Who Did He Serve?

Scott McClellan on Bush, bipartisanship, loyalty, and duty

Who Did He Serve?
Photo courtesy of White House

A third-generation child of a family always in the public spotlight. A frat boy who went into the family business of living on the campaign trail. A veteran of Texas bipartisan politics who traveled from the Governor's Mansion to the White House, a journey few early observers expected to see.

The similarities between George W. Bush and Scott McClellan, who served as Bush's spokesman when he was governor, candidate, and president, are sometimes greater than the differences. But now the schism between the two over his memoir, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception, has put the Austin-born and -raised McClellan at the heart of the debate about the current and future presidencies.

But when McClellan called the Chronicle from Washington, D.C., last week, his first thought was about someone else from his White House years. "I don't know if you've just heard about Tim Russert," he asked. The NBC News Washington Bureau chief's death had been announced only hours earlier. "Reality sinks in when something like that happens." Of course, McClellan is back in the public arena because of the self-contemplation in his new book, which he will be discussing at BookPeople this Saturday. "I was born in politics. Most people choose it, but I was born into it," he recalled. "I dedicated this book to those who serve, and none more so than those who want to get involved in politics. They will be able to learn some lessons from my painful experiences."

McClellan's description of his time in the White House centers on three key events leading to his exit: the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, and the Valerie Plame episode (aka "Plamegate"). He calls the invasion of Iraq a mistake, and "one of the most damaging aspects of embracing a permanent campaign mentality." For McClellan, the war exemplified a compartmentalized, secretive White House that deceived itself and then the world. Bush's advisers looked only for justifications for war, and then sold them like election promises. In that policy, McClellan said, "A fundamental mistake was that we didn't approach it with openness and forthrightness when we went before the American people."

Secondly, as McClellan sees it, the administration's impotence and inaction in response to the devastation of the Gulf Coast sealed its political fate. "Until that point, a lot of Amer­i­cans were starting to think, 'We can't trust this White House, because of what they said going into Iraq.' And then Katrina comes along, and they start going, 'Whoa, they can't even handle this terrible natural disaster at home very well; no wonder they can't get things under control in Iraq.' So it became this issue of competence, in addition to the issue of trust."

Deputy White House press secretary Scott McClellan and President George W. Bush work on a press statement in friendlier times.
Deputy White House press secretary Scott McClellan and President George W. Bush work on a press statement in friendlier times. (Photo courtesy of White House)

Finally, it was the administration's deliberate leaking of the identity of active CIA agent Valerie Plame that was the greatest personal blow to McClellan – because the leak originated from people he knew and had trusted. "I became disillusioned when I found [Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove] had been involved and had misled me, and I found not too long after that that [Assistant to the President] Scooter Libby had as well. Now I didn't know Scooter as well as I did Karl, but I still participated in meetings with them and sat across from them in senior staff [meetings]." It wasn't simply that Rove lied to his face, but that Rove's duplicity left McClellan feeding the same lie to those he saw as his ultimate employers: the American public. Then things got worse. "The big disillusioning moment, and there were a few in between, was nine months later when I found the president had secretly authorized disclosure of the National Intelligence Estimate. We had decried for years the selective leaking of intelligence information, and here I found out he had actually done that."


Turning the Page

So why a book, and why now? Though it might seem longer, it has only been a little more than two years since McClellan left the White House. McClellan recalls it was actually his predecessor as press secretary, Ari Fleischer, who suggested he write a memoir. (Fleischer, who wrote his own book, Taking Heat, told National Public Radio he was "heartbroken" by McClellan's.) But his first step was to take some time off. "When you're there as spokesman, you're there to advocate for and defend the president's policies and decisions; you're not speaking for yourself," he said. "I'd worked for the president for about 7½ years and the White House nearly 5½, and I needed time to decompress, get away from it all, and clear my head."

McClellan began writing in July 2007, and says he delayed the book's release "because I wanted to make sure I got my perspective right." Amid accusations it was influenced by his editors or, as Rove charged, reads like the work of "a left-wing blogger," McClellan has one strong defender for it being all his own work: his mother, Carole Keeton Strayhorn. "I know he wrote every word of that book because he has been e-mailing it to me for months and months in bits," she said. "I would put in commas or periods or correct a typo, and he'd say, 'You know, Mom, I do have an editor.'" So how does the former state comptroller to then-Gov. Bush feel about her son's revelations? "I could not be prouder of Scott. I'm always proud of all my four sons, but I've never been prouder than now." It's not the runaway success of the book, she says: After all, in a family of high-achievers, Scott has already set a heady standard by becoming White House press secretary. Instead, she refers to what she told Scott's brother, Mark. "I said, 'I don't know if he'll sell a single copy, and I don't care if he sells a handful.' I said, 'It's good for him, because he knows who he is.'"

It's not simply a personal autobiography or an attack on the Washington way of doing things, and it's definitely not a shocking exposé of hidden Bush secrets. It is, McClellan hopes, an insider's view of how Bush's White House team played the Washington game harder, mean­er, and more destructively than any previous administration. "When I was initially looking at responsibility, I was looking everywhere else; but responsibility lies first and foremost with the president. No one has a greater bully pulpit and platform from which to make the kind of change that is needed in Washington."

He hopes the book becomes a lesson, for any future administration, of never taking power for granted, or never treating an election victory as carte blanche: That may be his greatest accusation against Bush, and his source of greatest disappointment. "One of the key things I wanted to focus on," he said, "was how did this popular, bipartisan governor, at 70 percent-plus approval ratings for much of his tenure in Texas, become one of the most polarizing and unpopular presidents?"


Texas Uniter, American Divider

Much of the criticism directed at McClellan is simple: once a Bush man, always a Bush man. But any close observer of Texas politics remembers that the partisan Bush presidency grew out of a bipartisan Bush governorship. Republican Bush often worked in close concert with the state's two ranking Democrats: House Speaker Pete Laney and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. That spirit of outreach was part of what attracted McClellan, a longtime Republican but a self-proclaimed centrist, to Bush. Bullock "used to say the campaigning stops, and now it's time to do what's right for Texas," McClellan said, and he thought that the lieutenant governor's influence had rubbed off on the governor.

Scott, age 4, casts his vote in a ballot box set up in the family's back yard by his mother.
Scott, age 4, casts his vote in a ballot box set up in the family's back yard by his mother. (Photo courtesy of Scott McClellan)

Laney, now retired and growing cotton in West Texas, believes that state constitutional checks and balances kept Gov. Bush constrained. "The governor of Texas has three powers under the Constitution – the power to make appointments, the power to veto legislation, and the power to call a special session," said Laney. "The House can bust his veto, the Senate can bust his confirmation, and if he calls a special session, we don't have to show up. So a governor is pretty well forced to work with the leadership in the House and the Senate."

For Laney, the first signs of a change in the Texas political culture came when Bush became governor. "If you go back and look," he said, "you'll see quite a few quotes about the change of power, that members had to build political capital. I'd never heard that in my 30-something years in the legislative process, that someone would have to build political capital by voting against their district."

To U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, who first went to Congress the same year that Bush picked up the keys to the Governor's Mansion, "Genuine bipartisanship is when you give a little, you get a little. You work out a way where there can be a win-win, where differing viewpoints are reflected, and you go away a little happy and a little unhappy. The George Bush version of bipartisanship is Zell Miller. It's the idea that you get one nominal Democrat to make it appear like you have a compromise solution."

Gov. Bush was also bipartisan when he couldn't get his own way. In 1999, he wanted to slash the proposed Children's Health Insurance Program budget, removing 200,000 children from CHIP eligibility: He was defeated by House Democrats. When he finally signed the bill, he sold it on the campaign trail as a bipartisan victory. As Rep. Glen Maxey, D-Aus­tin, told the Chronicle at the time, "It's shameless to take credit for something he wasn't supporting."

So, does Laney regret being the man who, from the floor of the Texas House, introduced President-elect Bush as "a leader we can trust and respect"? "I was speaking for the moment, so I don't want to look back," he said. "I still had a legislative process, and he was fixing to be our president."

As with the Bush foreign policy failures, McClellan blames the advisers for the tactics that promulgated partisanship, but he does place ultimate responsibility on the president. He sees the president's competitive personality as a factor but sees a key lesson for the president in how George H.W. Bush won and lost the presidency. "His father ran a pretty bare-knuckle campaign because his advisers said he had to in order to win the presidency in '88. When he came into office, he tried to go back to what his more natural self was, with a more civil discourse, but the bad blood carried over from that campaign. Of course, he was defeated for a second term, and I think the president [GWB] made a decision and said, 'Look, my father didn't play the game the way it's played in Washington, and that's the reason he lost. I'm going to play the game the way it is played.'"

McClellan and his successor as White House press secretary, former Fox News host Tony Snow, flank the president.
McClellan and his successor as White House press secretary, former Fox News host Tony Snow, flank the president. (Photo courtesy of White House)

This was the root of the Bush permanent campaign that Washington only propagated. A Bush governorship hemmed in by the Texas Constitution became a Bush presidency unleashed by the might granted the office by the U.S. Constitution, and McClellan was one of a long list of Bushies who rode the campaign bus to Washington. Texans like White House Coun­sel Harriet Miers, Attorney General Alber­to Gonzales, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh, presidential counselors Dan Bartlett and Karen Hughes, and honorary Texans like Chief of Staff Andrew Card, Secretary of State Condo­leezza Rice, and Karl Rove. There they met determined Texas GOP water carriers like Sen. John Cornyn and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay – and planned for the eternal Republican majority, without ever leaving the campaign bubble.

Calling the homemade kitchen cabinet "well-intentioned," McClellan argues they were too close to the president for too long. "He needed more diversity of views; he needed more change within the White House and in other key positions, rather than a solidifying of the views that marched too much in lockstep with his own thinking." He accepts that, as a campaign pro turned presidential staffer, this was also his sin. "By the time I became press secretary, I'd already served 2½ years. I thought two years would probably be my max as press secretary, and I ended up closer to three," he said. The second term, he argues, became even more closed off than the first, as familiar names floated between offices, and the opportunity for new blood and new thinking was lost. "It was almost a strengthening of this loyalty to the administration. Colin Powell left; Condi Rice was put at the State Department; Andy Card continued, even though he tried to talk the president into making some changes; and a lot of other positions – like he elevated Al Gonzales to the Justice Department. It was this mentality that it wasn't change; it was reinforcing exactly what the president wanted from his team."


A History of Schism

McClellan is not the first of the Bush entourage to write a book about his split from the White House. Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill worked with reporter Ron Suskind on 2004's The Price of Loyalty. In the same year, Richard Clarke, counterterrorism adviser to four presidents, was heavily critical of the administration in his memoir, Against All Enemies. Before either, there was John DiIulio, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In an open letter to Suskind in 2002, DiIulio called the Bush kitchen cabinet "tight-knit and 'Texas'" and dedicated to the permanent campaign. DiIulio wrote, "In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues." McClellan confirms DiIulio's portrayal of a secretive, compartmentalized White House dedicated to re-election and how it made his job impossible. He said, "Some of the more consequential decisions were being made in a very small group, maybe two or three people with the president. So I didn't have a clear idea of some of the motivations behind some of those decisions, and I had to rely on what I was provided and what I was told."

Other prominent members of the Bush kitchen cabinet have more quietly detached themselves from the administration. Former Bush campaign chief strategist Matthew Dowd, another Austinite, slowly drifted away because he was concerned about the presidential bubble. In 2007, he told The New York Times that he had almost written an op-ed called "Kerry Was Right" but had backed away from such open criticism.

But there were key differences between these two groups. Clarke, DiIulio, and O'Neill were, in DiIulio's words about himself, "not at all a close 'insider' but ... very much on the inside." Dowd, by contrast, was part of the ingrown Texas crowd that traveled with Governor, not President, Bush. They represented those who had been personally loyal to Bush the man. This makes McClellan unique: the first major insider and Texas holdover who has broken so publicly, so extensively, and so analytically with the administration.

James Moore, co-author with Wayne Slater of two biographies of Karl Rove (Bush's Brain and The Architect), is not surprised this landmark belongs to McClellan. He said, "The people that had gone up from Texas, and all the Bush family friends, if you'd have vetted them, the one most likely to write this kind of book would be Scotty." In part, he theorizes, that comes down to his highly political, highly educated background, growing up on the campaign trail. "His family aren't exactly slugs," Moore said. After treating McClellan as an unquestioning mouthpiece, he argues, the Bushies have no one to blame but themselves. "Their misjudgment of Scott is iconic of their misjudgment of everything."


Shooting the Messenger

McClellan bids farewell to the press corps at his final official briefing May 5, 2006.
McClellan bids farewell to the press corps at his final official briefing May 5, 2006. (Photo courtesy of White House)

The attacks upon McClellan were to be expected, ranging from personality smears via the White House to attacks from the left for not coming forward sooner. According to another Austinite, ex-Bush media consultant and Public Strategies honcho Mark McKinnon, it's a simpler issue. "I think it's a violation of the professional code of ethics, and I thought it was the case when George Stephanopoulos wrote his book about Clinton," he said. "I just don't think you should kiss and tell."

Even muted critics like Dowd were pilloried from all sides. "Matthew says that the thing that stunned him was not that you would have this official response from the team and the allies, but that he was attacked from the other side as well," said Slater, senior political writer for The Dallas Morning News and a longtime Bush watcher. Just as Dowd was savaged by reporter and former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal – for keeping "a strange kind of post-betrayal omertà" – McClellan has been attacked for doing too little, too late. "He's a person with no country," said Slater.

But while he agrees with some critics that McClellan may have been delinquent in waiting so long, Slater warns against being too harsh. "If we continue to pillory the people who hold up truth to power, especially if they were part of the inner circle, what's the message to people in the future? It's basically, keep your mouth shut."

McClellan understands the charges from both sides: He let the media down then and the administration down now. "The White House press corps often had a hard time trying to get through a very thick and tall wall that this White House put up, sometimes a wall that I was on the other side of myself," he said. As for his former colleagues, he sees them "as well-intentioned, but [they] refuse to look back and come to terms with the realities of the situation." The first step, he argues, may be the hardest personally. "You've got to be able to separate your personal fondness for the president from his policies and governance and leadership."


Beyond Bush

So what now for McClellan? First, there is his scheduled appearance before the House Judiciary Committee on June 20, then finishing his book tour. Still only 40, he has to make decisions about his career that, for the first time in almost two decades, does not involve campaigning or Bush. "I'm entering unknown territory here," he said.

But his greater concern, he says, is his hope the book may play some small role in improving political life. "I've been surprised by how many people across the country are appreciating that larger message about moving beyond the partisan warfare, to restore bipartisanship and candor and civility to the process in Washington," he said. "Some people say we can't, but I'm optimistic that it's a matter of time until we do."

McClellan has some advice for any future press secretary. "First and foremost, they need to ask the question, 'Will I be able to attend any meeting I choose to at any time I choose to attend?'" Without that access, the chief policy mouthpiece for the administration can never know who on his own team is lying to him, and to the American people. "That's who you ultimately serve, and it's important not to lose sight of that."

Scott McClellan will be signing copies of his autobiography, What Happened, at BookPeople at 3pm on Saturday, June 21. See "The Mentality of Politics as War" for a full transcript of Richard Whittaker's interview of McClellan.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Scott McClellan, George W. Bush, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Iraq war, Valerie Plame

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