< Happen Stance

Transcript

Friday, June 06, 2008

BOB GARFIELD:
From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke is reporting in China this week. I'm Bob Garfield.
[CLIPS] [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
ANNOUNCER:
- with Charles Gibson.
CHARLES GIBSON:
Good evening. It has been a day of behind-the-scenes drama in the presidential race and-
CHRIS MATTHEWS:
So what does Hillary want? What are her demands? Is she negotiating now with Barack Obama?
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
Turning now to politics, Hillary Clinton's campaign said today she is not actively seeking the vice-presidential nomination.
[END CLIPS]
BOB GARFIELD:
All but buried in the avalanche of coverage this week on the end of the Democratic primaries and the historic victory of Senator Barack Obama over Senator Hillary Clinton was another White House challenge in the U.S. Senate, this one between the Intelligence Committee and the Bush Administration.

After years of partisan gamesmanship, a five-year committee investigation into the selling of the Iraq war concluded that the President and his subordinates exaggerated Saddam Hussein's threat beyond his own borders, leading to an invasion based on what Senator Jay Rockefeller called "false premises."

The report was especially critical of the administration's continued assertions of a connection, never substantiated, between Saddam and the plotters of 9/11, for instance, this September 2003, talking point mouthed by then-Presidential Press Secretary Scott McClellan.
SCOTT McCLELLAN:
We do know that there is a long history of Saddam Hussein and his regime and ties to terrorism, including al Qaeda.
BOB GARFIELD:
The Senate report had a certain too-obvious, too-late quality to it, but it did dovetail nicely with the other big Washington political story of the week, McClellan's own media tour promoting his new memoir, What Happened, which portrays a naive, idealistic public servant partly victimized and partly corrupted by the cynical world of presidential politics. He joins me now. Scott, welcome to On the Media.
SCOTT McCLELLAN:
Good to be with you, Bob. Thanks for having me on today.
BOB GARFIELD:
So the media are disgusted with you for fronting for liars; your White House friends think you're a traitor. How's this being an author thing working out for you this week, Scott?
SCOTT McCLELLAN:
[LAUGHS] Well, I'll tell you there's been a lot of supportive words out there from people on the street, as well as even former colleagues that have quietly emailed me with their words of encouragement.

You know, I expected the reaction, to some extent. I was surprised by how personal some of it was but, at the same time, I think people have had a chance to hear from me and see the larger message in the book about the need to change the way Washington governs.
BOB GARFIELD:
Larger messages to follow. First I want to ask you about the White House reaction, because it's [LAUGHS] been a veritable choreography of pity for you. Here, courtesy of The Daily Show, is what it sounded like all week.
[CLIPS]
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
This is not the Scott we knew.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
It's just inconsistent with the individual that we knew as Scott McClellan, the press secretary.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
Maybe this is a new Scott.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
The voice that comes out of this book is certainly not Scott McClellan.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
It’s that Scott has said things that really don't, one, sound like Scott, frankly.
MALE CORRESPONDENT:
This doesn't sound like Scotty.
[END CLIPS]
BOB GARFIELD:
So [LAUGHS] you've basically had your soul sucked out by the liberal publishing industry and replaced with a demon spirit, Scott.
SCOTT McCLELLAN:
Yeah. Apparently I'm having an out-of-body experience.
BOB GARFIELD:
Okay, so describe for me, please, the discrediting process in the White House. Confronted with your book, how did those talking points about this not being the Scott that they know, how did they come to life?
SCOTT McCLELLAN:
Oh, I imagine pretty quickly after the first news report aired about the book, there was some internal discussion within the communications team and maybe some others about how to respond. They developed some talking points and probably sent those out to White House allies, as well.

In fact, it's evident that they sent them out to White House allies as well to echo that message, and they immediately went to work trying to discredit what I had to say.

BOB GARFIELD:
Who was on the list?
SCOTT McCLELLAN:
Well, I think it includes conservative commentators on radio, conservative commentators on the airwaves, conservative columnists in newspapers. It's a wide distribution list that the White House has the ability to send to through the Office of Strategic Initiatives, one of the political arms of the White House that works in close coordination with the Office of Communications at times like this. And so, it's a very well-choreographed effort.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, we were talking about the meeting where the talking points were contrived. You've been in meetings just like that, have you not?

SCOTT McCLELLAN:
I have, absolutely.
BOB GARFIELD:
You, in your book, criticize this approach to spokesman ship you call the perpetual campaign mentality, everything that comes from the administration being spun for political advantage.

What would have happened had you sat in one of those meetings and said, well, here's an idea for what we can say – the truth?
SCOTT McCLELLAN:
Looking back on it, I took over when I was fairly young as, well, first as Deputy Press Secretary, then as Press Secretary – yeah, I got caught up in playing this Washington game, the permanent campaign mentality, just like so many others that come here.

And that's what the larger theme of the book is about, and that's what the problem is with Washington. It's a cultural problem that is deep seated, that is inherently deceptive.

Most of it is harmless or incidental, but when that permanent campaign mentality gets transferred over into the war-making process, that's when it becomes particularly problematic and very troubling, because the American people, on an issue as grave as war, must have the truths about the situation and what the realities are as best we can know them.
BOB GARFIELD:
Let's talk about the war. You've admitted that you were passing along, at least, lies from Scooter Libby and Karl Rove about the Valerie Plame affair.

SCOTT McCLELLAN:
Unknowingly, yes.
BOB GARFIELD:
But what about other White House lies, that Saddam Hussein and 9/11 were somehow connected, that waterboarding is somehow not torture?
[CLIP]
SCOTT McCLELLAN:
He does not condone torture and he has never authorized the use of torture. The President has made that very clear in the past, and he continues to hold that view, because we are a nation of - certain laws and certain values, and torture is not consistent with our values and with our laws.
[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:
You stood up there and mouthed that kind of stuff again and again and again. Have you reevaluated those talking points, as well?
SCOTT McCLELLAN:
Well, some of that. I mean, I think on the 9/11 and Saddam Hussein, obviously the Vice-President was the one that was furthest out on trying to draw a connection there with the Muhammad Atta meeting in Prague. You know, in my view, what I was saying was sincere at the time, but some of it was badly misguided.

On the waterboarding issue, I now look back on that, and I didn't know the specifics about that. I wasn't briefed into that from a classification standpoint. But I was told by others in the administration that it's not torture, and I did go out and defend that.

And some actually in the administration view it that way. They view what they were telling me as the truth. I don't see how stepping back from it and knowing what we know now about that, that you can view it as anything but torture.
BOB GARFIELD:
What was your job, spokesman for the government?
SCOTT McCLELLAN:
Yes, spokesman for the President, for the White House, the face of the administration, someone who's there to advocate and defend the President's decisions and policies. Someone who doesn't get to pick and choose what he says, is there advocating on the behalf of the President.
BOB GARFIELD:
Let me come up with the term, and you tell me if it's accurate. Instead of being spokesman for the government how about political operative?

SCOTT McCLELLAN:
Well, I think that there, you know, certainly a part of my background was in politics. But the press secretary has to always remember that their ultimate obligation is to the American people. And sometimes you can get inside that White House and sometimes that mindset can be clouded by events and circumstances.
BOB GARFIELD:
Well Scott, forgive me, but you've been talking about being caught up in the process of politics of destruction and the perpetual campaign mentality. But just a second ago, what you described is not someone who is caught up and culpable, but somebody who is out there naked and unprotected, uninformed, and fundamentally a stooge. Were you a stooge?
[BOTH AT ONCE]

SCOTT McCLELLAN:
Well, at times it can be that way. But it was one of the concerns I had when I initially accepted the job, but before it was announced. I had to take some time thinking about it because I was coming in when we were moving into an election year period, and I knew that the White House didn't want to change much.

And I was concerned – and I write about this in a chapter in the book – you know, whether or not I would have the flexibility I needed to do the job the way I wanted to do it. And I don't think I really ever did.

Looking back on it, maybe I would have done something differently, and I certainly should have done some things differently at certain times.
BOB GARFIELD:
But you didn't leave for some good while, in fact, until you were fired by Josh Bolten, the Chief of Staff. Why didn't you quit?
SCOTT McCLELLAN:
Right, I became increasingly disillusioned in the last 10 months. I actually considered leaving at that time, but it wasn't the President who, as far as I know – and I don't believe he did – I believe he was misled, too, on that incident – that misled me. So that's part of the reason.

But then when I learned in early April, 2006, that the President had secretly declassified parts of the National Intelligence Estimate, that became very disillusioning because we had been out there decrying the selective leaking of classified information, and here the President had done it on his own with only the Vice-President and Scooter Libby being the ones who knew about that.

That was when I had essentially made the decision well, I think it's probably time for me to move on. I'll do it in a couple of months here, and I'll move on to something else.
BOB GARFIELD:
Well for all the hubbub that has resulted from the publication of your book, it's actually quite gentle on the administration, at least on the President himself. But now that you've had a chance for reflection, do you believe that you were, in effect, fronting for a bunch of scoundrels?
SCOTT McCLELLAN:
No, I don't. I think that's too broad of a statement. Most of these people are good people at heart. It's not something sinister, in my view. I know others might view it as something that is sinister, but I view it as something that is a cultural problem that has become too accepted in Washington, D.C.

And the most important thing we can do to move beyond it all is for a president to embrace a high level of openness and candor. And this administration has not done that.
BOB GARFIELD:
The book is titled What Happened. Scott, what did happen?
SCOTT McCLELLAN:
This administration went terribly off course. I was a young, idealistic, political person who went to join Governor Bush's staff, thinking he could bring that same sort of 70-percent-plus approval rating and bipartisan spirit to Washington, but it didn't happen.

The President, I think, was too focused from the beginning on building a massive political operation that had too much influence, and there wasn't enough counterbalance to that influence. And that's why I propose some ideas about how to counterbalance the political influence that is always going to exist in any White House.
BOB GARFIELD:
All right, Scott. Thank you very much for joining me.
SCOTT McCLELLAN:
Bob, it was great to be on the show. Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD:
Former presidential spokesman Scott McClellan is the author of What Happened.
[CLIP]

SCOTT McCLELLAN:
The National Intelligence Estimate was a document that was provided to members of Congress. It is the collective judgment of the intelligence community. And because of the public debate that was going on and some of the wild accusations that were flying around at the time, we felt it was very much in the public interest that what information could be declassified be declassified. And that's exactly what we did.
[END CLIP]