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Scott McClellan, Roiling the Washington Waters

The former White House spokesman rocked the capital last week with a provocative memoir. He joins Terry Gross to talk about What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception.


Other segments from the episode on June 2, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 2, 2008: Interview with John McClellan; Review of Ashton Shepherd's album "Sounds so good."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Scott McClellan, author of "What Happened," on the book
and the reaction from Washington

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan has been spending a lot of
time facing the press in the past few days. But now he's not speaking on
behalf of the Bush administration; in fact, he's been criticizing it,as he
does in his new memoir, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and
Washington's Culture of Deception." McClellan describes himself as someone who
had been a Texas loyalist, a trusted member of the president's senior-most
team of advisers. He first worked for Bush in 1999 as his gubernatorial
spokesman. He was a traveling press secretary for the Bush/Cheney 2000
campaign, and during President Bush's first term was chief deputy to press
secretary Ari Fleischer. He served as President Bush's press secretary from
July 2003 through May 2006.

Scott McClellan, welcome to FRESH AIR. Some of the things that have been said
about you: `This isn't the Scott McClellan we knew,' `We're puzzled,' you're
disgruntled. I've heard your qualifications for the job of press secretary
questioned, as well as your intelligence. Bob Dole described you as a
miserable creature. Your motives for writing the book have been described as,
`Well, he did it for the money.' Is this the campaign against you you were
expecting? You had to expect that there was going to be a campaign against
you when you wrote the book.

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN: I did expect it to an extent. I think I'm a little
surprised about how personal some of the tone of it is. But, look, I knew
this book would strike a nerve, and it needs to because the larger message in
the book is about how do we move beyond this destructive partisanship that has
existed in Washington for, you know, at least the last 15 years. It was
something we pledged to change, and instead we got caught up in it. I got
caught up in it. You know, it's interesting that there are all these
comments, and it's trying to turn the book into these "gotcha" points, and
it's really missing that larger message of moving beyond the permanent
campaign culture and restoring some honesty and bipartisanship and civility to
the whole process in DC. No one's really refuting the key themes and
perspectives in the book. So they're doing what they are used to doing, which
is misrepresenting what it says and personally attacking me. That's
Washington. But I think it's very important, and if talking about unpleasant
truths is what is needed to force change, then all the better.

GROSS: Now, one of the things you write about in the book is how the White
House would enlist the help of conservative talk show hosts and other, quote,
"friends in the media," conservative columnists, talk radio personalities, and
they'd be given communications packets with comprehensive talking points. How
does that work?

Mr. McCLELLAN: That's right. No, I mean, you pretty much just summed it up.
We had a massive operation in the White House, massive political operation.
It was not new. It certainly existed before us. I think to some extent we
took it to new lengths, and Karl Rove, of course being the senior adviser.
But everything was well coordinated amongst some of the political operation in
the Office of Strategic Initiatives, for example, as well as the White House
communications operation. And when we need to get information out, we've got
a whole long list of conservative allies and friends, whether it's talk radio,
whether it's columnists in the newspapers. And it's all part of that effort
to shape the media narrative to our advantage. And that's really what it's
become in Washington, the permanent campaign. Maybe long ago when it was
initially started, focused on winning over public opinion, and then it kind of
evolved, and now it's turned into this more unsavory side of things where it's
always focused on just manipulating public opinion or manipulating these
sources of public opinion, which you just described, to your advantage.

GROSS: With talking points about your book, the word "puzzled" kept showing
up in what everybody said.

Mr. McCLELLAN: That's right.

GROSS: And I think it was on Jon Stewart's show, "The Daily Show," that they
showed just a collage of everybody saying, `Oh, we're puzzled.' `This is
puzzling.' `We're puzzled.' And Stewart and also Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, do
this all the time now. They take the talking points and they show like a half
dozen people saying exactly the same thing, making it really clear this is an
official talking point. What's the reaction in the White House to shows like
Jon Stewart's and Keith Olbermann's and Stephen Colbert's, where there's news
and comedy mixed together in a way that is kind of new on television?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Right.

GROSS: Does that have an impact in the White House, and it is affecting how
they deal with their talking points?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Oh, the White House fully recognizes the influence that those
programs have. I mean, in terms of, you know, it's a little different for
some of the ones that you mentioned. Keith Olbermann, I know that the White
House does not have much regard for that program. But I have found it, since
I've left the White House, to be an entertaining way to kind of get to some of
the important issues and discuss some of the important truths behind those
issues. But, yeah, it's interesting the way--you know, I think that
those--"The Daily Show," for instance, when you talk about the way they put it
together and they show how coordinated the response is and how all the talking
points are very similar, I think it does help educate viewers and people
across the country about how these things works. And it's important to
understand how it works so you can decipher it and understand things for
yourself, understand what's spin, what's manipulation and what's reality.

GROSS: So what's the experience been like for you being on a book tour where
you're speaking for yourself, not on behalf of the Bush administration? Of
course, you still...

Mr. McCLELLAN: Very...

GROSS: You still have some talking points. You want to make the points that
are in the book. And obviously you want to promote the book. But still,
you're speaking for yourself. You're not being told what you're supposed to
say, what you're not allowed to say. You're not representing an

Mr. McCLELLAN: It's very liberating. That's what it is. It's finally a
chance to express my own views and hopefully share my experiences about what
happened and help people learn from that. And, yeah, I understand the
importance of message discipline, and there are certain points I want to get
out when I go on programs like yours about the book, "What Happened," and I
want to make sure hopefully that this book can contribute in a positive way to
changing things for the better. There are a lot of people...

GROSS: Made that point.

Mr. McCLELLAN: Yeah. No, there are plenty of people out there in the
country that are just fed up with how dysfunctional Washington has become.
And that's really the larger message at the heart of this book.

GROSS: It would be great if we could just talk and not do talking points.

Mr. McCLELLAN: Sure.

GROSS: My guest is Scott McClellan, and he was the White House press
secretary from July of '03 through April of '06. As I'm sure you know by now,
he's written a memoir about that experience called "What Happened: Inside the
Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception."

I'd like to play one or two of the more dramatic moments of your press
conferences and talk about what was happening in your mind or behind the
scenes at this time. And this was, I think, a particularly uncomfortable
press briefing for you. You had been telling the press that Karl Rove and
Scooter Libby assured you that they had nothing to do with leaking Valerie
Plame Wilson's name and that she was a CIA operative. Then the story broke
that Rove did talk about her with at least one reporter. The reporters at the
press briefing were asking you about that, and you refused to comment, saying
you couldn't comment on an ongoing investigation. And then the reporters were
saying, `Well, why couldn't you comment on it now when you seemed free to
comment on it earlier,' when what you were saying was no, they didn't know

Mr. McCLELLAN: Right.

GROSS: So here's David Gregory questioning you July 11th, 2005.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Mr. DAVID GREGORY: Scott, can I ask you this? Did Karl Rove commit a crime?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Again, David, this is a question relating to an ongoing
investigation, and you have my response related to the investigation, and I
don't think you should read anything into it other than we're going to
continue not to comment on it while it's ongoing.

Mr. GREGORY: Do you stand by your statement from the fall of 2003 when you
were asked specifically about Karl and Eliott Abrams and Scooter Libby, and
you said, `I've gone to each of those gentlemen, and they have told me they
are not involved in this.' Do you stand by that statement?

Mr. McCLELLAN: And if you will recall, I said that, as part of helping the
investigators move forward on the investigation, we're not going to get into
commenting on it. That was something I stated back near that time as well.

Mr. GREGORY: Scott, I mean, just--I mean, this is ridiculous, the notion
that you're going to stand before us after having commented with that level of
detail and tell people watching this that somehow you've decided not to talk?
You've got a public record out there. Do you stand by your remarks from that
podium or not?

Mr. McCLELLAN: And again, David, I'm well aware, like you, of what was
previously said. And I will be glad to talk about it at the appropriate time.
The appropriate time is when the investigation...

Mr. GREGORY: When do you say when it's appropriate and when it's

Mr. McCLELLAN: If you'll let me finish.

Mr. GREGORY: No, you're not finishing. You're not saying anything. You
stood at that podium and said that Karl Rove was not involved, and now we find
out that he spoke about--that--Joseph Wilson's wife. So don't you owe the
American public a fuller explanation? Was he involved or was he not? Because
contrary to what you told the American people, he did indeed talk about his
wife, didn't he?

Mr. McCLELLAN: David, there will be a time to talk about this, but now is
not the time to talk about it.

Mr. GREGORY: You think people will accept that, what you're saying today?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Again, I've responded to the question.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: OK, that was my guest Scott McClellan with David Gregory of NBC at a
White House press briefing, July 11th, 2005.

Scott McClellan, so why couldn't you comment then?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Well the short answer is that the White House counsel's
office tied my hands, as they did anyone that was speaking publicly at the
White House. They said, `We're not going to talk about this. This is an
ongoing legal proceeding, and you can't talk about it.' I actually--back at
that--shortly after that time, or even around that time, I told White House
reporters that someday I looked forward to talking about this, and I think
they came to realize that I was very sincere in that.

That was an extremely difficult period because I could not defend what I had
previously said about two years earlier. I did tell reporters two years prior
to that that Scooter Libby and Karl Rove had both assured me that they were
not involved in the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity. It's interesting how
that came about. Part of that was conversations with Karl Rove. Karl Rove
had also told the president he was not involved, and the president and I had a
discussion about that.

And then about a week later after the investigation broke, the president and
vice president spoke and directed me to exonerate Scooter Libby in addition to
Karl because his name was coming up in some of the conversation in some of the
Washington rumor mill. And I said, `The only way I will do that,' told the
chief of staff Andy Card, `The only way I will do that is if Scooter Libby
gives me the same assurances that Karl Rove did.' And so I got Scooter on the
phone--he was traveling with the vice president then--and asked him exactly
what I asked Karl, `Were you involved in this, the leaking of Valerie Plame's
identity in any way?' And he said, `No, absolutely not.' Karl had given me the
same assurances, unequivocal, `No, we were not involved.'

And there's nothing more important for the press secretary than his
credibility. And what the press secretary says has to be based on what he
believes to be true, and it was back then. But then when it is found out that
it's not true and you can't correct the record, that makes it extremely
difficult to continue in that position. And over time, it would eventually be
a chief reason why I left the White House. That really set in this period of
disillusionment in me because I was, rightly as David did, battered for not
being able to--or for not going into this `no comment' mode. It's a terrible
position to be in for--`No comment' is just a terrible communications
strategy. You've got to be able to explain things and set the record straight
when needed, particularly if something you said previously later turns out not
to be the case.

GROSS: Well, you know, Rove and Libby lied to you because they told you they
had nothing to do with it. So you're on the podium saying `no comment, no
comment, no comment' when you're probably feeling really aggrieved at that
moment. But you can't let that on to the press. So what did you say to Rove
and Libby that day?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, it's interesting because one of the things that
happened also in the investigation was, as it got under way, everybody in the
White House stopped talking to each other because people were being called
before the grand jury, they were hiring lawyers. I never hired a lawyer.
That was just my personal choice. So we couldn't talk to each other, and we
were told by White House counsel's office that we shouldn't be talking
internally to each other about it. You know, I think we mishandled this in a
number of ways.

But Karl did, later that day, that first day after the Gregory question that
you played, called me and in a very generic way expressed that he was sorry
for what I was going through. Then the next day, Andy Card was gone, or out
at the moment, so Karl, as deputy chief of staff, was running the senior staff
meeting that morning. And the first thing he did, because I usually talked
to--the press secretary would usually go second in the senior staff meeting,
was turn and look at me and say, you know, basically `I'm sorry what you're
going through,' in front of the whole senior staff.

And I didn't say much in response. It had been--the news coverage was pretty
brutal, as it was expected to be, and I pretty much said, you know, `thanks,'
and that's about it in a very muted voice. And then the next day, after three
days of going through it, I walked back to my office from, I think it was a
policy briefing that the president that had had or maybe a world leader
meeting that I was participating in, and I find a note in my chair. It's a
handwritten note from Karl Rove--again, not specific, but expressing his
apologies for what I was going through.

And Karl was ably defended publicly by conservatives, part of the ones that
you talked about earlier in the interview that we call on to help get our
message out when we need to advocate something or defend the record one way or
the other. But it was interesting that it wasn't long after that that the
ones that came to my defense when I couldn't speak publicly for myself were
actually the White House reporters. David Gregory went on the air and said
`Scott McClellan's got a sterling reputation.' At the same time, though, he
said, `But he's not able to set the record straight, and, you know, that's a
problem. That's a problem for him and that's a problem for the public. The
public deserves to have the answers.'

GROSS: My guest is Scott McClellan. His new memoir is called "What
Happened." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Scott McClellan, and he was the White House press
secretary from July of '03 through April of '06. As I'm sure you know by now,
he's written a memoir about that experience called "What Happened: Inside the
Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception."

I want to play another White House press briefing clip. And this is from
October 13th, 2005, and here it's Helen Thomas who is asking you the
questions. And this was about the war in Iraq.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Ms. HELEN THOMAS: What did the president mean by total victory, that he'll
never leave Iraq until we have total victory? What does that mean?

Mr. McCLELLAN: A free democratic Iraq in the heart of the Middle East.
Because a free and democratic Iraq in the heart of the Middle East will be a
major blow to the ambitions...

Ms. THOMAS: If they ask us to leave, then we'll leave?

Mr. McCLELLAN: OK, I'm trying to respond. A free and democratic Iraq in the
heart of the broader Middle East will be a major blow to the ambitions of
al-Qaeda and their terrorist associates. They want to establish or impose
their rule over the broader Middle East. We saw that in the Zahawiri letter
that was released earlier this week by the intelligence community.

Ms. THOMAS: We also know we invaded...

Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, Helen, the president recognizes that we're engaged in a
global war on terrorism. And when you're engaged in a war, it's not always
pleasant. And it's certainly a last resort. But when you engage in a war,
you take the fight to the enemy. You go on the offense. And that's exactly
what we're doing. We are fighting them there so we don't have to fight them
here. September 11th taught us...

Ms. THOMAS: This has nothing to do with...


Ms. THOMAS: Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

Mr. McCLELLAN: Yeah, well, you have a very different view of the war on
terrorism, and I'm sure you're opposed to the broader war on terrorism. The
president recognizes this requires a comprehensive strategy and that this is a
broad war, that it is not a law enforcement matter. Terry:

TERRY: I'm sorry. On what basis do you say Helen is opposed to the broader
war on terrorism?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, she certainly expressed her concerns about Afghanistan
and Iraq and going into those two countries. I think I can go back and pull
up her comments over the course of the past couple of years.

TERRY: (Unintelligible)...speak for her...(unintelligible).

Mr. McCLELLAN: I said--no, I said she may be because certainly if you look
at her comments over the course of the past couple of years...

Ms. THOMAS: I...(unintelligible)

Mr. McCLELLAN: ...she has expressed her concerns. She's expressed her

Ms. THOMAS: I'm...(unintelligible)...against the war.

(end of soundbite)

GROSS: OK, so that was Helen Thomas and my guest Scott McClellan at a press

Scott McClellan, was it a tactic when you or anyone else in the White House
was getting tough, challenging questions to try to discredit the reporter
asking the questions? In Helen Thomas' case to say, `Well, sure, you're
saying that because you don't believe in the broader war on terrorism.' Or
like when David Gregory was asking you after Hurricane Katrina if you had
confidence--I mean, if Bush had confidence in the head of FEMA and the head of
Homeland Security, and you kept accusing him of playing the blame game, of
finger pointing. And he said, `No, I want to know. It's a legitimate
question. Do you have confidence in the head of FEMA and Homeland Security?'
And you kept saying, `No, you're playing the blame game.' So was that like a
conscious tactic when someone's asking a question that seems challenging or,
you know, negative, to try to discredit them or make it seem like they were
being unpatriotic? Can you talk about that?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, I don't know about--I don't know so much about, or at
least from my standpoint about unpatriotic, but, yes, sometimes, in terms of
deflecting the question or maybe discrediting. I mean, certainly in the
instance you played with Helen Thomas, she is now an opinion columnist, and
she has very strong opinions, and she's also a very good reporter. But
absolutely, I mean, sometimes you're trying to deflect the question and maybe
turn it back to where you'll be in the position where you're on the offensive
instead of in this defensive crouch. And other times, like with Helen Thomas,
you're trying to turn it back to the broader message we were trying to get
across at the time, which was what I said in response to her about, you know,
fighting them over there instead of fighting them over here and things of that

GROSS: You know, it's funny, you know, in the book you accuse the press of
being too deferential to the White House, particularly in regard to the
decision of going to war. But when they did challenge you, you would deflect
questions and sometimes accuse them of being unfair in their questions. Is it
that your opinion changed, or is it that that's how you saw your job at the
time, to just kind of push back at challenging questions?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Yeah, I mean, a lot of what I was saying during that time I
felt was sincere, but some of it now, reflecting upon it now and looking back
as I wrote the book, some of it was badly misguided. I got caught up in this
whole politics as war mentality and the permanent campaign culture, just like
so many other people do. And I think they're very good people on both sides
of the aisle, but so many people go to Washington to, you know, really, they
get involved in politics to make a positive difference like I did, but then
they go to Washington, it all becomes this focus on power and influence
instead of bipartisan deliberation and compromise. And you get caught up in
playing the game they way it's played. And I certainly did as much as anybody

GROSS: Did anyone in the Bush administration ever suggest to you that you
should punish members of the press who were too aggressive in their
questioning? Or did you hear as press secretary about how the Bush
administration or if the Bush administration wanted to punish members of the
press who published leaks or wrote investigative stories that were negative
about the Bush administration?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, there's some of this, you know, some of that mentality
in the White House. I think it's counterproductive. Now, there were times,
though, when someone would say, even at times when the president would say,
you know, about such and such article, `Well, did you, you know, let them
know?' And I would go direct to that reporter, and I'd say that, you know,
some of this was noticed at the White House, and it wasn't well received, and
thought it was off base and here's why. Sometimes when the president would do
that, it was because Mrs. Bush had read an article--she certainly read things
a lot more closely than he did at times--in the press coverage. But I
personally don't recall any time when I went and said, `We're going to freeze
you out' or anything like that. Was there a little bit of that? Yeah, there
probably was a little bit of that. It may have happened at different levels,
necessarily, from the press secretary.

GROSS: Scott McClellan will be back in the second half of the show. His
memoir is called "What Happened: Inside the Bush Administration and
Washington's Culture of Deception." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Scott McClellan.
McClellan has written the kind of book he had to criticize when he was press
secretary, an inside account of what he describes as the culture of deception
in the Bush administration. McClellan served as President Bush's press
secretary from July 2003 through May 2006. During President Bush's first
term, McClellan was the chief deputy to press secretary Ari Fleischer. He
started working for Bush in Texas as a gubernatorial spokesperson.

Let's talk about Iraq. You write a lot about the lead-up to the war in Iraq
and what came afterwards in your book. One of the things you write is that
Bush and then-Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, decided to update the
Pentagon's war plans for Iraq in November 2001. In effect, you say, Bush had
already made the decision to go to war even if he convinced himself it might
still be avoided. You say war was inevitable given the course of action the
president set from the beginning. Bush managed the crisis in a way that
almost guaranteed that the use of force would become the only feasible option.
Are you saying that this was intentional, to make sure that there was no other
option, that Bush did things like given an ultimatum at the UN, order a
massive buildup of American arms and military forces in the region to make
sure that, no matter what Congress wanted, no matter what the UN said, there
was no choice but to go to war?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, he left himself no flexibility whatsoever. And I think
his advisers served him poorly in that way. A president should always
maintain some flexibility. But it goes to what you just brought up, that the
president really had, I would come to learn, made his decision. And it's the
way President Bush operates or approaches policy. He tends to be an
instinctive player and make the policy decision early on and then say, `How do
we go about implementing this?' And the policy decision he made early on was
that we're going to confront Saddam Hussein and just, not too long after 9/11,
we're going to confront Saddam Hussein. We're going to remove his regime
unless he comes fully clean. And I don't think, you know, reflecting back on
this, I think it was probably unreasonable to expect that Saddam Hussein was
going to be the kind of guy, given his past, that would just come fully clean
and say `OK, come into my country and you can go all over it and do whatever
you want.'

GROSS: You describe the president as being an instinctive leader, and in the
book you describe him as having a headstrong style of leadership. But I think
so many people have wondered is so much of the decision-making in the White
House, particularly the decision to go to war, came from President Bush vs.
from Vice President Cheney or from Donald Rumsfeld, from Paul Wolfowitz, from
neoconservatives in and outside government. Being a former insider yourself,
do you have a sense of how much of that policy was really initiated by
President Bush and how much of it was him signing off on other people's

Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, yes, a number of those people you mentioned had these
plans in place well before even joining the administration. And then they
came into the administration, were put in positions of prominence and had Iraq
on their radar screen from the very beginning. And I think 9/11 provided some
of those individuals an excuse, or an opportunity in their view, to carry out
some of their plans. And that certainly influenced the president. They
weren't the decision maker. The president was the ultimate decision maker,
but they played into some of his thinking. And I think that the national
security adviser has a very important role to play there when that is
happening, and that is to make sure that other options are being explored,
that he or she is challenging the president's thinking on this, his instincts,
and making sure he understands the full consequences and cost of what he is
taking the country into. And I don't think that Condi Rice--instead of doing
that, I think she, my view is that she was more accommodating of the
president's instincts than challenging those instincts, and probably should
have been stood up more firmly to some of these strong personalities like the
vice president, like Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, like
Secretary Rumsfeld, and she didn't.

GROSS: You write that you finally figured out that the decision to go to war
was based largely on the desire within the Bush administration to overthrow
Saddam Hussein and then spread democracy through the Middle East. The dream
of a democratic Middle East, you say, was the most powerful force behind
Bush's drive to war. But, you say, Bush and his advisers knew that the
American people would most certainly not support a war launched primarily for
the ambitious purpose of transforming the Middle East. And then you say that
rather than open this Pandora's box about spreading democracy through the
Middle East--because that would raise all kinds of questions...

Mr. McCLELLAN: Right.

GROSS: ...that instead the Bush administration tried to make the WMD threat
larger than it was, they tried to make the Iraqi connection to terrorism
appear more certain than it was, they quietly ignored or disregarded some of
the crucial caveats in the intelligence, minimized evidence that pointed in
the opposite direction. They used innuendo and implication to encourage
Americans to believe things that were unclear or possibly false about Iraq. A
lot of people have said this, but you're saying it from having been within the
inner circle. Tell us something that led you to these conclusions that only
somebody within the inner circle would know about.

Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, when I became press secretary I participated in many
world leader meetings with the president, and saw up close in these small
group settings how passionately the president believed in the freedom agenda,
believed in transforming the Middle East as a key component of the war on
terrorism. And over the course of time I came to learn that that was really
what was driving his decision-making on Iraq and his belief, and it's also
something that probably clouds some of his judgement today in terms of being
able to recognize some of the larger realities of the problems that we have
faced over the course of time being in there.

But one of the themes in the book that I talk about is how dangerous it can
become when you take this permanent campaign, this political campaign
mentality and transfer that over to the war-making decision process or
war-making campaign process. When you engage too much in trying to sell the
war and you get caught up in doing what you would do for any political
campaign or any other domestic policy issue and start overstating or
overpackaging the case, then it becomes very dangerous later on. And we saw
that because we weren't as open and forthright as we should have been. And
then it turned out that a lot of what we were saying was wrong.

GROSS: If President Bush manipulated the facts to lead us to war, is that an
impeachable offense?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, I don't take that view. Again, and it's not that
anyone went and I don't think there's no evidence to show that anyone said
change the intelligence. Most of the focus in recent years has been on the
faulty intelligence. And we've--or the White House has--effectively deflected
attention away from how the case was made to take the country to war. And the
case, as I believe, was certainly overstated and oversold, but it could be
substantiated, the biological and chemical weapon side of things--I mean, most
people believe that Saddam Hussein had some biological and chemical weapons.
But when you take the nuclear intelligence, which had lesser confidence than
the bio and chem intelligence, and then take the terrorist connection, which
had even lower confidence, from the intelligence community and package all
that together and make it sound more certain and more grave and more urgent
than it is, then you run into the problems that this administration has run
into now. And you lose a lot of credibility.

But I don't know of any evidence that--when I think of something impeachable
I'm thinking of something where they said, you know, to change this
intelligence or pressured analysts to change the intelligence. And I have no
knowledge of any of that nor do I believe that that happened.

GROSS: Were there ever times, particularly after you realized, well, the real
goal of this war was to try to spread democracy in the Middle East and they
exaggerated intelligence and downplayed other intelligence in order to start
the war in Iraq, did you at any point after having this realization think,
`Mr. President, I don't want to have to say this? Mr. President, I don't
want to have to defend this anymore in the press conferences?'

Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, I can't say--I mean, again, in the buildup to the war I
was, like many Americans, willing to defer to the judgment of the president
and his advisers. We were caught up by that.

GROSS: I understand, but after the war...

Mr. McCLELLAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...the war's still going on.

Mr. McCLELLAN: Right, right. Well and it was a long time.

GROSS: So you still had to deal with it.

Mr. McCLELLAN: Right. It was a long time coming and understanding and
accepting the fact that, well, there's no weapons of mass destruction to be
found. The rationale that we sold the war to the American people on was
wrong. It took a long time to come to grips with that. And a lot of the
coming to grips was it was going back in over the better part of a year,
really reflecting on this and looking back on it and understanding it, because
when you're there in the White House, I mean, you have--and I still have a
great personal affection for the president. But you're caught up in it all,
and it's hard to see the larger perspective on things. I mean, really you're
in there 18 hours a day working day in and day out, traveling all over the
country and world as well. And, you know, you think that this is the way
things are done. And I've come to the realization that the ways things are
done needs to change. It's not the way that I would have preferred to do
things. But I very much was caught up in it, just like everybody else.

GROSS: You write about President Bush that he was insulated from the reality
of events on the ground and consequently began falling into the trap of
believing his own spin. When you say he was insulated from the reality of
events on the ground, it makes me wonder--and a lot of people have speculated
about this--does he really read the newspapers? Does he really follow what's
going on in the world, or is he perhaps intentionally kept insulated from that
so that people who are, for instance, driving some of the policy on the war in
Iraq, that they won't be questioned or challenged by the president?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Right. No, I understand. He does skim through the
newspapers and certainly look at some of the big stories. He resists reading
opinion pieces or editorials. You know, in his view, he says, `I already know
what they're going to say, why do I need to read that?' So I think it would
probably be better--and it's good for any president--to see a wide range of
views and even read the those and understand them. You know, you might just
learn something that you didn't think about, or if you can step back and
realize, don't take this personally, but set aside what might be certain
political perspective or partisan viewpoints in some of those and see if
there's anything you can learn from what is being said, the main points that
are being made there. And he--yeah, go ahead.

GROSS: But do you he intentionally insulated himself from information that
might contradict him or that other people within the administration were just
as happy that he not know, not be aware of information that contradicted his

Mr. McCLELLAN: There might have been some. And I certainly think that he
was not exposed to as wide a views as he should have been. I mean, I think
one of the things that needs to happen is to make sure that you have plenty
of, you know, independent experts on the outside that are constantly coming
and visiting with the president. And there were some, to an extent, but it
was not a very diverse group of people. I mean, I don't think that he had
people like Brent Scowcroft, his father's national security adviser, who
warned against going into Iraq, saying it was unnecessary back in August of
2002, coming in on a regular basis to meet with the president. I never saw
that. You had Henry Kissinger. But it would have been good to expose the
president to some--even Carter's former national security adviser, Brzezinski,
you know, who is a big critic of the administration. Well, why not put him
together with some others that have different views as well and bring them
into the White House and form a--so the president can be better informed about
some of these things. But the president is the type of person that, his view
is that he doesn't want to sit there and waste his time with someone who's,
you know, just going to sit there and be critical. To some extent that
mentality plays into his mindset.

GROSS: My guest is Scott McClellan. His memoir is called "What Happened."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Scott McClellan. He was the White House press secretary
from July '03 to May of '06. And his new memoir about those years is called
"What Happened."

I've got a John Hagee question for you. You devote some of your memoir "What
Happened" to social conservatives and their influence on policy in the Bush
administration. And I know when John Hagee, who's been so much in the news
lately, ever since his endorsement of McCain, which that's a bond that's been


GROSS: When he had his first summit for the Christian Zionist group that he
founded, Christians United for Israel, President Bush sent a recorded greeting
to Hagee and to the conference. Did Hagee have much sway within the Bush

Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, he was one of a number of evangelical pastors, social
conservative ones that were certainly part of our outreach at the White House.
We had a person and a public liaison that was specifically tasked with
reaching out to social conservative leaders. And so those leaders, yes, had a
heavy influence on some of the White House policies. And I think that was one
of the things that also hurt the president was that, at times it looked like
his emphasis was on some of these issues that were important to social
conservatives, like Terry Schiavo, like the constitutional amendment to ban
same-sex marriage, and stem cell research. I think a lot of people were
wondering, `Why are you spending so much time focusing on these issues when,
you know, there are issues on energy and health care and the economy that need
to be addressed?'

GROSS: So Pastor Hagee was influential within the Bush administration?

Mr. McCLELLAN: I'd say he was one of a number that certainly had some
influence and was able to quickly get someone on the phone at the White House.
So yes.

GROSS: So were there times when you were press secretary when you thought, `I
am not being honest with myself or with the American people'?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, I certainly wasn't on the leak episode, although that
was unknowingly. And I only learned that later. You know, I think that at
the time I felt like I was being sincere in what I was saying. Again, some of
it was badly misguided now upon reflection when I've looked back. But that
was because I was playing the Washington game the way it's played. At times I
was not comfortable in some of the pushback tactics that we used from a
communication standpoint. And that's what I've, you know--probably helped me
really to go back and do some careful research and careful reflection to try
to understand how Washington has gotten to this point today and why we
exacerbated it and how we might be able to move beyond it.

GROSS: Did the president cause problems for you just as a public speaker?
And I'm thinking, for instance, of a classic moment when he was asked by John
Dickerson, who is a Time White House correspondent, about the president's
biggest mistake after 9/11 and the lesson he learned from it. And as you say
in the book, the president's answer was rambling, rather incoherent and
ultimately unsatisfying. And basically you said, well, he couldn't think of
any mistakes he'd made, maybe he could think of it some time in the future and
it would be helpful if he knew about this question in advance but he wasn't
told. So, I mean, that rambling, rather incoherent, ultimately unsatisfying
description could fit a lot of the president's answers in public speaking.
Was it difficult for you to hear him sometimes kind of speak incoherently?
And did you ever give him feedback on that?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Yes, and I gave him a little bit of feedback, brief feedback
after the Dickerson question that you brought up. It was a painful one to sit
through, and even though it was pauses of seconds, it seemed like an eternity
at the time. And you're sitting there off to the side of your chair going,
`Come on, you can answer this.' But that was part of the problem. It was such
a straightforward and direct question about mistakes you've made. And this
president is not one to reflect a whole lot while he's in office. Someday
maybe he will more so on this, but also not one being willing to acknowledge a
mistake. And part of that is the environment in Washington, because as soon
as you admit a mistake you recognize people are going to jump all over it.
But that is a very telling moment.

And those are very telling moments, other ones similar to that, too, that show
that, yes, this president too was very much one who tried to stay on message.
And if you asked him that pointed question very direct, and sometimes
open-ended question like, `Can you think of any mistake you've made since 9/11
or in the post 9/11 environment,' and he can't answer it, it shows something
very telling.

GROSS: Earlier in the Bush administration, when insiders started leaving the
administration and writing books about the problems they had with the
administration, like Paul O'Neill's book, Richard Clarke's book, and you were
press secretary when Richard Clarke's book was written, did you read those
books and did they place any doubts in your mind about what was going on in
the administration?

Mr. McCLELLAN: I did not read those books. And part of it was just from my
position. And at the time I thought, you know, we're not going to get into
responding to these so, you know, I won't read them right now. And I look
forward to reading them now, though. And I think that they probably--you
know, I have no reason to question the motives for writing those books now,
looking back--and I actually ran in to Dick Clarke...

GROSS: Oh, I know, I heard about that.

Mr. McCLELLAN: ...and then apologized to him. And that's one of the points
is that, you know, yes, against Dick Clarke I was out there using our talking
points and questioning some of it when I haven't even read the book. So how
could I be ascribing motivations to it.

GROSS: But that's the point. Did you intentionally not read the book so, A,
it wouldn't raise doubts in your mind about Bush administration policy and
tactics, and, B, so that you could say at the podium `I haven't read the

Mr. McCLELLAN: Well, it was more so the latter. I think to a much lesser
extent than the former, of being able to go out there and say look, `I'm not
going to do a complete book review. We just don't engage in that.' So, yeah,
by not reading it I didn't have to worry about saying--I could say credibly
that I haven't seen specifically what he said or read specifically what he
said there. I'm not going to get into a book review.

GROSS: So you had to protect yourself against reading it?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Yeah, I guess that's one way you could look at it, yes.

GROSS: Good thing or a bad thing to do that?

Mr. McCLELLAN: Looking back, I would do it differently. I think I would try
to read those books at the time. And, you know, I was--when I took over as
press secretary I was 35 years young. I had not spent a lifetime in
Washington. There's a lot I've learned, and there are things that I would do
differently, including speaking up more about some of those concerns
internally. But this was, at the same time this was a White House that did
not, once the policy was set in place, the president expected everybody to
kind of march in lock step, did not welcome someone challenging or speaking up
internally once the policy was put in place.

GROSS: Scott McClellan, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. McCLELLAN: Thank you, Terry. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Scott McClellan served as President Bush's press secretary from July
2003 to May 2006. His new memoir is called "What Happened."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Ken Tucker on Ashton Shepherd's album "Sounds So Good"

Ashton Shepherd had the Nashville equivalent of a Lana Turner Hollywood
discovery story. Her mother drove her to the heart of the country music
industry and she showed up unannounced at the office of Jerry Kennedy, a
legendary Nashville producer who's worked with singers like Tammy Wynette and
Jerry Lee Lewis. Kennedy helped her get a record contract, and the result is
her debut album "Sounds So Good." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.

(Soundbite of "Takin' Off This Pain")

Ms. ASHTON SHEPHERD: (Singing) I've got a cold beer in my right hand
In my left I got my wedding band
I been wearing it 'round now for way too long
And I'm more than ready to see it gone
And I'm the only one who can set myself free
So I'm taking off this pain you put on me

(End of soundbite)

Mr. KEN TUCKER: Twenty-one years old from Alabama, Ashton Shepherd has the
voice of a blowsy 40-something on most of her album "Sounds So Good." And I
mean that as a compliment. Singing songs she wrote about ditching a stale
marriage, shaking off a suffocating domestic existence, and getting drunk to
blur the sight of an old love in a bar, Shepherd follows in the tradition of
country women from Wanda Jackson to Tanya Tucker to Dolly Parton. She knows
in her bones what the future can hold for a woman who doesn't stand up for

(Soundbite of "Regular Joe")

Ms. SHEPHERD: (Singing) I'm not trying to start anything
By coming up to you tonight
I know that he's yours now
It's sinking in with time
But tonight I've had too much to drink
And he stays on my mind
I just wanted to say he's the best thing you'll ever find

Cause he ain't your regular Joe,
You know?
And I'm the crazy fool that let him go
And if he says he loves you
Then that's what he means
He's the best man I've ever seen
I just wanted you to know
He ain't your regular Joe

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: Far from being a `fight for your right to party' affirmation
album, "Sounds So Good" is a big, ripe, commercial recording for the
commercial country industry of, oh, about 1983--that is, when fiddles and a
banjo and subject matter about working class life were still viable hit single
ingredients. Not for nothing does Shepherd name check Keith Whitley, a 1980s
king of casualty, on one song here.

Now, don't get me wrong. I really like the adolescent singer/songwriter
lamentations of country music's current it girl, Taylor Swift. But Ashton
Shepherd's details in a song like "I Ain't Dead Yet" with its careful scene
setting about how even a life with a good husband and a child can leave a
woman yearning for a cold one. Well, you let Shepherd sing that as the
fiddles swell up around her and you've got something like a classic.

(Soundbite of "I Ain't Dead Yet")

Ms. SHEPHERD: I've got a baby at home,
A to-do list a mile long
And a husband who comes home each night
I do the laundry, I cook and clean, it's my responsibility
And I'm usually in the bed by 9

But I still like a cold beer and a long dirt road
And listening to some Keith Whitley on the radio
Don't mean I ain't a good mama
Don't mean I ain't a good wife
I'm just like anybody else
That needs a break from time to time
And I know my obligations
And believe me, they are met
I may be getting older, but I ain't dead yet

(End of soundbite)

Mr. TUCKER: It's been reported that when we first heard her sing Grand Ole
Opry host and songwriting pro Bill Anderson said, quote, "This girl's so
country she makes Loretta Lynn sound like she's from Liverpool." Me, I haven't
heard any country singer since George Jones sing as lustily and heartbrokenly
about drinking too much. And I haven't heard any woman as young as this with
a voice of deep and knowing as Shepherd's. Think Patsy Cline just hitting
legal age.

I realize these are extravagant comparisons. And who knows, maybe she'll
never match the force of this major label debut. It's happened before. But
right now, Shepherd's got the most consistent, go for broke, to hell with you
country album out there.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
"Sounds So Good" by Ashton Shepherd.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with a recording by Bo Diddley. The rock pioneer has died at the
age of 79.

(Soundbite of "Who Do You Love?")

Mr. BO DIDDLEY: (Singing) I walked 47 miles of barbed wire
I used a cobra snake for a necktie
I got a brand-new house on the roadside
Made from rattlesnake hide
I got a brand-new chimney made on top,
Made out of a human skull
Now come on...

(End of soundbite)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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