Political world abuzz over McClellan's book

Times Staff Writers

For years here and in Texas, Scott McClellan was the consummate loyalist, exhibiting faithful, unquestioning devotion to his boss, George W. Bush. As White House press secretary, he scrappily presented the administration's talking points on everything from domestic policy to the Iraq war.

No longer.

In a new memoir, McClellan has presented chapter after chapter of accusations that some of the administration's most senior officials regularly lied to the public, conducted a "permanent campaign" to advance Republican political interests and managed the debate leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq in a way that "almost guaranteed that the use of force would become the only feasible option."

Though criticism from a former official is not unheard of, such sharp words from someone like McClellan set the political world aswirl Wednesday, stirred outrage in the blogosphere and drew a tart but wounded brushoff from the White House. President Bush, however, maintained a public silence.

The title of McClellan's 323-page account said it all: "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception." And the outcry surrounding the disclosure of its contents went on and on.

Cable TV news shows competed to grab Bush allies and enemies to chatter about the McClellan they knew. On CNN, Dan Bartlett, Bush's former counselor who worked with McClellan for nearly a decade, said the onetime spokesman gave voice to "an outrageous accusation that mostly was coming from the left wing of the Democratic Party."

Former White House political strategist Karl Rove, reacting to an assertion that senior officials had misled McClellan on the legal problems of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, told Fox News:

"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."

"It's really disgusting," said one Texas Republican who has known McClellan for a decade -- and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because "I don't want to get down in the gutter with the guy."

"He was nothing before he was hired by Bush," the Texan said.

Others couldn't decide whether to give McClellan a verbal spanking for his disloyalty or applaud him for expressing complaints that they too had harbored.

As for the Democrats, Barack Obama's presidential campaign quickly found material that fit its message, citing McClellan's report as yet another reason to ask: "Do we continue George Bush's failed policy in Iraq or do we change it?"

So just what was it about this end-of-an-administration tell-all that turned it into an instant topic for a TV talkathon?

"It is the drama of somebody who owed everything to the Bush administration in terms of his visibility and status in Washington" turning on his master, said Linda L. Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. "It is more about the political drama of the Bush White House slowly self-destructing" than about the policies of that White House.

Dana Perino, Bush's current press secretary, offered a part-starchy, part-sympathetic appraisal. In a statement delivered to reporters in Colorado, where the president was about to speak at the U.S. Air Force Academy commencement, she said: "Scott, we know, is disgruntled about his experience at the White House.

"For those of us who fully supported him before, during and after he was press secretary, we are puzzled. It is sad -- this is not the Scott we knew," she said.

Later, she said Bush was "puzzled" by McClellan's account. "He doesn't recognize this as the Scott McClellan that he hired and confided in and worked with for so many years," Perino said, adding that Bush was "disappointed that, if he had these concerns and these thoughts, he never came to him or anyone else on the staff that we know of."

"It's just a sad situation," she said.

The White House had no official comment on the allegations themselves.

As for the man at the center of the storm -- the 40-year-old, moon-faced, tennis-playing, Diet Coke-drinking McClellan -- there was silence when confronted by a TV crew in his suburban Virginia neighborhood: He was under contract, he explained, to deliver exclusive comments today on a morning TV show.

That may have given at least one blogger on the conservative website www.hotair.com an "I-told-you-so" moment. "What's the point, except to cash out?" the blog poster said. Financial details on the book are not known.

In a broad indictment of the culture of Washington and national politics, McClellan said deception "permeates our national political discourse" and has "become an accepted way of winning the partisan wars for public opinion."

He wrote that he had placed "great hope" in Bush to change that culture: "He chose not to do so. . . . Instead, his own White House became embroiled in political maneuvering that was equally unsavory, if not worse" than that of the Clinton White House.

Specifically, McClellan accused Rove and Libby of actively deceiving him during the investigation into the 2003 exposure of then-CIA operative Valerie Plame. He wrote that his credibility suffered after, as White House spokesman, he issued public denials early in the investigation that either Rove or Libby was involved.

Libby eventually was convicted of obstruction of justice for lying about what he had told reporters about Plame; Rove was investigated for two years and acknowledged speaking with reporters about the operative but was never charged with a crime.

McClellan wrote that he spoke to reporters only after both men had assured him privately that they were not involved in leaking Plame's name.

"I can only conclude that they knowingly misled me," he wrote. "I would never have made that statement had I known the facts."

McClellan wrote that "what they did was wrong and harmful to national security" and said that it was "clear to me that Scooter Libby was guilty of the perjury and obstruction crimes for which he was convicted."

Libby was sentenced to 30 months in prison in 2007, but Bush commuted the sentence, a move that McClellan said left him "disappointed."

McClellan said he had also been personally assured by Bush that Rove was not involved in the leak.

"President Bush would not have deliberately misled me," McClellan wrote. "While I wish I could say the same about the vice president, I simply don't know for sure."

Libby's lawyer declined to comment.

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james.gerstenzang @latimes.com

rick.schmitt@latimes.com

Times staff writer Johanna Neuman contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

EXCERPTS FROM MCCLELLAN'S MEMOIR

Lies, rigidity and a lax press

"No single decision caused the wheels to come off the Bush White House. But the way we went about executing the decision to go to war -- from making the case to the public to inadequately planning and preparing for its aftermath as we rushed into it -- sent us badly off track."

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"The president had promised himself that he would accomplish what his father had failed to do by winning a second term. . . . And that meant operating continually in campaign mode: never explaining, never apologizing, never retreating. Unfortunately, that strategy also had less justifiable repercussions: never reflecting, never reconsidering, never compromising. Especially not where Iraq was concerned."

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"I still like and admire George W. Bush. I consider him a fundamentally decent person, and I do not believe he or his White House deliberately or consciously sought to deceive the American people. But he and his advisors confused the propaganda campaign with the high level of candor and honesty so fundamentally needed to build and then sustain public support during a time of war."

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"If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq. The collapse of the administration's rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as such a surprise. . . . The 'liberal media' didn't live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served."

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"I know the president pretty well. I believe that if he had been given a crystal ball in which he could have foreseen the costs of war -- more than 4,000 American troops killed, 30,000 injured, and tens of thousands of innocent Iraqi citizens dead -- he would never have made the decision to invade, despite what he might say or feel he has to say publicly today."

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About the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name to discredit her husband, administration critic Joseph Wilson:

"The top White House officials who knew the truth -- including [Karl] Rove, ["Scooter"] Libby, and possibly Vice President Cheney -- allowed me, even encouraged me, to repeat a lie."

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"It was all too characteristic of an administration that, too often, chose in defining moments to employ obfuscation and secrecy rather than honesty and candor."

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