White House press secretaries are usually the most loyal of staffers, even after they leave office. They owe their fame and upward mobility to the presidents who appointed them, so they tend to remain supportive of their bosses no matter what. Not so with Scott McClellan. His new book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception, is a broadside not only against the policies of the administration he once spoke for but also against President George W. Bush himself. In two decades of covering the presidency, I've never seen a former press secretary turn against his patrons so dramatically and so thoroughly. At a Smithsonian seminar, four past press secretaries—Tony Snow, Joe Lockhart, Marlin Fitzwater, and Jody Powell—said they believed that once you are part of a White House "family," you should always stay true to it.
How things have changed. Those who know McClellan say he is still bitter that he was forced out of his job in 2006 and that his reputation was damaged because he unwittingly repeated untruths about some key stories, including the involvement of senior officials in leaking the name of a cia operative and the case for pre-emptive war in Iraq. McClellan says higher-ups led him astray. He knows that credibility is the core requirement of any public spokesman, and he now acknowledges that his credibility was shattered because he was so gullible. This comes as no surprise to many who covered him. After interviewing McClellan regularly for his nearly three years as Bush's chief spokesman, it was clear to me that he failed to insist on the kind of top-level access and policymaker status granted his predecessors.
McClellan's charges are, predictably, being dismissed by Bush operatives as the rantings of a "disgruntled" former staffer who wants to sell his book, which rocketed to No. 1 on the Amazon.com bestseller list. And it's also true, as Bush loyalists say, that if he was so troubled by what was going on, he should have spoken up or resigned at the time. The Bush crowd is especially angry that he criticized the president for bad judgment, lack of intellectual inquisitiveness, and using "propaganda" rather than candor to push the country into war.
McClellan is talking bluntly about his powerful former cohorts despite the likely consequences. He had to know that his book would cause Bush loyalists to declare war on him, and that's exactly what is happening.