Author and former press secretary Scott McClellan served President Bush for more than seven years. In his new book, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," McClellan offers his candid perspective on Bush and events like the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina. The book's preface, reprinted here, offers a glimpse into McClellan's world.
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 35 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.
Excerpted with permission from "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception" (PublicAffairs) by Scott McClellan.