WASHINGTON — In a White House full of Bush loyalists, none was more loyal than Scott McClellan, the bland press secretary who spread the company line for all the government to follow each day. His word, it turns out, was worthless, his confessional memoir a glimpse into Washington's world of spin and even outright deception.
Instead of effective government, Americans were subjected to a "permanent campaign" that was "all about manipulating sources of public opinion to the president's advantage," McClellan writes in What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception, a book stunning for its harsh criticism of Bush. "Presidential initiatives from health care programs to foreign invasions are regularly devised, named, timed and launched with one eye (or both eyes) on the electoral calendar."
Governing by endless campaigning is not a new phenomenon, but it accelerated during the tumultuous Clinton White House and then the war-shaken years of Bush's tenure.
Bush's presidency "wandered and remained so far off course by excessively embracing the permanent campaign and its tactics," McClellan writes. He says Bush relied on an aggressive "political propaganda campaign" instead of the truth to sell the Iraq war.
"It was such a hyped-up effort to frame the problem and the choices in a way that really didn't do justice to the complexity of the arguments, the intelligence," said Thomas Mann, author of The Permanent Campaign. Though all presidents try to "control the message," he said, "it was really a way of preventing that discussion. It just had enormously harmful consequences. I think they carried it to a level not heretofore seen."
Each day, Bush and his administration make an extraordinary effort to control information and make sure the White House message is spread across the government and beyond. The line is set at early-morning senior staff meetings at the White House, then transmitted in e-mails, conference calls, faxes and meetings. Lawmakers get the administration talking points. So do friendly interest groups.
In September 2002, Bush's chief economic adviser, Larry Lindsey, ran afoul of the president's rules by saying the cost of a possible war with Iraq could be somewhere between $100-billion and $200-billion. Bush was irritated and made sure that Lindsey was told his comments were unacceptable. Within four months, Lindsey had resigned.
McClellan ardently defended Bush's decision to invade Iraq and the conduct of his presidency over the course of nearly 300 briefings in two years and 10 months. Now, two years after leaving the White House and eager to make money on his book, McClellan concludes Bush turned away from candor and honesty and misled the country about the reasons for the war.
It wasn't about Saddam Hussein's supposed weapons of mass destruction, McClellan writes. It was Bush's fervor to transform the Middle East through the spread of democracy. "The Iraq war was not necessary," writes McClellan, who never hinted at doubts while press secretary.
McClellan writes that Bush's team sold the Iraq war by ignoring or discarding contradictory evidence, down-playing or dropping caveats or qualifications to arguments and playing up a dubious al-Qaida connection.
"We were more focused on creating a sense of gravity and urgency about the threat from Saddam Hussein than governing on the basis of the truths of the situation," McClellan wrote.
McClellan says his words as press secretary were sincere but he has come to realize that "some of them were badly misguided. … I've tried to come to grips with some of the truths that life inside the White House bubble obscured."
Former top Bush aide Karl Rove told Fox News Channel, "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."
Press secretary Dana Perino relayed the reaction of Bush himself: "He's puzzled, he doesn't recognize this as the Scott McClellan that he hired and confided in and worked with for so many years."