The allegations of deceit in Scott McClellan’s book have been a surprise not only for Bush officials enraged with the former White House spokesman but also for publishers who turned down what is now the industry’s hottest release.
“Books by spokespeople rarely contain anything newsworthy and have generally not proven particularly compelling to consumers,” said Steve Ross, publisher of the Collins division of HarperCollins and head of the Crown Publishing Group at Random House Inc. at the time McClellan was offering his manuscript. “It was shopped around but, like others who publish in the category, we didn’t even take a meeting based upon past history.”
McClellan, a press secretary known for loyally defending President Bush on Iraq, Katrina and other issues, has written that his ex-boss misled the country about Iraq and calls the White House atmosphere “insular, secretive and combative.”
“What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception” was No. 1 on Amazon.com and the publisher, Public Affairs, said that the printing has been doubled from 65,000 to 130,000.
McClellan’s accusations have been met by counteraccusations that he is cashing in on his White House access. Bush supporters have criticized him, but so have liberals such as commentator Arianna Huffington.
“It’s George Tenet deja vu all over again,” Huffington wrote in a posting on her blog, http://www.huffingtonpost.com, referring to the former CIA director who received seven figures for his memoir. “How many times are we going to have a key Bush administration official try to wash the blood off his hands — and add a chunk of change to his bank account — by writing a come-clean book years after the fact ...”
But McClellan’s book does not fit the pattern of Washington megadeals. He was not represented by Washington, D.C., attorney Bob Barnett, whose clients include Tenet and countless political leaders, but by the much less known Craig Wiley, whose most famous client is actor Ron Silver.
McClellan’s advance did not approach the level of Barnett’s writers. According to an official with knowledge of McClellan’s contract — who spoke on condition of anonymity citing the confidentiality of the pact — McClellan received only $75,000 from PublicAffairs, which specializes in policy books by billionaire George Soros, Nobel Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus and others.
“Of course they didn’t know what would be in it, because they didn’t acquire the book,” said Osnos, currently in Los Angeles for BookExpo America, publishing’s annual national gathering. “Very rarely does a book turn out the way it’s expected.”
Osnos said he didn’t even read the proposal, but instead sought out people who knew McClellan and said they regarded him as an honest man unhappy in his job. According to Osnos, and the book’s editor, Lisa Kaufman, “What Happened” evolved as McClellan wrote it.
“The original proposal was somewhat general, so before making an offer on the book we talked to Scott at some length,” Kaufman said.
“As Scott says in the preface, writing the book was a process for him. ... The tone was always thoughtful, straightforward, and candid. It’s just that as he thought about his experience over many months, that tone began to be directed toward issues and events that some people would rather he not be straightforward and candid about.”