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Video: Exclusive: McClellan defends memoir

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updated 5/29/2008 10:44:10 AM ET 2008-05-29T14:44:10

The former Bush administration pitchman making explosive election-year charges about how the White House handled the Valerie Plame case and built the case for invading Iraq said Thursday that he went to Washington to change it and became “disillusioned” when he realized he was just a pawn in the never-ending political game.

“The larger message has been sort of lost in the mix. ... The White House would prefer I not speak out openly and honestly about my experiences, but I believe there is a larger purpose,” Scott McClellan, the chief spokesman for the White House from 2003 to 2006, told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira exclusively during his first interview since excerpts of his new memoir hit the Internet on Tuesday.

“I had all this great hope that we were going to come to Washington and change it. ... Then we got to Washington, and I think we got caught up in playing the Washington game the way it is being played today,” said McClellan, who made only passing references to Bush himself.

McClellan’s candid comments about how administration officials made the case to invade Iraq in March 2003 reverberated throughout the Beltway and immediately became fodder for the two remaining Democratic presidential hopefuls after excerpts from the book began emerging online Tuesday night.

However, McClellan said that it wasn't until he realized that he may have been led to deliver false information to the media about two senior administration officials’ roles in outing Valerie Plame as a CIA operative that he knew he would someday have to tell his story.

“My hope is that by writing this book and sharing openly and honestly what I learned is that in some small way it might help us move beyond the partisan warfare of the past 15 years. There’s a larger purpose to this book. It’s about looking at the permanent campaign culture in Washington, D.C., and how we can move beyond it,” he said.

As Bush's press secretary, McClellan defended the war to the media. But in his book he accused the White House of shading the truth and conducting a political propaganda campaign in making the case to go to war in Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein.

“I gave them the benefit of the doubt just like a lot of Americans,” McClellan said. “Looking back and reflecting on it now, I don’t think I should have.”

‘Patently false’
As the book vaulted to No. 1 on Amazon.com’s best-seller list Wednesday, Republican critics dismissed him as a turncoat, a sellout and a disgruntled former employee. The White House called the book puzzling and sad.

White House adviser Dan Bartlett, who appeared after McClellan on TODAY, said he still considers McClellan a friend but believes his former colleague resorted to the same rhetoric in the book that McClellan claims to disdain. He said McClellan makes bold claims about the administration “shading the truth” and deceiving the public in Iraq, but provides little evidence.

“Fundamentally, I believe what Scott was saying in his book was wrong. It’s patently false. I would not participate in a process in which we’re misleading the American people,” Bartlett said.

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“We’re all quite a bit shocked, Matt, to say the least, about some of these revelations and the feelings he now is sharing with the American people that he never shared with us personally,” Bartlett said in describing the reaction of McClellan’s former colleagues.

He also said that when the decisions to invade Iraq were being made, McClellan was the deputy press secretary for domestic affairs. “He was not in those meetings,” Bartlett told Lauer. “He did not hear the deliberations when the president was deciding whether to send troops into Iraq.”

But in a second interview with Vieira, McClellan said that he was, in fact, in some of those meetings when he filled in for his boss, Ari Fleischer, who took 10 days off for his honeymoon. Fleischer was married in November 2002.

Fallout for McCain?
While the 40-year-old McClellan has many good things to say about Bush in his book, its title — “Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception” — foreshadows a central theme that gives a public-relations black eye to the White House and could cause collateral damage at the polls to Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

McClellan writes that the Bush White House decided “to turn away from candor and honesty when those qualities were most needed” during the period when sentiment was being marshaled to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein.

McClellan said that the White House never shifted from campaign mode to governing mode, an approach that “almost guaranteed that the use of force would become the only feasible option. … In the permanent campaign era, it was all about manipulating sources of public opinion to the president’s advantage.”

The mainstream media also came under fire from McClellan, who charged that reporters accepted what they were told and didn’t ask the hard questions that might have exposed the bad intelligence used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

‘The truth shall set you free’
“What Happened” is scheduled to go on sale Sunday, but Mike Allen of the political Web site Politico.com bought an early copy in a Washington bookstore and posted the first review Tuesday night.

Among the interesting chapter titles in the book are: “The Permanent Campaign,” “Deniability,” “Triumph and Illusion,” “Revelation and Humiliation” and “Out of Touch.”

McClellan opens the book with a quotation from the Gospel of John inscribed on the Tower at his alma mater, the University of Texas: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”

He explains that the book is “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.”

McClellan is convinced that the invasion of Iraq was a “serious strategic blunder.”

Excerpts from the book had been published last year in which he appeared to implicate the president in the cover-up of the leak that ended the career of CIA operative Plame. Former Bush aide Scooter Libby was convicted and then pardoned of lying to investigators, and McClellan is convinced that Bush’s senior adviser, Karl Rove, was involved.

Caught by surprise
But the depth of McClellan’s criticisms of Bush and his White House revealed in the early reviews apparently caught Bush loyalists by surprise. On Wednesday, the day after the first review was published, the White House fired back, characterizing McClellan as a “disgruntled” former employee.

“Scott, we now know, is disgruntled about his experience at the White House,” press secretary Dana Perino said in a statement. “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.”

Perino said the president was informed of some of the content of the book and would have no comment.

Ari Fleischer, first of Bush’s four press secretaries and McClellan’s boss from 2001 to 2003, appeared on MSNBC and said, “I’m heartbroken because I just don’t understand. Not once did Scott tell me about any misgivings he had.”

Rove also criticized McClellan, saying to Fox News, “If he had these moral qualms, he should have spoken up about them. And frankly I don’t remember him speaking up about these things,” Rove said. “I don’t remember a single word.”

Even some Democratic bureaucrats expressed surprise at McClellan’s book, saying that it is highly unusual for a former high-ranking staffer to turn on a president as McClellan has.

Texas roots
McClellan’s grandfather, W. Page Keeton, was dean of the University of Texas School of Law. His mother, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, was the first woman elected mayor of Austin and was elected as the Texas Comptroller in 1998. She ran for governor of Texas in 2006 but finished third in a five-way race.

McClellan’s father, Barr McClellan, was an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board and then for the Federal Power Commission under Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. Barr McClellan also wrote a book about power and Washington: “Blood, Money & Power: How LBJ Killed JFK.” Published in 2003, the book claims that Texas attorney — and Barr McClellan’s former boss — Ed Clark masterminded the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Barr McClellan has written a second book, “Made in the USA: Corporate Greed, Tax Laws, and the Exportation of America’s Future,” scheduled for release in July.

Scott McClellan’s brother, Mark, 44, was a member of President Bush’s council of economic advisers and was commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

According to his White House biography, before joining the White House staff, McClellan was the traveling press secretary for the Bush-Cheney 2000 presidential campaign. He began working as deputy communications director for then-Gov. Bush in early 1999. Prior to joining the governor's office, he served as chief of staff to a Texas state senator, worked on grassroots outreach for lawsuit reform in Texas, and managed three successful statewide campaigns.

When McClellan left the White House, the president said, “I thought he handled his assignment with class, integrity. It's going to be hard to replace Scott, but nevertheless he made the decision and I accepted it. One of these days, he and I are going to be rocking in chairs in Texas and talking about the good old days.”

McClellan said he still admires the man, even if it appears less likely that he'll be invited to the Bush ranch in Crawford any time soon.

“I continue to have great affection for George W. Bush today,” McClellan said. “He absolutely cares very passionately about what he talks about, which is the freedom agenda and spreading democracy throughout the Middle East. It’s a very idealistic and ambitious vision, and that was really the driving motivation that pushed him forward in Iraq — this chance to, in his view, to really transform the Middle East by making Iraq a linchpin for spreading democracy."

Vieira asked McClellan if he thinks the president will ever talk to him again.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I certainly don’t expect it any time soon. I know this is a tough book for many people to accept.”

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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