleagues at the White House.

CONAN: What - and thanks very much for the call, Sara. There are some people who think that - and by the way, he's very critical of the Bush administration's handling of the Katrina disaster, and said that basically the White House was in denial for the whole first week after the storm hit. He also blames Karl Rove, the president's, well, very close advisor, for suggesting the idea of that flyover in which a lot of people really thought the president looked out of touch as he flew over, pictures of him in all the newspapers the next day looking out of the window of Air Force One down at the devastation below him in New Orleans. But going back to the Valerie Plame incident, does Scott McClellan feels as if he was lied to, and then - he was then telling lies inadvertently to the media?

Ms. RADNOFSKY: Yes, and at some point, he seems to have realized that, and the book is his way of finally trying to set the record straight. I think the question a lot of people are asking is, why should we believe him now?

CONAN: The - one of the questions, of course, about the Valerie Plame affair was, who leaked the name of the CIA agent? And one of the things he suggests is that Karl Rove and Skip - Scooter Libby, who later got convicted on this charge, had a meeting about this at the White House, two people who ordinarily didn't meet.

Ms. RADNOFSKY: That's exactly what he says. He says they went behind closed doors at a time when it was unusual for them to do so.

CONAN: Very interesting. We're talking with...

FOLKENFLIK: McClellan...

CONAN: Go ahead, David.

FOLKENFLIK: I'm sorry to interrupt, but McClellan did something interesting at the time. In an effort to quail the goring scandal when it was being variously reported and rumored that Scooter Libby, who was, of course, the powerful chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, and Karl Rove, the president's chief political advisor, you know, had been involved in these leaks, you know, McClellan went back and he didn't simply say, you know, they say they weren't involved.

He said, listen, it's ridiculous, and I went back and I even talked to them and they say they weren't involved and I can tell you this didn't happen. They weren't involved. So he kind of personally vouched for them, beyond serving as a conduit for their response in a way that ultimately utterly eroded his credibility with the press corps. There's certainly an element where he had to account for that. I interviewed him at the time about that, and he seemed anguished that the fact that he was taking - that reporters couldn't trust him.

After all, he felt he had known them for years, starting with the campaign in '99, and that he said that there was a level of trust that's been built up, and of course, as Mike McCurry, who had been press secretary for President Clinton and others who have worked in the White House, said, you know, as a press secretary, all you really have is your credibility. And the question is, you know, is it going to be publicly eroded like that when it is - it becomes very hard to continue? He then stepped down the next spring.

I think it's worth making one other point, which is what McClellan has done, to my mind, is served to strip away a lot of the artifice of certainty, the idea that everybody was on message not because it was a message, but because it was clearly true that it was factual, that the claims being made for the justifications for war, the claims being made in the ensuing Valerie Plame scandal, were the result of careful consideration. It's clear that there wasn't - how to put it, there wasn't unanimity internally. Ari Fleischer says, why wasn't this raised at the time? But that wasn't the trait that was rewarded inside the Bush White House, and this appears to be by McClellan's account, the result.

CONAN: David Folkenflik, NPR's media correspondent. Also with us is Louise Radnofsky of the Wall Street Journal, and of course, NPR's political junkie, Ken Rudin. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get another caller in. This is Eve, Eve's with us from Raleigh in North Carolina.

EVE (Caller): Hi. I read a brief article, you know, this morning on this book, and I thought that I read that he had mentioned in his book that he was - he was disappointed with the media, that the Washington media was too soft on the Bush administration during the run-up to the Iraq war. Doesn't that imply that he was almost standing up there looking at them saying, hello, there's something wrong here, I'm not going to say it out loud, but why isn't anyone asking?

Doesn't that imply that he - and I haven't obviously read the book, but it sounded to me that he knew. He knew there was something serious, right? And he was waiting for someone else to stand up and ask those hard questions, because he wasn't going to say anything, but no one was asking the hard questions. And it sounded like he was, you know - he was questioning why the - and blaming the media for not asking those hard questions.

CONAN: At the time in the run-up to the Iraq war, he was the deputy press secretary. Ari Fleischer was still press secretary.

EVE: I'm sorry.

CONAN: That's OK. But he does call, in the book, Louise, he calls the media - was it "complicit enablers"?

Ms. RADNOFSKY: That's the phrase he uses. He actually denies something that's often bandied about, and this is very interesting. He says that there's no such thing as a liberal media bias. What he does go on to say is that the liberal media, or media, wasn't doing its job properly and he blames them for that.

CONAN: What about his role? I mean, obviously the defense of the war, as it then did not turn out to be the mission accomplished that it was claimed to be by the Bush administration earlier. Does he say that that same kind of attitude continued in the White House press office?

Ms. RADNOFSKY: He mostly focuses on the run-up to the war.

CONAN: Mostly on the run-up to the war. Thanks very much for the call, Eve.

EVE: Thank you.

CONAN: And I just want to ask you also, as you look at the book, what is his relationship with the media like? Is he, as you suggest, trying to come back after all this time? He's really the first member of the Bush administration to come back and break ranks with this degree of candor, a quality he says was notably absent at the White House.

Ms. RADNOFSKY: He is. I think it's notable that there are very few members of the media who're actually named in the book, which may be disappointing to people in D.C., who like to flip to the index first and see if they're there.

CONAN: David Folkenflik mentioned?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Probably Ken Rudin's in there, a lot about Ken Rudin. Louise Radnofsky, thanks very much for being with us and for running over after you finished the book. Appreciate it. Louise Radnofsky has read Scott McClellan's new book, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception." Again, you can hear an interview with Scott McClellan tomorrow on Morning Edition. That would be by Renee Montagne. He'll also be with us here at the Newseum a week from today to take your questions and calls about what happened at the White House. Ken Rudin, thanks very much for being with us today.

RUDIN: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And of course, David Folkenflik joined us from New York. NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik, thanks very much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

CONAN: Our broadcast today was produced by David Gura. Drew Reynolds was our technical director. He got help today from Nathan Bark (ph), Shawn Phillips (ph), and Jerry Tennent. We'd also like to thank the entire team here at the Newseum for their hospitality. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in the Knight Studio at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

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