Bush Under Fire From Former Aide

Calls White House "inept"; candidly discusses Iraq, cocaine and Plame.


May 28, 2008 -- White House loyalists were first shocked and then furious over a scathing new book by former White House press secretary Scott McLellan who accuses President Bush of being "evasive" and "shading the truth" about the war in Iraq, his rumored cocaine use and other controversial issues.

McLellan's memoir, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," is the harshest insider's account yet of the Bush years and is particularly hard on the administration's handling of the Iraq war and the motives for launching the invasion.

McClellan calls the Iraq war a "serious strategic blunder" and "grave mistake" and chastises the president for his "decision to turn away from candor and honesty when these qualities were most needed."

"The Iraq war was not necessary," concludes McCLellan, who defended the war during his three years as the White House spokesman.

"Scott is in for a whirlwind, I can tell you that from personal experience," said Matthew Dowd a former Bush advisor who publicly criticized the White House's handling of Iraq and is now a commentator for ABC News.

It didn't take long for the storm to break.

"This doesn't sound like Scott — not the Scott McClellan I've known for a long time," said Karl Rove, Bush's one-time political adviser who is described by McLellan as a "political operative who places political gain ahead of national interest."

"It sounds like a left-wing blogger … if he had those moral qualms, he should have spoken up about them," Rove said on FoxNews where is a political pundit.

McClellan's predecessor in the White House job, Ari Fleischer, said he was "heartbroken" by his former deputy's book.

"There is something about this book that just doesn't make any sense," Fleischer said in a statement. "For two and a half years Scott and I worked shoulder to shoulder at the White House... Not once did Scott approach me -- privately or publicly -- to discuss any misgivings he had about the war in Iraq or the manner in which the White House made the case for war."

Fleischer said McClellan continued to defend the war even after he left the White House.

Like Rove, Fleischer said the book didn't "sound like Scott," and that McLellan told him on Tuesday that "his editor 'tweaked some things closely in the last couple months.'"

"Scott, we now know, is disgruntled about his experience at the White House," said McClellan's White House successor Dana Perino. "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 wouldn't be commenting on the book.

Before he wrote his own memoir, White House press secretary Scott McClellan was rather critical of those who did the same.

In fact, some of the same language now being used to trash McClellan he himself used to trash previous administration authors.

On the book critical of the Bush White House written in cooperation with former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, "The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill," McClellan said on January 12, 2004, "It appears to be more about trying to justify personal views and opinions than it does about looking at the results that we are achieving on behalf of the American people."

McClellan also took issue with the book by former Bush White House counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke, "Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror," saying on March 22, 2004, "Why, all of a sudden, if he had all these grave concerns, did he not raise these sooner?"

McClellan Wednesday would not comment on the book, preferring for it to "speak for itself" for the day. He told reporters that he would begin to give formal interviews beginning Thursday.

"I'm going to be doing my interviews tomorrow and so I hope people will get a chance - I think there have been a lot of comments and people haven't had a chance to really look at the book and it's got an important message that I think people need to take a look at. Today I want to let it kind of speak for itself, let people get a chance to look at it and then tomorrow I look forward to going on the air and talking about it," he said outside his Arlington, Va. home.

Tori Clarke, former Pentagon spokesperson in the Bush administration and now an ABC News consultant, said if McClellan was uncomfortable with what he was being told he should have acted.

"If he had problems with the administration he should have expressed them at the time. It was his job to raise questions internally and if he felt he wasn't getting the truth, if he wasn't satisfied with their responses, he should not have continued to take a paycheck. He should have left then," said Clarke.

McClellan's depiction of Bush is a man driven by political considerations, even when it came to something as momentous as the war in Iraq.

"To this day, the president seems unbothered by the disconnect between the chief rationale for war and the driving motivation behind it, and unconcerned about how the case was packaged," he writes.

McClellan states that Bush was unable to admit the mistakes of the war for fear that it would prove politically damaging and make him appear weak.

"A more self-confident executive would be willing to acknowledge failure, to trust people's ability to forgive those who seek redemption for mistakes and show a readiness to change," he writes.

"Still another motive for Bush to avoid acknowledging mistakes was his determination to win the political game at virtually any cost. Bush was not about to give the Washington media anything critics could use to damage him and his reelection effort."

McClellan also tackles media reports that Bush had used cocaine in his past — an issue that swirled during the 2000 presidential campaign.

In 1999, at a hotel suite "somewhere in the Midwest," McClellan recalls hearing Bush's end of a phone conversation as the candidate dealt with the rumors about his drug use.

Writes McClellan: "'The media won't let go of these ridiculous cocaine rumors,' I heard Bush say. 'You know, the truth is I honestly don't remember whether I tried it or not. We had some pretty wild parties back in the day, and I just don't remember.'

"I remember thinking to myself, How can that be? How can someone simply not remember whether or not they used an illegal substance like cocaine? It didn't make a lot of sense."

And yet, McClellan concludes, "I think he meant what he said in that conversation about cocaine. It's the first time when I felt I was witnessing Bush convincing himself to believe something that probably was not true, and that, deep down, he knew was not true. And his reason for doing so is fairly obvious — political convenience…"

Bush "has a way of falling back on the hazy memory to protect himself from potential political embarrassment. In other words, being evasive is not the same as lying in Bush's mind … It would not be the last time Bush mishandled potential controversy. But the cases to come would involve the public trust, and the failure to deal with them early, directly and head-on would lead to far greater suspicion and far more destructive partisan warfare."

McClellan writes that he was sincerely defending President Bush through his three years as the White House press secretary but that he was misled following the CIA leak case involving Valerie Plame.

The "jumping-off point" for the book, he writes, was in 2003, when the CIA officer's name was revealed to reporters.

McClellan says he was duped into officially denying that any members of the administration were involved in the leak.

He says he unwittingly took part in defending Rove and Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the vice president's former chief of staff.

"I spoke with those individuals, as I pointed out," McClellan said to the press on Oct. 10, 2003. "And those individuals assured me they were not involved in this — and that's where it stands."

McClellan characterizes the White House denials as a "deception," claiming he was told Rove and Libby were innocent.

McClellan said that when his words were exposed as false, "I was constrained by my duties and loyalty to the president and unable to comment."

Now, he said that he was "at best misled" by Rove and Libby.

McClellan also condemned the administration's delayed response to Hurricane Katrina, saying the White House "spent most of the first week in a state of denial" and "allowed our institutional response to go on autopilot."

Some of his harshest criticism is reserved for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for being "sometimes too accommodating" in her first term roll as national security adviser. He writes that she made an effort not to offend anyone and carefully worked to protect her own reputation.

"No matter what went wrong, she was somehow able to keep her hands clean," McClellan writes. "She knew how to adapt to potential trouble, dismiss brooding problems, and come out looking like a star."

ABC News' Jake Tapper contributed to this report.

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