Bush loyalist turns harsh critic in memoir: Former press secretary says president used propaganda to govern
May 28, 2008, Washington, DC – 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 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.”
The spokesman’s book is called “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.”
The book, which had been scheduled for release on Monday, was being sold by bookstores on Wednesday after the publisher moved up its release. McClellan planned promotional appearances on news talk shows on Thursday.
Governing via endless campaigning is not a new phenomenon, but it accelerated markedly during the tumultuous Clinton White House and then the war-shaken years of the Bush administration. Bush strategist Karl Rove had a strong hand in both politics and governing as overseer of key offices, including not only openly political affairs and long-range strategic planning but as liaison for intergovernmental affairs, focusing on state and local officials.
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.
That’s about right, says Brookings Institution political analyst Thomas Mann, co-author of a book entitled “The Permanent Campaign.”
“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,” Mann said in an interview. 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, underscoring the daily blend of politics and government, 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 for officials to follow is set at early-morning senior staff meetings at the White House, then transmitted in e-mails, conference calls, faxes and meetings. The loop extends to Capitol Hill where lawmakers get the administration talking points. So do friendly interest groups and others.
The aim is to get them all to say the same thing, unwavering from the administration line. Other administrations have tried to do the same thing, but none has been as disciplined as the Bush White House.
It starts at the top
McClellan recounts how Bush, as governor of Texas, spelled out his approach about the press at their very first meeting in 1998. He said Bush “mentioned some of his expectations for his spokespeople — the importance of staying on message; the need to talk about what you’re for, rather than what you are against; how he liked to make the big news on his own time frame and terms without his spokespeople getting out in front of him, and, finally, making sure that public statements were coordinated internally so that everyone is always on the same page and there are few surprises.”
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. “Lindsey had violated the first rule of the disciplined, on-message Bush White House: don’t make news unless you’re authorized to do so,” McClellan wrote.
Within four months, Lindsey was gone, resigning as part of a reshaping of Bush’s economic team.
While message control has been part of many administrations, Mann said that, “They were just tougher and more disciplined about it than anyone else had been.”
‘Political propaganda campaign’
As spokesman, 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 going to 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 any doubts or questioned his talking points when he was press secretary.
McClellan writes that Bush and his team sold the Iraq war by means of a “political propaganda campaign” in which contradictory evidence was ignored or discarded, caveats or qualifications to arguments were downplayed or dropped and “a dubious al-Qaida connection to Iraq was played up.
“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 is not the first presidential spokesman to write a tell-all book, but his is certainly the harshest, at least in recent memory. He 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.”
White House colleagues were stunned, but not lacking for the day’s response. “We are puzzled. It is sad. This is not the Scott we knew,” said Dana Perino, the current press secretary who was first hired by McClellan as a deputy.
Later in the day, she 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.”