Scott McClellan burns the Bush administration.

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May 28 2008 8:07 PM

Flack Attack

Scott McClellan burns the Bush administration.

What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception by Scott McClellan

Now he tells us. Scott McClellan's memoir offers more candor in a chapter than he let loose during his three years as the president's spokesman. Often kept in the dark by his boss and, at least in one case, deliberately sent out to mislead the public by his superiors, McClellan writes as if he went home after he left the White House in 2006 and purged. Disgorged onto the pages of What Happened, due out next week, are all of the emotions, regret, and doubt that apparently bottled up even as he eternally presented a sunny, largely unflappable demeanor while on the job selling the president's policies.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Because McClellan was such a team player, the book comes as a bit of a shock to those of us who covered the White House during his tenure. Yes, I knew he was angry at Karl Rove and Scooter Libby for using him to spread the falsehood that they had no role in the CIA leak case. That's in the book: "Top White House officials who knew the truth—including Rove, Libby, and possibly Vice President Cheney—allowed me, even encouraged me, to repeat a lie." But the denunciation expands from there, and it's that breadth I never thought that his memoir would offer. McClellan outlines the "obfuscation, dissembling, and lack of intellectual honesty that helped take our country into the war in Iraq." He suggests the president and his aides were in permanent campaign mode, putting politics above principle, and chronicles how a "state of denial" led to the mishandling of the response to Hurricane Katrina. (He also includes a critique of the press, which he says acted as "deferential, complicit enablers" of Bush administration "propaganda.")

Slate V Video: McClellan scolds an earlier turncoat

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In small ways, McClellan still seems at times like he's working for Bush, correcting misperceptions about the president's smarts and absolving him of intentional wrongdoing in the leak matter. But on all the major fronts, the president is still his biggest target. McClellan had worked for Bush since the president was Texas governor, and so he can show us how the scales gradually fell from his eyes over time. In one bizarre episode, during the period of Bush's presidential campaign when the press was constantly chasing rumors about his possible cocaine use, McClellan hears a conversation in which Bush tells a friend that he can't remember if he tried cocaine when he was younger. At the time, McClellan wonders how the then-governor could not remember such a thing but portrays it now as the first inkling of Bush's penchant for self-deception.

In general, McClellan describes the president as someone who lacks inquisitiveness and is also deceitfully self-delusional. Long money quote: "As I worked closely with President Bush, I would come to believe that sometimes he convinces himself to believe what suits his needs at the moment. It is not unlike a witness in court who does not want to implicate himself in wrongdoing, but is also concerned about perjuring himself. So he says, 'I do not recall.' The witness knows no one can get into his head and prove it is not true, so this seems like a much safer course than actually lying. Bush, similarly, has a way of falling back on the hazy memory defense to protect himself from potential political embarrassment. Bush rationalizes it as being acceptable because he is not stating unequivocally anything that could be proven false. If something later is uncovered to show what he knew, then he can deny lying in his own mind."

McClellan's account adds another set of insider anecdotes to the already heaping stack built by previous Bush officials and advisers. Paul O'Neill first described the president's blindness to inconvenient facts six years ago when he talked about Bush's lack of appetite for "analytical rigor, sound information-gathering techniques and real, cost-benefit analysis." The list of administration officials turned bashers includes John Dilulio, Larry Wilkerson, Rand Beers, Richard Clarke, David Kuo, Paul Pillar, and Matthew Dowd.

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