McClellan isn't 1st aide to tell all

Rarity of access to Bush, Iraq issue make his book unusual

May 30, 2008|By Jill Rosen and David Nitkin | Jill Rosen and David Nitkin,Sun reporters

With former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's book catapulting to the top of the best-seller lists - even before its official release - one might mistake him for the first loose-lipped presidential insider.

Only the latest.

McClellan, actually, is assuming his position in a long line of presidential aides with stories to sell, joining a bipartisan club whose recent initiates include George Stephanopoulos and Ari Fleischer.

But what sets this book apart, publishing experts say, is McClellan's inner-circle access to a famously guarded administration and his surprisingly harsh testimony. It also has everything to do with the book's release at a moment when interest in politics is at fever pitch and when war has pushed President Bush's approval ratings into the gutter.

"All of those things add up to sales - and it's all about sales" says Pat Schroeder, president and CEO of the American Publishers Association. "He's like the equivalent of a jilted lover. but with a news hook."

McClellan, a longtime Bush associate who left the White House in April 2006, has told interviewers he hoped his book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception, would be like a political air freshener, renewing grace to a world that "increasingly dismayed and disillusioned" him.

The spokesman, known in his White House days for remaining largely mum, has said he steeled himself for the inevitable fire his book would draw. Bush officials and loyalists have pronounced McClellan everything from a turncoat and a sellout to simply "sad."

Yesterday on the Today show, McClellan, who was deputy press secretary during the lead-up to the war, tried to explain why he didn't question or criticize the administration's over-selling of the war agenda at the time.

He said his affection for the president and respect for his foreign policy team offset his initial misgivings.

Former White House counselor Dan Bartlett was on hand on Today to deliver an immediate, Bush-friendly rebuke.

"I would not personally participate in a process in which we are misleading the American people, and that's the part that I think is hurting so many of his former colleagues," Bartlett said. "To think that he is making such a striking allegation against his former colleagues, to me, is beyond the pale."

Though they're paid to spin reporters, more than a few former White House press secretaries besides McClellan also picked up the pen - often to the dismay of their one-time bosses.

By writing All Too Human, which included less than flattering details about Bill Clinton, Stephanopoulos provoked a snub from the former president.

In 2005 Fleisher's Taking Heat was too fawning about the Bush administration to generate much heat. Ronald Reagan's spokesman Larry Speakes, however, threw some punches in his Speaking Out, prompting Reagan to sniff, "I can tell you right now that I have no affection for these 'kiss and tell' books."

There used to be almost a code of honor that those close to a presidency wouldn't reveal anything until after the commander in chief left office - or better yet after he died.

Even now, says Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University professor who studies the relationship between the press and the president, "people keep it pretty private." "When they leave a White House," she says, "they don't talk about why they did so."

But if those insiders want to write a book, today's publishing world, driven by the 24-hour news cycle mentality, can't afford those old-fashioned niceties.

Bethanne Patrick, a Publishers Weekly blogger, says McClellan's book, landing in the midst of an election where the shadow of the Iraq war looms large, comes at "absolutely the golden time."

Despite the Bush administration's outrage over the memoir, this president has probably been the target of more insider tell-alls than any previous president, says James Hoopes, Babson College professor and author of Hail to the CEO: The Failure of George W. Bush and the Cult of Moral Leadership. In Against All Enemies, former terrorism czar Richard Clarke criticized the Bush administration's handling of the terrorist threat before Sept. 11, 2001. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill sharply criticized Bush's economic policy in Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty. David Kuo, a former assistant to the president and a director of the office of faith-based initiatives, questioned the president's compassionate conservatism in Tempting Faith.

"In short, we've heard it all before," Hoopes says. But "the McClellan book will be a bigger deal than the earlier ones because it is doubly hurtful to Bush to have his spinmaster say that the president is all spin."

And unlike those other books, McClellan had the rare, real access to the White House's inner circle.

Bush's most elite cadre - particularly those aides and advisers, who, like McClellan, were with him from his time as Texas governor - are known for loyalty, a quality much valued by the president.

When they fracture that trust, they pay the price in scorn.

"I can show you the tire tracks," Clarke said on CNN this week.

Former Bush political strategist Matthew Dowd endured a similar backlash after publicly breaking with the president last year over the Iraq war.

McClellan's book is getting more hype than most of the others combined.

He had better enjoy it while it lasts, experts say. "Next year," says George B. Moore, a University of Colorado English professor, "you won't be able to sell a copy of this for 50 cents on a used-book shelf."

Schroeder, who calls the book "too hot to hold" now, expects it to chill quickly - after making serious money.

"I'm sure it's got a good month," she predicts. "It's not like it's going to become a textbook or something, but it's going to be a very vibrant part of the dialogue in this political season we're in."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com david.nitkin@baltsun.com

Wire reports contributed to this article.

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