WASHINGTON -- In a shocking turnabout, the press secretary most known for defending President Bush on Iraq, Katrina and a host of other controversial issues produced a memoir damning of his old boss on nearly every level -- from too much secrecy to a less-than-honest selling of the war to a lack of personal candor and an unwillingness to admit mistakes.
In the first major insider account of the Bush White House, onetime spokesman Scott McClellan calls the operation "insular, secretive and combative" and says it veered irretrievably offcourse as a result.
In this April 19, 2006 file photo, President Bush, right, walks with White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, right, at the White House in Washington, after McClellan announced that he is stepping down as White House press secretary. [Agencies]
The White House responded angrily Wednesday to McClellan's confessional memoir, calling it self-serving sour grapes.
"Scott, we now know, is disgruntled about his experience at the White House," said current White House press secretary Dana Perino, a former deputy to McClellan. "We are puzzled. It is sad. This is not the Scott we knew."
McClellan was the White House press secretary from May 2003 to April 2006, the second of four so far in Bush's presidency.
He reveals that he was pushed to leave earlier than he had planned, and he displays some bitterness about that as well as about being sometimes kept out of the loop on key decision-making sessions.
He excludes himself from major involvement in some of what he calls the administration's biggest blunders, for instance the decision to go to war and the initial campaign to sell that decision to the American people. But he doesn't spare himself entirely, saying, "I fell far short of living up to the kind of public servant I wanted to be.
He includes criticism for the reporters whose questions he fielded. The news media, he says, were "complicit enablers" for focusing more on "covering the march to war instead of the necessity of war."
And McClellan issues this disclaimer about Bush: "I do not believe he or his White House deliberately or consciously sought to deceive the American people."
But most everything else he writes comes awfully close to making just this assertion, all the more stunning coming from someone who had been one of the longest-serving band of loyalists to come to Washington with Bush from Texas.
The heart of the book concerns Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq, a determination McClellan says the president had made by early 2002 -- at least a full year before the invasion -- if not even earlier.
"He signed off on a strategy for selling the war that was less than candid and honest," McClellan writes in "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception." The book is to go on sale June 1.
McClellan says Bush's main reason for war always was "an ambitious and idealistic post-9/11 vision of transforming the Middle East through the spread of freedom." But Bush and his advisers made "a marketing choice" to downplay this rationale in favor of one focused on increasingly trumped-up portrayals of the threat posed by the weapons of mass destruction.
During the "political propaganda campaign to sell the war to the American people," Bush and his team tried to make the "WMD threat and the Iraqi connection to terrorism appear just a little more certain, a little less questionable than they were." Something else was downplayed as well, McClellan says: any discussion of "the possible unpleasant consequences of war -- casualties, economic effects, geopolitical risks, diplomatic repercussions."
In Bush's second term, as news from Iraq grew worse, McClellan says the president was "insulated from the reality of events on the ground and consequently began falling into the trap of believing his own spin."
All of this was a "serious strategic blunder" that sent Bush's presidency "terribly off course."
"The Iraq war was not necessary," McClellan concludes.
McClellan draws a portrait of Bush as possessing "personal charm, wit and enormous political skill." He says Bush's administration early on possessed "seeds of greatness."