What Happened

Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception


By Scott McClellan

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Scott McClellan was one of a few Bush loyalists from Texas who became part of his inner circle of trusted advisers, and remained so during one of the most challenging and contentious periods of recent history. Drawn to Bush by his commitment to compassionate conservatism and strong bipartisan leadership, McClellan served the president for more than seven years, and witnessed day-to-day exactly how the presidency veered off course.

In this refreshingly clear-eyed book, written with no agenda other than to record his experiences and insights for the benefit of history, McClellan provides unique perspective on what happened and why it happened the way it did, including the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, Washington’s bitter partisanship, and two hotly contested presidential campaigns. He gives readers a candid look into who George W. Bush is and what he believes, and into the personalities, strengths, and liabilities of his top aides. Finally, McClellan looks to the future, exploring the lessons this presidency offers the American people as we prepare to elect a new leader.


To those who serve

THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS has always been special to my family and me. My grandfather, the late Page Keeton, was the legendary dean who led its law school to national prominence. I was born and reared in Austin, Texas, where it is located, and earned an undergraduate degree from the university.
I am very familiar with the UT Tower, the main building in the center of campus, with words from the Gospel of John carved in stone above its south entrance: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free."
Those powerful words have always piqued my curiosity, as a person of faith and as an ordinary human being keenly interested in the larger meaning of life. But not until the past few years have I come to truly appreciate their message.
Perhaps God's greatest gift to us in life is the ability to learn from our experiences, especially our mistakes, and grow into better people. That uniquely human quality is rooted in free will and blossoms in our capacity for knowledge, based on understanding the truth—not as we might imagine or wish it to be, but as it is. And that includes recognizing our faults and accepting responsibility for them. Through contrition we find the truth and the freedom that comes with it, even as we improve ourselves and grow closer to the image that God our Creator has in mind for us to become.
My mother, who began her career in public service as a high school civics and history teacher, likes to say, "It is people, not events, that shape history." She couldn't be more right. History is rooted in the choices made by people—flawed, fallible people.
This is a book about the slice of history I witnessed during my years in the White House and about the well-intentioned but flawed human beings—myself included—who shaped that history. I've written it not to settle scores or enhance my own role but simply to record what I know and what I learned in hopes that my account will deepen our understanding of contemporary history, particularly the events that followed the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001.
I began the process of writing this book by putting myself under the microscope. In my efforts on behalf of the presidential administration of George W. Bush I fell far short of living up to the kind of public servant I wanted to be. Having accepted the post of White House press secretary at age thirty-five and possessing scant experience of the Washington power game, I didn't fully understand what I was getting myself into. Today, I understand it much better. This book records the often painful process by which I gained that understanding.
I frequently stumbled along the way and failed in my duty to myself, to the president I served, and to the American people. I tried to play the Washington game according to the current rules and, at times, didn't play it very well. Because I didn't stay true to myself, I couldn't stay true to others. The mistakes were mine, and I've suffered the consequences.
My own story, however, is of small importance in the broad historical picture. More significant is the larger story in which I played a minor role—the story of how the presidency of George W. Bush veered terribly off course.
As press secretary, I spent countless hours defending the administration from the podium in the White House briefing room. Although the things I said then were sincere, I have since come to realize that some of them were badly misguided. In these pages, I've tried to come to grips with some of the truths that life inside the White House bubble obscured.
My friends and former colleagues who lived and worked or are still living and working inside that bubble may not be happy with the perspective I present here. Many of them, I'm sure, remain convinced that the Bush administration has been fundamentally correct in its most controversial policy judgments, and that the dis-esteem in which most Americans currently hold it is undeserved. Only time will tell. But I've become genuinely convinced otherwise.
The episode that became the jumping-off point for this book was the scandal over the leaking of classified national security information—the so-called Plame affair. It originated in a controversy over the intelligence the Bush administration used to make the case that Saddam Hussein's Iraq represented a "grave and gathering danger" that needed to be eliminated. When a covert CIA officer's identity was disclosed during the ensuing partisan warfare, turning the controversy into the latest Washington scandal, I was caught up in the deception that followed. It was the defining moment in my time working for the president, and one of the most painful experiences of my life.
When words I uttered, believing them to be true, were exposed as false, I was constrained by my duties and loyalty to the president and unable to comment. But I promised reporters and the public that I would someday tell the whole story of what I knew. After leaving the White House, I realized that the story was meaningless without an appreciation of the personal, political, and institutional context in which it took place. So the story grew into a book.
Writing it wasn't easy. Some of the best advice I received as I began came from a senior editor at a publishing house that expressed interest in my book. He said the hardest challenge for me would be to keep questioning my own beliefs and perceptions throughout the writing process. His advice was prescient. I've found myself constantly questioning my own thinking, my assumptions, my interpretations of events. Many of the conclusions I've reached are quite different from those I would have embraced at the start of the process. The quest for truth has been a struggle for me, but a rewarding one. I don't claim a monopoly on truth. But after wrestling with my experiences over the past several months, I've come much closer to my truth than ever before.
MANY READERS WILL HAVE COME TO this book out of curiosity about the man who is a leading character in my story, President George W. Bush. You'll learn about my relationship with him and my experiences as part of his team as you read these pages. For now, let me observe that much of what the general public knows about Bush is true. He is a man of personal charm, wit, and enormous political skill. Like many other people, I was inspired to follow him by his disarming personality and by his record as a popular, bipartisan governor who set a constructive tone and got things done for the people. We all hoped and believed he could do the same for the nation.
Certainly the seeds of greatness seemed to be present in the Bush administration. Although Bush attained the White House only after an extended legal battle over the outcome of the 2000 election, he began his presidency with considerable goodwill. He commanded a rare, extended period of national unity following the unimaginable national tragedy that struck our nation in September 2001.
On paper, the team Bush assembled was impressive. Vice President Dick Cheney was a serious, vastly experienced hand in the top levels of government. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had already enjoyed one successful run at the Pentagon and boasted a résumé listing a string of business and government achievements. Secretary of State Colin Powell, an able and widely respected military leader, was easily the most popular public figure in the country and could well have been the first African American president of the United States had he been interested in the job. Even Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, had a powerful reputation as a brilliant strategic thinker who was helping to make the Republican party the nation's greatest political force.
I believed in George W. Bush's leadership and agenda for America, and had confidence in his authenticity, integrity, and judgment. But today the high hopes that accompanied the early days of his presidency have fallen back to earth.
Rumsfeld and Powell are gone, their tenures controversial and disappointing. Vice President Cheney's role is widely viewed as sinister and destructive of the president's legacy. And Rove's reputation for political genius is now matched by his reputation as an operative who places political gain ahead of the national interest.
Through it all, President Bush remains very much the same. He is self-confident, quick-witted, down-to-earth, and stubborn, as leaders sometimes need to be. His manner is authentic, his beliefs sincere. I never knew Lyndon Johnson (another Texan with a stubborn streak whose domestic accomplishments were overshadowed by a controversial war) or Richard Nixon (a president whose historically low poll ratings following Watergate have been rivaled only by Bush's). But according to historians, both men were consumed with defensiveness, anger, and ultimately anguish as their presidencies unraveled under the pressure of war and scandal, respectively. George W. Bush is different. He is very much the man he always was—though not quite the leader I once imagined him to be.
It was the decision to go to war in Iraq that pushed Bush's presidency off course. It was a fateful misstep based on a confluence of events (the shock of 9/11 and our surprisingly—and deceptively—quick initial military success in Afghanistan), human nature (ambition, certitude, and self-deceit), and a divinely inspired passion (President Bush's deeply held belief that all people have a God-given right to live in freedom). For Bush, removing the "grave and gathering danger" that Iraq supposedly posed was primarily a means for achieving the far more grandiose objective of reshaping the Middle East as a region of peaceful democracies.
History appears poised to confirm what most Americans today have decided—that the decision to invade Iraq was a serious strategic blunder. No one, including me, can know with absolute certainty how the war will be viewed decades from now when we can more fully understand its impact. What I do know is that war should only be waged when necessary, and the Iraq war was not necessary.
Waging an unnecessary war is a grave mistake. But in reflecting on all that happened during the Bush administration, I've come to believe that an even more fundamental mistake was made—a decision to turn away from candor and honesty when those qualities were most needed.
Most of our elected leaders in Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike, are good and decent people. Yet too many of them today have made a practice of shunning truth and the high level of openness and forthrightness required to discover it. Most of it is not willful or conscious. Rather it is part of the modern Washington game that has become the accepted norm.
As I explain in this book, Washington has become the home of the permanent campaign, a game of endless politicking based on the manipulation of shades of truth, partial truths, twisting of the truth, and spin. Governing has become an appendage of politics rather than the other way around, with electoral victory and the control of power as the sole measures of success. That means shaping the narrative before it shapes you. Candor and honesty are pushed to the side in the battle to win the latest news cycle.
Of course, deception in politics is nothing new. What's new is the degree to which it now permeates our national political discourse.
Much of it is barely noticeable and seemingly harmless, accepted as par for the course. Most of it is done unconsciously or subconsciously with no malicious intent other than to prevail in the increasingly destructive game of power and influence.
Some of it is self-deceit. Those engaging in it convince themselves to believe what they are saying, though deep down they know candor and honesty are lacking. Instead of checking their political maneuvering at the door when the campaign ends, they retain it as part of the way Washington works. The deception it spawns becomes the cancer on our political discourse, greatly damaging the ability of our elected leaders to govern effectively and do what is best for America.
Too many politicians and their followers have become passionately committed to a preconceived, partisan view of reality that allows little room for compromise or cooperation with the other side. The gray nuances of truth are lost in the black-and-white ideologies both parties embrace. Permanent division, gridlock, and a general inability to constructively address the big challenges we all face inevitably follow.
President Bush, I believe, did not consciously set out to engage in these destructive practices. But like others before him, he chose to play the Washington game the way he found it, rather than changing the culture as he vowed to do at the outset of his campaign for the presidency. And like others before him, he has engaged in a degree of self-deception that may be psychologically necessary to justify the tactics needed to win the political game.
The permanent campaign also ensnares the media, who become complicit enablers of its polarizing effects. They emphasize conflict, controversy, and negativity, focusing not on the real-world impact of policies and their larger, underlying truths but on the horse race aspects of politics—who's winning, who's losing, and why.
In exploring this syndrome and the way it helped damage at least one administration, I've tried to contribute to our understanding of Washington's culture of deception and how we, the American people, can change it.
Although my time in the Bush White House did not work out as I once hoped, my optimism regarding America has been strengthened. I've met many, many people who are eager for positive change and are ready to devote their lives and energies to the future of our country. I still believe, in the words of then-Governor Bush, that it's possible to show "that politics, after a time of tarnished ideals, can be higher and better." I'm convinced that, if we take a clear-eyed look at how our system has gone awry and think seriously about how to fix it, there's nothing we can't achieve.
This book, I hope, will contribute to that national conversation.
APRIL 2008

THROUGHOUT AMERICAN HISTORY, presidential administrations have undergone tumultuous periods of war and scandal. I happened to become White House press secretary at a time when the administration of George W. Bush was going through both, and they were intimately related to each other.
In late May 2003, when the president asked me to begin serving as his chief spokesman in July, I did not fully appreciate just how contentious and venomous the atmosphere in Washington was—and how controversial and polarizing the presidency of George W. Bush was about to become.
By October, less than three months after starting the new job, I was on the front lines defending a White House that was becoming engulfed in a growing scandal on the eve of a reelection campaign that had an increasingly hostile media clamoring and our partisan critics pouncing. For the American public, which had grown weary of the endless investigations and scandals connected with the Clinton presidency, the situation typified the worst of what they saw in Washington.
The emerging narrative in the Washington press was that the White House had deliberately blown the cover of Valerie Plame, a covert CIA official. Administration officials had anonymously leaked her identity to reporters in order to punish (at worst) or discredit (at best) her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was publicly alleging that the administration had misled the country into war in Iraq. News stories suggested that White House aides had disclosed Plame's identity to at least five reporters. A concerted White House effort to disclose her identity would have meant that the officials involved, knowingly or not, had leaked classified national security information.
For nearly two weeks, following the September 29 disclosure of a criminal investigation by the Department of Justice, I vigorously pushed back at the notion that the White House was behind the leak. Even before then, I had bat-ted down any suggestion that my colleague and fellow Texan Karl Rove, a frequent target of our critics as the president's closest adviser, was involved in the leak. Later I added the vice president's chief of staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, to the list of those I defended.
By the daily White House briefing on October 10, I was looking for a way to extricate myself from commenting any further about specifics of the Plame case, which were now part of the recently announced investigation.
The opening I sought came near the end of that Friday's briefing in the form of a question from Victoria Jones, a cordial yet skeptical liberal talk radio journalist and Bush administration critic.
"Scott," Jones said, "earlier this week you told us that neither Karl Rove, Elliott Abrams, nor Lewis Libby disclosed any classified information with regard to the leak. I wondered if you could tell us more specifically whether any of them told any reporter that Valerie Plame worked for the CIA?"
I was ready with a reply. "I spoke with those individuals, as I pointed out, and those individuals assured me they were not involved in this," I said. "And that's where it stands."
Another reporter, seeking clarification, jumped in: "They were not involved in what?"
"The leaking of classified information," I said.
It sounded final and definitive—just as I intended.
I'd chosen my words carefully. While I believed what I'd been told by Rove and Libby, I could never know with 100 percent certainty that it was true. So I purposely put the onus on them, noting that they had "assured me" about their lack of involvement. It was a firewall of sorts, designed to protect my own credibility if the truth turned out to be more complicated—or wholly different—from what I'd been told. Not that I expected it to be. After all, I was confident, at the time, that neither the president nor the vice president would knowingly send me out to mislead the public.
The public assurances I provided that October 10 would be my final comments from the podium denying that Rove and Libby had been involved in the outing of a covert CIA official, and my final comments on any other matters which might be part of the criminal investigation that the leaking of Plame's name had already spawned.
There was only one problem. What I'd said was not true.
I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest-ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, Vice President Cheney, the president's chief of staff Andrew Card, and the president himself.
For my next two years as press secretary, the false words I uttered at that Friday's briefing would stand as the official White House position on the Plame case. Little did I know at the time that what I said, and the pervasive deception underlying it, would be my undoing as the president's chief spokesman.
I had allowed myself to be deceived into unknowingly passing along a falsehood. It would ultimately prove fatal to my ability to serve the president effectively.
I didn't learn that what I'd said was untrue until the media began to figure it out almost two years later. Neither, I believe, did President Bush. He too had been deceived, and therefore became unwittingly involved in deceiving me. But the 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.
When the truth finally began to emerge, my credibility as White House spokesman was badly tarnished—a terribly painful experience for me.
I blame myself. I allowed myself to be deceived. But the behavior of the president and his key advisers was even more disappointing.
During 2003 and 2004, the White House chose not to be open and forthright on the Plame scandal but rather to buy time and sometimes even stonewall, using the ongoing investigation as an excuse for silence. The goal was to prevent political embarrassment that might hurt the president and weaken his bid for reelection in November 2004. The motive was understandable, but the behavior was wrong—and ultimately self-defeating. And, in retrospect, 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.
As I reflected on this leak episode—one of the defining episodes of my tenure as press secretary—my view of Washington began to crystallize as never before. What I witnessed and have come to realize about my time in the spotlight—beyond just this episode—is a larger, very unpleasant truth. The deception was not isolated to one event or even to the Bush White House. It permeates our national political discourse. And while much of the deceit has been incidental and has not been embraced consciously by our elected leaders, it has become an accepted way of winning the partisan wars for public opinion and an increasingly destructive part of Washington's culture. Coming to Washington as a member of a Republican administration, I thought the mentality of political manipulation had been largely the creation of our predecessors in the Clinton White House and that the leader I placed great hope in, George W. Bush, was dead set on changing it. He chose not to do so. Instead, his own White House became embroiled in political maneuvering that was equally unsavory, if not worse, much of it related directly to his most consequential decision as president—the decision to invade Iraq.
SO MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN about the Plame leak episode in the past few years that even those of us who were part of its unfolding events have trouble piecing together the crucial details of how it all started. Let me lay them out for you.
The explosive controversy that eventually led to the leak scandal began with an assertion about Iraqi efforts to obtain fissile uranium concentrates—so-called yellowcake—from the west African country of Niger. Based on documents that the CIA later acknowledged to be forgeries, this claim was one element of administration efforts in 2002 to demonstrate that the regime of Saddam Hussein was actively seeking to reconstitute its once-abandoned nuclear weapons program and was maintaining a stockpile of biological and chemical weapons. Largely for these reasons, along with the regime's support for terrorism, the president said that Iraq posed "a grave and gathering danger" to peace in the Middle East and even to the security of the United States. This argument about WMD was, in turn, the centerpiece of his position that the United States was justified in leading its allies, as well as the United Nations, toward preemptive war against Iraq.
In the fall of 2002, as debate was swirling around Washington and the world over whether or not a war with Iraq was necessary, Congress requested a national intelligence estimate (NIE) about the status of Iraq's WMD program. An NIE represents the collective judgment of all the agencies that make up the U.S. intelligence community. And the NIE of October 2002, entitled "Iraq's Continuing Programs for Weapons of Mass Destruction," stated that Iraq had been "vigorously trying to procure uranium ore and yellowcake" (the "yellowcake" a reference to the Niger claim). Based partly on this NIE, Congress voted overwhelmingly and across party lines on October 11, 2002, to authorize military action against Iraq by the commander in chief.
The next step in the development of the Niger controversy was the president's 2003 State of the Union address, which largely focused on the threat posed by Iraq. He delivered the speech as rhetorical and military preparations for an invasion were intensifying and Saddam continued to defy demands from the United Nations Security Council.
After talking at some length about the Iraqi regime's continued pursuit of chemical and biological weapons as well as its ties to terrorism, the president briefly and ominously alluded to the greatest fear-provoking claim—that the regime was moving forward on an advanced nuclear weapons program. The president had already stated that Iraq could build a nuclear bomb "within a year" if it acquired necessary fissile material, such as uranium. Now he uttered what would become known as "the sixteen words"—his first personal reference to the Niger uranium claim: "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa."
Those sixteen words would become the nexus of the controversy that delivered a near-fatal blow to the credibility of the president and his administration.
As the push toward war continued, President Bush and others in his administration continued to make the case for action against Iraq. Because of Secretary of State Colin Powell's enormous bipartisan popularity, as well as his unquestioned honor and integrity, the White House recognized that he would be the most logical and persuasive person to help seal the case at home and abroad. So, on February 5, Powell made a special presentation before the UN Security Council concerning the Iraqi effort to develop and stockpile weapons of mass destruction. This presentation did not include the Africa claim. After carefully scrutinizing the intelligence, Powell had chosen not to use it—a decision that, in retrospect, was both wise and highly revealing.
Still, that claim remained in the public mind one of the most potent bits of evidence in the administration's case for war. After all, the threat of nuclear attack by Iraq seemed far more frightening to most Americans than the more remote danger of a chemical or biological attack on U.S. soil. That is why the words of national security adviser Condoleezza Rice on September 8 had made headlines: "The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly [Saddam] can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."
Then, just as America was on the verge of war, the Niger claim was seriously undermined.


On Sale
Jun 3, 2008
Page Count
336 pages

Scott McClellan

About the Author

Scott McClellan served as White House press secretary from 2003 to 2006. Before that he served as the principal deputy White House press secretary and as traveling press secretary for the Bush Cheney 2000 campaign. Earlier in his career, Mr. McClellan served as deputy communications director in the Texas governor’s office and campaign manager for three successful state campaigns. He is now a senior advisor to a global technology firm and communications strategist. He lives near Washington, DC.

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