WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan charges in an explosive new book that President George W. Bush used propaganda to sell the Iraq war, prompting angry rebukes from current and former Bush aides.
“In the permanent campaign era, it was all about manipulating sources of public opinion to the president’s advantage,” wrote McClellan, the first Bush insider to write a book criticizing his former boss and fellow Texan.
It was a dramatic break from the close-knit Bush inner circle by the mild-mannered, 40-year-old McClellan and it drew instant condemnations on Wednesday from former White House colleagues who wondered why he stayed in the job.
“If he thinks he’s going to ingratiate himself to his critics, he’s sorely mistaken, and unfortunately, the only friends he had, he just lost,” said Dan Bartlett, who served as White House counselor.
McClellan, in “What Happened — Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception,” presents himself as a one-time true Bush believer who mistakenly fell in line behind “the campaign to sell the war” in Iraq.
McClellan, who had argued strenuously from the White House podium on why the war was justified, wrote that Bush and his top aides conducted a “political propaganda campaign” that misled Americans and that Bush led the crisis in a way that “almost guaranteed that the use of force would become the only feasible option.”
“What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary,” he said.
McClellan called Bush “a man of personal charm, wit, and enormous political skill,” and “plenty smart enough to be president,” while sprinkling criticism of him throughout the 341-page book.
His operating style, said McClellan, was to remain “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 where Iraq was concerned.”
McClellan was replaced as White House press secretary in 2006 by Tony Snow, and Snow gave way to Dana Perino about a year ago.
Many in the White House were stunned by the book. Perino blasted McClellan.
“Scott, we now 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 wrote in an e-mail to reporters.
Later, she told reporters that Bush was puzzled and disappointed. “He doesn’t recognize this as the Scott McClellan he hired and confided in and worked with so many years,” she said.
The Iraq war was fought over charges that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction based on intelligence that later proved to be faulty. Bush began building the case for war in 2002 after the upheaval caused by the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Bush, at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, ignored the book and instead sought Americans’ patience for the prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But former McClellan associates were livid.
“Here’s a guy who rode the president’s coattails to the world stage and now is (urinating) on his political grave, all the way to the bank,” said former White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy.
Bartlett said McClellan was drawing broad conclusions from decisions in meetings that he did not attend. In the run-up to the war, McClellan was a deputy press secretary dealing with domestic affairs.
“Whatever misgivings Scott now proclaims to have, he never shared with anybody, publicly or privately with his closest friends in the White House, which can only leave you scratching your head about the timing of a book right before the president leaves office,” Bartlett said.
Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said he was “heartbroken and stumped” by the book.
“If Scott felt this, why didn’t he ever come to me privately and express it, or why did he take the press secretary job if he thought the president and the White House were disseminating propaganda?” Fleischer said.
McClellan had harsh words for many of the president’s team. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was deft at protecting her reputation “even when the problems related to matters under her direct purview,” he wrote.
Former Bush adviser Karl Rove was “the kind of person who would be willing, in the heat of battle, to push the envelop to the limit of what is permissible ethically or legally,” McClellan wrote.
And he said the news media was too deferential to the White House and served as “complicit enablers.”
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky and Claudia Parsons; editing by Vicki Allen