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'What Happened' To Scott McClellan?

Here are 10 things we know for sure following the release of McClellan’s harsh new tell-all, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House And Washington's Culture of Deception.”
/ Source: National Journal

One thing’s for sure: President Bush and Scott McClellan won’t be kicking back on those rocking chairs in Texas like Bush predicted when McClellan left the White House two years ago. “I certainly don’t expect it any time soon,” the former press secretary said Thursday morning on NBC’s “Today.”

Here are 10 other things we know for sure following the release of McClellan’s harsh new tell-all, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House And Washington's Culture of Deception.”

Bush is toxic. The consistently unpopular president says history will judge him kindly, which may be the case. But McClellan’s book diminishes any prospect that Americans will view Bush favorably before Jan. 20, 2009. The more relevant, immediate impact of Bush’s low poll numbers and lack of credibility will be felt by John McCain and other Republicans on the ballot this fall.

So is Rove. Former Bush adviser Karl Rove has drawn rave reviews as a post-Bush commentator on FOX News. But according to McClellan, Rove was one of the major sources of turmoil in Bush’s second term. McClellan writes, for example, that the White House spent most of the first week after Hurricane Katrina “in a state of denial.” Specifically, he blames Rove for suggesting that Bush pose for cameras while monitoring the wreckage of New Orleans from the comforts of Air Force One. McClellan wrote that he and White House counselor Dan Bartlett opposed the idea, but he was later told that “Karl was convinced we needed to do it, and the president agreed.”

This White House placed little importance on press relations and day-to-day messaging. In response to McClellan’s book, Rove said, “It goes to show how out of the loop he was.” The comment says more about Rove than it does about McClellan; why would a White House intentionally leave its press secretary “out of the loop”? And why would Rove amplify this point, even after the fact?

Timing hurts McCain most. McClellan’s book is being released at perhaps the worst possible moment for McCain, as he holds a series of low-profile fundraisers with Bush this week. More importantly, the book comes out as McCain emerges from the shadows next week in a full-fledged general-election campaign after largely squandering a two-month window of Democratic infighting when he had an unobstructed bullhorn. This book helps Obama attack Bush, McCain and the Iraq war. It’s also harder for McCain now to make the case that the GOP is the party of “change”. “We got caught up in playing the Washington game the way it’s being played today,” McClellan said on NBC.

The case for Iraq is an even harder sell. While already a steep climb, McCain’s efforts to win this campaign’s debate over Iraq just got harder. McClellan writes that Bush was not “open and forthright on Iraq,” and that he sold the war through a “political propaganda campaign.” Democrats will point out that McCain supported and defended that “campaign.”

Bushies aren’t forever. Perhaps the most shocking part about McClellan’s book is that it’s hard to find a Bushie who owes more to this president than he does. He’s the first one to leave the camp (Matthew Dowd was never really part of the Austin clique). Will he be the last?

The White House is no longer the center of the universe. In a statement she fired off Wednesday morning, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino described McClellan’s book as a “sad” effort by a “disgruntled” former employee who’s now “not the Scott we knew.” But Perino’s statement was met with... silence. Or something close to it. More reports rolled in during the day of reaction from people running for president or their surrogates than anyone connected to the current president. Even though the book is a direct attack on this White House, the press is now past the point of focusing any level of coverage on its current occupants.

• Media feels vindicated. While McClellan writes that the media was too lenient on the Bush administration, his book this week prompted a round of “I-told-you-so’s” from White House reporters, who frequently charged that the press secretary was being less than direct with them in part because he was receiving mixed messages from within the White House.

McClellan plans to remain a player. His book has already surged to No. 1 on Amazon’s best-seller list. And as he begins a media tour to sell the book, he plans to fashion himself as a champion of bipartisanship and a critic of the “bitter Washington games” that he became disillusioned with while serving in this White House.

But he’s now the GOP’s persona non grata. McClellan, the youngest son of maverick Texas politician Carole Keeton Strayhorn (I), has occasionally been viewed warily from within Bush’s inner-circle. But now those whispers have turned to whips. Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin, among others, dug up this 2004 quote from McClellan when asked about Richard Clarke’s book blasting the administration: “Why, all of a sudden, if he had all these grave concerns, did he not raise these sooner?... He is bringing this up in the heat of a presidential campaign. He has written a book, and he certainly wants to go out there and promote that book.” As Pat Buchanan said Thursday morning on MSNBC, McClellan “does give meaning to the words ‘you’ll never work in this town again.’”

OK, one more item, which isn’t a “sure thing,” per se: Could McClellan actually support Barack Obama this fall? Talking to Meredith Vieira on “Today,” he said he hopes his book will become part of the current presidential campaign’s dialogue, and he said Obama’s message of changing Washington is “very similar to the one the president ran on in 2000.”