Guests: Scott McClellan, John Dean
KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST: Which of these stories will you be talking about tomorrow? The Rosetta Stone—Scott McClellan as his extraordinary book, “What Happened,” continues to detonate throughout the administration and the country. In his first primetime interview live here on COUNTDOWN.
His book, almost a means to decipher the last seven years, not just explaining how President Bush‘s administration mistakenly believed him and believed in him, but why.
From Texas, they thought they knew a policy first, partisan last leader, instead they got someone who, “... convinces himself to believe what suits his needs at the moment,”—like Iraq.
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SCOTT MCCLELLAN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Because of my position and my affection for the president and my belief and trust in he and his advisers, I gave them the benefit of the doubt. And looking back on it and reflecting on it now, I don‘t think I should have.
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OLBERMANN: McClellan witnessed nearly all of it: the outing of Valerie Plame, the exploitation of 9/11, Katrina, Gitmo and habeas corpus and truth in the time of propaganda.
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MCCLELLAN: Everything is centered on trying to shape and manipulate the narrative to one‘s advantage.
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OLBERMANN: Really? As in the continuing blowback? Dana Perino was puzzled and said; the president was sad and puzzled.
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DAN BARLTLETT: I‘m really just puzzled by him.
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OLBERMANN: And what isn‘t in the book. Did propaganda bleed into counterterror? Will he testify in front to the House, as requested by Congressman Wexler? And if all of this was done about war in Iraq, is the Bush White House, is the president, doing it again now about war in Iran?
Finally, a unique perspective on Scott McClellan from another White House loyalist turned critical realist, John Dean. Mr. Bush‘s former press secretary, Scott McClellan, his first primetime interview now on COUNTDOWN.
Good evening, this is Thursday, May 29th, 159 days until the 2008 presidential election. For punch and for brevity, just skimming the chapter titles may tell you everything: “Selling the War,” “Deniability,” “Triumph and Illusion,” Revelation and Humiliation” and “Out of Touch.”
Our fifth on the COUNTDOWN, the book by former White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, perhaps the most extraordinary collection of revelations about a sitting president since John Dean was sworn in before the Irving (ph) committee in 1973, continues today to make the metaphorical ground beneath the Bush White House shudder. It‘s author is here for his primetime—his first cable interview.
It‘s title, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington‘s Culture of Deception.” In its pages, Mr. McClellan alleging, among other things, that the Bush administration used a political propaganda campaign to sell the war in Iraq, managing the lead up to the conflict in such a way that the use of force would be inevitable; that Mr. Bush after vowing to alter the political equation, viewed and ran the administration as if it were a permanent campaign and instead of trying to do it differently, just tried to do it more effectively and more insidiously and more secretly.
Mr. McClellan writes that in defending the administration, although he was being sincere about the things he said in the White House briefing room at the time he said them, he has, “since come to realize that some of them were badly misguided.”
Scott McClellan joins us now.
Thank you for your time tonight.
MCCLELLAN: Good to be here, Keith. Thanks for having me on.
OLBERMANN: Who is more surprised that you‘re here, you or me?
MCCLELLAN: Probably the White House.
OLBERMANN: That‘s a good way to start.
That phrase, “you have since come to realize that some of those statements were badly misguided.” Not to put words in your mouth or insult you, but did you lie as White House press secretary at any point?
MCCLELLAN: Well, I did when it came to the issue of the Valerie Plame leak episode when I—unknowingly did so. I passed along false information. I had been given assurances by Karl Rove and Scooter Libby that they were not involved in the leak. And it turned out later that they were, but they both unequivocally told me, when I asked them, were you involved in this is any way? They said, no.
OLBERMANN: I‘m going to get back to Libby.
MCCLELLAN: And—obviously other times, yes, I got caught up in the Washington game in terms of the spinning and obfuscation and secrecy and stone walling and things like that.
OLBERMANN: I want to get, as I was saying, back to the entire Plamegate or Plame/Libby story, or Plame/Libby/Cheney story. But as I suggested in the opening here, this—to me, in reading, so far, about half of this book, it seems it is the Rosetta Stone for understanding the last seven years of American history. I would like to drop you in and out of key moments in that time. And—tell me what really happened and what you saw.
And I want to start more or less chronologically on 9/11, not 9/11 per se but 9/12, the day afterwards, the days afterwards. Did the president see this as much as a disaster? Did he see it as an opportunity do you think?
MCCLELLAN: The September 11 attacks?
MCCLELLAN: Well certainly he saw it as an opportunity to look at the war on terror in broad way and to try to implement this idealistic vision that he had of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East. I think that‘s what you‘re getting to.
OLBERMANN: Yes. In the sense that it was to some degree used—
OLBERMANN: What happened after 9/11 was used in this country?
MCCLELLAN: Well certainly it was to advance the Iraq policy.
OLBERMANN: The Iraq policy—to advance Mr. Bush‘s policies.
MCCLELLAN: Yes. Well, I don‘t know what the right word is that I
would use, but it was certainly—after 9/11 there was a whole change in
attitude by the administration and everything started centering around 9/11
what we were going to do to respond to that. And several people in his administration from the vice president to Secretary Rumsfeld to the president himself and some others took this very broad view that they were going to do some things that they wanted to do probably even before 9/11.
OLBERMANN: To that point, you write on page 127 about Iraq: “Bush pulled Rumsfeld aside in a private one on one discussion in late November 2001, as author Bob Woodward confirmed with the president, and instructed him to update the Pentagon‘s war plans for Iraq. Bush made sure this initiative was closely held, known only by a few people who could be trusted not to leak it. But it meant that, in effect, Bush had already made the decision to go to war, even if he convinced himself it might still be avoided. IN the back of his mind, he would be convinced on Iraq, as on other issues that, until he gave the final order to commence war, the decision was never final.”
So, the war began when in the president‘s mind?
MCCLELLAN: Well, not too long after September 11 -- in those few months after September 11, when he made the decision we‘re going to take a broad view of the war on terror and that Iraq is going to be part of that. I think that the decision had essentially been made, we‘re going to confront Iraq, and unless Saddam Hussein does something that—really I don‘t think anybody would expect he would do, like completely come clean, then we were headed on a path to war.
So I think the president, in a lot of ways, boxed himself in and left himself no out, partly because he was determined to go forward with the policy.
OLBERMANN: How did the vice president fit into this? How did—is the vice president responsible for the utilization of weapons of mass destruction in this kind of innuendo, I didn‘t really say that Iraq had anything to do with 9/11, but I left you with that impression?
MCCLELLAN: Well, I think there were a couple of times that he walked very close to that. He went further out than anybody else in the administration. I think the president was very careful not to make that in a direct way. But it‘s not the only issue where the vice president went further then others in the administration.
He also went further on the nuclear intelligence when he started asserting with certainty that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program. So what happened was, that the intelligence was packaged together in a way to make it sound more ominous and more grave and more urgent than it really was. I don‘t think that this was some deliberate, conscious effort to go and mislead American people, but it was part of this permanently campaign mentality that exists in Washington too often today and it was taken from other policies, and brought into the issue of war and peace where it becomes especially problematic and especially troubling.
And that‘s why I think what I get to in this book is so important for people to understand, so we that can learn from this and not make these kind of mistakes again where we‘re rushing into a war that now is very clearly one that was unnecessary.
OLBERMANN: To that point, there is, I think, actual poetry in here, and I don‘t mean to vainly flatter you here. But let me read something else: “Although I didn‘t realize it at the time, we launched our campaign to sell the war, what drove Bush toward military confrontation more than anything else was an ambitious and idealistic post -9/11 vision of transforming the Middle East through the spread of freedom. This view was grounded in a philosophy of coercive democracy, a belief that Iraq was ripe for conversion from a dictatorship into a beacon of liberty through the use of force and a conviction that this could be achieved at nominal cost.” A philosophy of coercive democracy—it‘s a marvelous phrase, but is it an oxymoron? Can you have coercive democracy and sort of extrapolating from that?
MCCLELLAN: That‘s a very good question.
OLBERMANN: But is that why we had—your choice of words here—
“enhanced interrogation or torture at Abu Ghraib, at Gitmo,” and maybe at other places?
MCCLELLAN: In terms of—I don‘t know on that. I didn‘t go—don‘t know the full policy details behind some of those issues, but certainly those have tarnished the reputation of the United States in a very negative way. And I think that has been harmful over the long term.
But in terms of the coercive democracy, that was—and you bring up a very good point about the oxymoron there—but that was always the strategy for going into Iraq in first place. And I think that is what really drove the president‘s motivation to push ahead and rush into this.
When I think that there were probably other options—there were definitely other options available to him. He didn‘t have to box himself in. But when he went to the United Nations he said, either he disarms and the U.N.—if he doesn‘t, then the U.N. goes in, or the security council authorizes it, or we will do it ourselves.
OLBERMANN: All right. Let me jump ahead to where we started, I with Plame. There‘s so much detail in the book and your role in it—the kind of make or break moment that it represented for you. If—you point out that day that the president confirmed that he was involved in declassifying parts of the NIE. In classifying parts of the National Intelligence Estimate, about Iraq and to use against Joe Wilson, is he, do you think, did he in essence or legally OK the leaking of Valerie Plame‘s CIA identity?
MCCLELLAN: Well, that‘s a question that I raise in the book. I don‘t know the truth behind it. But it did set in motion the chain events that led to the leak and to Valerie Plame‘s identity. I do not believe that the president was any way in—directly involved in the leaking of her identity.
But that was a very disillusioned moment when I found out—when it initially hit the press and we were I believe it was North Carolina, if I remember correctly. And the reporter shouted out to the president, is it true that you authorized the secret leaking of this previously classified information that the president does have the legal authority to walk on Air Force One?
And the president asked, what was the reporter asking. And I said, he asserted you were the one that authorized Scooter Libby leaking this information. And he said, yes, I did. And it really took me back. I could tell he didn‘t want to sit there and talk about it. And I walked back to the senior staff area on Air Force One, where I usually sit, and it took a while for that to sink in.
But that was just before I left. And at that point, I had made a decision that I could no longer continue in this administration. Now, there were changes coming in soon. I talked about this and Josh Bolten was looking to make some changes too. So my time frame was moved up a little bit from what I preferred. But that was the second defining moment that really caused me a lot of dismay and disillusionment.
OLBERMANN: Did you go into this kind of detail and the kind of detail that was in the book about the outing of Plame and what you knew or what you suspected with special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald?
MCCLELLAN: This is all consistent with I told the FBI investigators, the prosecutors -- and I don‘t believe Patrick Fitzgerald was at my grand jury testimony. I testified—I think it was early February of would have been 2004 and—what I knew—and all of this information is very consistent with what I told them.
But I did tell White House reporters when the revelations came out that Rove and Libby were both involved when they said they weren‘t, that my hands were tied by the White House Council‘s office. They said, we can‘t comment on this. So it put me in a very tough situation. I had been undermined by these two fellow colleagues and senior staffers, and I told the White House reporters at that time that some day I look forward to talking about this when this is behind us.
And I think they really knew that I was expressing my sincere desire to do so. And in this book I go into great detail, every detail, about what I know.
OLBERMANN: Was that a sort of warning that this book was coming? Did you know even that that was what you meant by that?
MCCLELLAN: I‘m sorry?
OLBERMANN: When you were going to—that you look forward some day to talking about it. Did you mean the book?
MCCLELLAN: The book, no. I wasn‘t thinking about it at this point. I was still at the White House. But as I left the White House—I think you need some time to kind of step back from being in that bubble to really be able to reflect on events and try to understand and make sense of them. Because, when I went to work for the president, I had all of this great hope like a lot of people that he was going to come to Washington and change Washington, as he had governed in Texas, as bipartisan governor who had 70 percent approval.
It didn‘t happen and I wanted to go back and look, why didn‘t that happen? Why did things go so terribly off course from what he promised?
He assured people he was going to be a bipartisan leader, a person of honor and integrity, restore honor and integrity to the White House. Where did things go wrong? That‘s really the overall narrative in the book, but certainly the Plame episode was a defining moment for me that is a central part of the book.
OLBERMANN: That is what I found so useful at the beginning of the book was this context of why it was, not that just you all believed in this man, but why you believed in him. What it was—you just explained it—that background, from seeing him in that sort of idealized, bipartisan role in Texas which he had not recreated—or certainly—there‘s a little time left in administration, but I‘m not expecting some sort of great conversion, where he is going to be bipartisan president in the last few months.
But did you hold onto that belief to the very end? IN that famous
good bye scene, were you still thinking maybe he is suddenly going to turn
into what he was in Texas, maybe my faith in him will be restored? Is that
was that the kind of rationalization that was at work there?
MCCLELLAN: Well I don‘t think I held on to it until the end. When we came in, we got some bipartisan achievements accomplished on tax cuts and on education reform, education reforms that I really believed in as part of his agenda. But by the time the Iraq war started to—well, I think it‘s critical that in a time of war, that you not only build bipartisan support going into it, but that you also maintain that support.
And to do that, you really have to embrace a high level of openness and forthrightness from the beginning. Because when expectations turned out to be unmet or improperly set, it came back to haunt us. And the president is not someone to willingly go and change course in terms of his thinking when it comes to, oh, we made a mistake on this front.
And so, I think that at the time I was there, I started realizing or started thinking that, well, maybe Washington can‘t be changed. Maybe this is just the way it is and both parties share all the responsibility.
But no one shares more responsibility than the president of the United States to set the right tone and to change things, and no one has more of a bully pulpit to be able to do that. But it requires embracing candor and honesty to a high degree, particularly in this transparent society that we live in.
And this White House was too secretive or has been too secretive, too compartmentalized, and you know, too willing to embrace the unsavory political tactics that are at the heart of the excesses of the permanent campaign.
OLBERMANN: We‘ll continue with Scott McClellan on that issue, in part the great disillusion and the great question, why wasn‘t what was in this book written or spoken or shouted from the rooftops in, say, 2004?
OLBERMANN: We continue with Scott McClellan‘s first prime-time interview about his revelatory book, “What Happened.” First, as preface—more reaction today. The former e-campaign director for President Bush‘s 2004 reelection campaign, Mike Turk, e-mailed TheHuffingtonPost.com to say Scott McClellan is, quote, “getting savaged for saying what everyone knows to be true.” Adding, “People had high hopes for President Bush to bring America together after his election and after the attacks on 9/11. They felt disillusioned by the administration‘s adoption of the ‘win at all costs‘ partisan mentality in this town. I think the bigger point of Scott‘s book comes from the lessons he learned while playing a part in the permanent campaign. It‘s an exploration of how that mind-set can lead to some really bad choices.”
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Turk appears to be the only former Bush appointee sticking up for Mr. McClellan. Secretary of State Rice, while technically refusing to talk about the book itself, went on to take on its major premise, telling reporters in Sweden today, quote, “You can‘t now transplant yourself into the present and say we should have known things that we in fact did not know in 2001, 2002, 2003. The record on weapons of mass destruction was one that appeared to be very clear.”
Speaking of clear, the reaction from Mr. McClellan‘s former colleagues in the White House could not be more so. His former boss, Ari Fleischer, initially slightly sympathetic, saying today, quote, “Poor Scott. Scott is about to borrow some friends for 24 hours on the political left, who will throw him out as soon as they are done with them, and he‘s burnt an awful lot of bridges to people who really always thought fondly and highly of him.”
As promised, Scott McClellan is back with me here in New York.
Those reactions. Have there been worse? Are you at risk? Has it been worse than just nasty words?
MCCLELLAN: Well, I think it‘s to be expected. It certainly is a little surprising how personal some of the words have been, but the White House would prefer that I‘m not out there talking openly and honestly about these very issues.
I felt it was very important to go back and reflect on this and openly address these issues, my time and experience at the White House and what I learned from it. So that we hopefully can move beyond these partisan excesses that have existed over the last 15 years because of the permanent campaign mentality that exists in Washington, D.C.
OLBERMANN: Have you been surprised that most of the criticism has been personal, as opposed to say, refuting facts that perhaps you got right and nobody wants to talk about that?
MCCLELLAN: I have noticed that. There are two things I would say with that. One, some of the people that are making those comments are almost trying to judge the content of the book, judge me and my motivations for writing the book, and they haven‘t even read the book.
And the second, which you bring up, is that I haven‘t seen people refuting specific parts within the book. Dan Bartlett earlier today, when he was doing an interview right after me or in between segments with me, said, well, we need to set the leak episode to the side. And the other day, he said, well, I‘m not going to talk about the Katrina part, because that‘s internal deliberations. So I did find that very interesting.
OLBERMANN: Crossing off 9/11 and Iraq, and that‘s pretty much the entire presidency, is it not?
MCCLELLAN: There you go.
OLBERMANN: Everybody else has reacted to this book. Here‘s your chance. You had rapped Richard Clarke when he came out just before the 2004 election for criticizing the president, and the question to him was, “why wait so long?”
Why didn‘t this epiphany, this kind of public version of the epiphany, as a book, as an admission, as testimony somewhere, why did it wait until now? Why didn‘t it happen in some way in, you know, 2004, 2005?
MCCLELLAN: Sure. Well, some of the—you mentioned earlier, in one of those—one of those e-mail responses, the ones at the HuffingtonPost. But I went into this very much believing that the president was somewhat committed to being a bipartisan leader and that he was going to reach across the aisle and that he was going to change the way things worked in Washington, D.C. And I had hopes that he would be able to do that.
I was deputy press secretary during the buildup to the war. Like a lot of Americans, I wasn‘t certain about the rush to war, that it was the right thing to do. From a moral standpoint, I believe we should not be going to war unless it is absolutely necessary. And we now know that it was not absolutely necessary with regards to Iraq. It was not the grave and gathering danger that we portrayed it as.
But I also, like a lot of Americans, was in that post-9/11 mind-set and gave the president and his foreign policy team the benefit of the doubt. They had been widely applauded for what we had accomplished in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, in terms of going into Afghanistan and removing the Taliban, and some of the other steps that were taken.
So, you know, at that point in time, I was very much putting my trust in the president and his team, and what was being said.
As I left the White House, my last 10 months became a period of disillusionment, beginning with the Rove revelations that he had been involved in the leak episode, and ending with the revelation that the president authorized the secret leaking of the National Intelligence Estimate, or at least parts of it. And so, I was becoming more disillusioned.
And then when I left the White House, I think I needed time to step back and take off that partisan hat and really reflect on this. I wanted to think through, why did things get so badly off track?
And I did that. I spent a good bit of time thinking about this, writing the book. The book was actually supposed to be out a little bit sooner, but I wanted to make sure I got this right and that it reflected my views very clearly, and that they were accurately reflected throughout the book.
This book does. These are very much the views that I hold today after looking back and reflecting on things and learning from it.
OLBERMANN: All right. But Karl Rove says and Dana Perino says and quotes the president as saying, oh, we never heard you express any of that stuff while you were here. Dan Abrams made a pretty good point here on his show last night: Whistle-blowers or people who are not happy in an environment and see something wrong with it, may make an internal attempt to correct things, or maybe they won‘t. But they don‘t usually stand there for 10 months batting their heads against the wall, saying I can make this better if I complain enough.
What would have happened to you if you had gone to somebody above you and said, “we are misleading the American public about,” you know, just fill in the blank—Iraq, Valerie Plame, even 9/11? We‘re misleading—what would have happened to you and to the government?
MCCLELLAN: Well, you know, it would have been interesting. I don‘t know, since that didn‘t happen. But there was not a lot—well, let me step back, I guess, a little bit, because—go back through some of that period again.
Again, I continued to believe in this president as we were going into war and the immediate aftermath, and when I took over as White House press secretary. But if you go back and read one of chapters in the book, I talk about becoming White House press secretary, and I had some qualms. I delayed the announcement, because I was concerned about whether or not I could do the job the way I wanted to do it. I was coming in, in the middle of—or as we were gearing up for an election year—and I knew that no one wanted to change the way things were being done, that they wanted to continue—that position to continue basically operating the way it had been operating, and not getting too out front of the president and not making a lot of news and so forth.
So you know, I did have those qualms, but I made the decision that this was a unique opportunity and made the decision to go forward with it.
OLBERMANN: One other reaction to this that I‘d like to get your reaction to. Congressman Wexler, who suggested after what you have said here, that you should be testifying to Congress about this administration. Do you agree with him and would you?
MCCLELLAN: One, you know, I don‘t know that there‘s much more benefit to me going before Congress. I haven‘t really thought about it. I‘m glad to share my views, and I share them fully in this book. I‘m not sure exactly what he‘s calling for me to talk about, but everything I know about the leak episode is in this book. So I really haven‘t spent time thinking about it.
OLBERMANN: Scott McClellan also writes of, quote, “propaganda,” how he was used, how as a result you were used. When our interview continues next on COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: We rejoin you with former White House press secretary, Scott McClellan. His first primetime interview after the publication of his book “What Happened.”
All right—propaganda, you write of its use in the book and you write of the supposed liberal media not really doing its job for—not being dubious enough, particularly about Iraq but let me read this.
“Trying to make the WMD and the Iraqi connection to terrorism appeared just a little more certain, a little less questionable, than they were, quietly ignoring or disregarding some of the crucial caveats in the intelligence and minimizing evident that pointed in the opposite direction, using innuendo and implication to encourage Americans to believe as fact some things that were unclear and possibly false (such as the idea that Saddam had an active nuclear weapons program) and other things that were over played or completely wrong such as implying Saddam might have had an operational relationship with al Qaeda.”
I think many in the media—liberal or otherwise, would rant and rave and say no this is not possibly true and then tell you off the record yes, we did lay back, possibly for patriotic reasons, possibly for fear. A lot of things involved. But I‘m interested because there‘s no real mention of this in the book, what about the supposed conservative media and obviously the symbol of that is Fox News.
What was Fox News to you and to the White House? Was it a friendly cousin, house organ, was it the choice for funneling propaganda? What was it?
MCCLELLAN: Well—there certainly are allies there that work at Fox News and there‘s one story that I‘ve told before, I didn‘t include it in the book, but during the vice president‘s hunting accident, which was another disillusioning moment for me because I was out there advocating get this news out and get it out now and of course the vice president said, no, no, no, and then decided to send it to the Web site where the Corpus Christy Caller-Times Web site, as opposed to getting it out widely to the national media.
OLBERMANN: I remember.
MCCLELLAN: And caused me a lot of fun at the podium for three days before the vice president decided that he was going to go out and talk about this after a little nudging from the president. And we were standing outside the Oval getting ready for a meeting and he looked at me, and he said, you already know why I picked Fox News to do this, because I want everybody else to have to cite Fox News when they do their report.
It‘s just kind of the attitude of the vice president about things. We‘ve seen his attitude, that kind of attitude, in other comments he‘s made when doing interviews as well. Such as with Martha Raddatz, when she asked and he responded with the, “So.”
OLBERMANN: That people don‘t agree with this policy and it was, “So.”
MCCLELLAN: Right. That was his answer.
OLBERMANN: What did you know, or did you know anything, about the story that “The New York Times” reported last month, that the Pentagon had essentially these quid pro quo deals with retired generals who, while presenting themselves on many of the networks as disinterested observers, in fact were still involved in companies that still had dealings with the Pentagon. It was a very dicey situation journalistically.
Did you know about it? Did you know you had a staff of generals working for you in some respect?
MCCLELLAN: That I didn‘t know about. That was pretty much left for the Pentagon to run their way.
OLBERMANN: The—this next question I know is going to come across -
and I can‘t resist it—it‘s going to come across to some degree as self aggrandizing, but relative to the media, and I‘m asking this for every person who ever came up to me on the street and said, I feel like I‘m going out of my mind living through this, this cannot be the America that I grew up in.
Were the critics in the media and outside the media of the president largely right?
MCCLELLAN: In terms of the Iraq war?
OLBERMANN: Specifically that, and you can go out in any direction you want. But specifically in terms of Iraq.
MCCLELLAN: Well—I think certainly in terms of Iraq there was a lot that they were right about. As I went back and reflected on this, it‘s not that I‘m necessarily aligned with them on some other views and things, but certainly on the buildup to the Iraqi war, we should have been listening some more to what they were saying, the American people should have been listening a little bit closer to some of what was being said.
But I, like a lot of Americans, was caught up in the moment of post 9/11 and wanting to put my faith and trust in the White House and president I was serving.
OLBERMANN: Does it cost you—and I ask this question sympathetically—does it cost you sleep when you hear about another casualty in Iraq that you would have had that much to do with that war?
MCCLELLAN: I used to walk, and I talk about this in the book, I used to walk alongside the president when he would visit the fallen. And it has a very profound effect on you. Our troops are doing an amazing job. They have succeeded; they‘ve their job. And they‘ve done more than they—should have been called on to do in first place. And they continue to do an amazing job.
But I have been there in the room with the president when he walked in to comfort families of the fallen or walked into—I remember vividly, and I talk about this in the book as well, when the president walked into a room at Walter Reed and you had a young mother with the boy, I think was in the 7-year-old range and his father is sitting there in a wheelchair with bandages wrapped all around his head. None of us, you couldn‘t tell if he was knew what was going on around him.
It was just a powerful moment, very moving moment. The president was moved by it very much so. I could see in his eyes how moved he was by it. And I talk about that in the book. You don‘t forget those moments.
OLBERMANN: But about Iraq, you had write in the book, “In the permanent campaign era it was all about manipulating sources of public opinion to the president‘s advantage.”
Was this true about homeland security to your knowledge, to any degree? Because that has been a suspicion, obviously, of a lot of the president‘s critics. Did the White House manipulate at any point, to any degree, the threats of terror for the president‘s advantage?
MCCLELLAN: I can‘t speak to that. That was more in some policy maker realm that again—in part of the compartmentalized White House. That‘s not something I explore in the book because I don‘t have direct knowledge of some of that.
OLBERMANN: But there is a press conference—it pertains to the White House and the threat to the nation, and they did not clue you in on it?
MCCLELLAN: Well there were certainly times when I was involved in some of the threats. I remember it was over the holiday period, maybe 2004, when there were threats—
OLBERMANN: Christmas time flights threats?
MCCLELLAN: Yes, the Christmas time flights. And I did sit in on some national security or counterterrorism meetings then and there was a real concern then. But I can‘t speak to some of the other meetings that might have occurred.
OLBERMANN: One more break then we look ahead with Scott McClellan, the 64,000 person question, the White House did all this for a war in Iraq. Are they now doing all this all over again for a war in Iran?
OLBERMANN: And now we‘ll conclude Scott McClellan‘s first primetime interview by looking ahead. All that is in the book, as I have already described it, kind of a Rosetta Stone for the Bush administration, about Iraq, you wrote, “But today as I look back on the campaign we waged to sell the Iraq war to the American people, a campaign I participated in, though I didn‘t play a major role in shaping it, I see more clearly the downside of applying modern campaign tactics to matters of grave historical import. Reflecting on that period has helped crystallize my understanding of the permanent campaign, with its destructive excesses and how Washington, in its current state of partisan warfare, functions on mutual deception. The picture isn‘t pretty.”
Scott, are they doing that now about Iran?
MCCLELLAN: I certainly hope that that is not the case.
But we don‘t know; I don‘t know. I should say it that way. But they are still in this permanent campaign mode. They haven‘t backed away from that. I can‘t speak specifically to what the intent is in some of the people‘s heads there. I think that our options are certainly limited with all of our commitments right now, but I hope that when people look and read this book, that they will learn some of the lessons from Iraq and that we won‘t make some of the same mistakes that we‘ve made elsewhere.
OLBERMANN: So knowing what you know, if Dana Perino gets up there and starts making noises that sound very similar to what you heard from the administration, from Ari Fleischer in 2002, from other actual members of the administration and the cabinet, you would be suspicious?
MCCLELLAN: I would be. I would be.
I think that you would need to take those comments very seriously and be skeptical.
OLBERMANN: Some thing in here about the campaign ahead that actually touches on the campaign in past years—from page 68 -- “No campaign was more single-mindedly centered on bringing down an opponent than that of George Herbert Walker Bush. The campaign was by most objective accounts, full of distortions, misrepresentations and zero-sum politics accusing Dukakis of everything from embracing furloughs for dangerous criminals to disliking the Pledge of Allegiance,, the innuendo being that he was unpatriotic.
The Pledge of Allegiance—that sounds a little familiar. Why 20 years later is that still being used against a candidate for the president of the United States?
MCCLELLAN: I don‘t know. I think that that it is how our politics has gone over that—since that was very much a turning point election. I think that George Bush, George Bush 41, George Herbert Walker Bush, is a decent individual and a man that really believes in stability. But he and his advisers around him knew that the only way that they could win was bring down his opponent and go fully negative and paint Michael Dukakis completely to the left. A guy that had painted himself—that had a record of trying to work to the center in a lot of ways. And that legacy continues to this day.
And Senator McCain says that he‘s going to speak out against that and not let that happen. I think that would be good for the country if that is the case. But, there‘s certainly plenty of groups on the Republican side that are going to go forward with that kind of strategy.
OLBERMANN: A truce would be nice.
I guess this is the final question, I‘m going to go back to the idea of loss of bipartisan opportunity. I have always thought that the moment at which Mr. Bush missed that opportunity, the last moment where he could have seized it and said, no, this is bigger than just Republican versus Democrat—the day the buzz started about how he was going to fill this new position of the homeland security director. And it was—he‘s thinking outside the box. And I sat there and I had this little flutter in my heart, and I thought, he‘s actually going to do what Roosevelt did in the Second World War, to some degree what Lincoln did during the Civil War, he‘s going to put a Democrat in the cabinet. Maybe not in charge, maybe it‘s a token. Maybe it‘s a couple of them. Maybe it‘s Al Gore.
Would something like that have made that bipartisan dream a reality?
And was that really the point of no return for him?
MCCLELLAN: I think it would have helped certainly to have a cabinet that was more diverse in terms of party affiliation. There was only one, that was the transportation secretary, Norm Mineta, a good person. But I think it‘s a lesson for whoever is going to be the incoming president.
That they really ought to reach out, if they want to change the way things work in Washington, and bring a number of people from the—maybe three or four key people into their administration and the cabinet would be a good place to do that to show that they are going to govern to the center and govern in a bipartisan way.
OLBERMANN: I have 30 seconds left as it turns out. Have you decided who you‘re voting for, supporting in the presidential election this year?
MCCLELLAN: I have not made a decision. I am thinking very carefully about that, but I‘ve been so focused on the book that—I want to take my time and hear what the candidates have to say. I‘m intrigued by what Senator Obama has been running on about changing the way Washington works.
I‘ve had respect for Senator McCain, as well for the way he has worked across the aisle with Democrats.
But I‘m going to take my time and think it through.
OLBERMANN: Scott McClellan, I don‘t want to get too fulsome on you, I don‘t think you‘re going to be dining out on the book for the rest of your life, but I think this is a primary document of American history. I‘m very impressed with it and I think at some point, people will be teaching history classes based on it.
MCCLELLAN: Well thank you very much. I appreciate it.
Thanks for having me on.
OLBERMANN: And thanks for all your time. Scott is now going to go through this all over again. Sunday he will be Tim Russert‘s guest on “Meet the Press” and the word guest is used advisedly. “Meet the Press” with Scott McClellan Sunday on your NBC station, and in the evening again here on MSNBC.
As I suggested at the beginning, this may be the most revealing look at any sitting president since John Dean was sworn in by the Urban Committee in 1973. John Dean on Scott McClellan next on COUNTDOWN.
OLBERMANN: Lots of people know what it‘s like to work in a bubble, where groupthink prevails, ends justifies means and critics become enemies. Precious few knows what it like work in a bubble where the world is watching and the boss has the button. And even fewer now what it‘s like not just to escape that bubble, but also to go back and pierce it from without. Our number one story tonight, Scott McClellan meet John Dean.
When Dean testified and later wrote about the sins of the Nixon White House, as witnessed from his vantage point as White House counsel, he too was vilified in the moment, vindicated by history. He has since written that this administration was worse than Watergate in a book he called “Worse Than Watergate.” Good evening, sir.
JOHN DEAN, AUTHOR, “WORSE THAN WATERGATE”: Good evening, Keith.
OLBERMANN: Our interview with Mr. McClellan just now, your first impressions.
DEAN: It was a fascinating interview, and I‘m delighted you gave him full time as opposed to just sound bites. My impression is—and it runs throughout the interview—is that this is what I would call from the Watergate days a modified limited hang out. And I say that not because he was malevolent in his desire to put it out there. But press secretaries, Keith, know very little in the big picture of what‘s happening in the White House. They are pretty much told what the policy makers and other political people in the White House want them to know so they don‘t compromise themselves and they can try to be as honest as possible when they are out briefing the press.
That‘s why I think it‘s limited, but yet fascinating for what it is, and he certainly does nail a few things down.
OLBERMANN: I asked you off the air if your reaction, your intrinsic reaction was empathy for him. And your reply was, I can tell him what he is in for for the rest of his life. Tell me or tell him by proxy through me.
DEAN: Well, he‘s going to lose some friends, as he already has discovered. He‘s not going to get a Christmas card from the Bush White House this year, even though it will be the last one. What also he‘ll discover is at some point his words will be very closely parsed and they will turn them on him. They‘ll try to accuse him of things he never dreamed he was involved in.
This they do to discredit him. If he‘s striking too close to the bone, they‘ll go after him. He‘s in for some rather interesting days ahead and he‘ll find out who his true friends really were and are.
OLBERMANN: As a matter of fact, he mentioned that in the makeup room, that he‘s already beginning to find that out. Is there an evolution in the process that you recall? Are there stages? Is it likely he‘ll come back at some point and say yes, I told the truth in this book but wait, there‘s more? Is there a long distance climb down from this process? Are you so inside the bubble that even when you think you‘re out, it still sticks to you in some degree?
DEAN: Interesting point and good point, because as you do get distance and realize the reaction from the first time you try to explain what was really going on and realize there are other things you might talk about and had better talk about, you‘ll get perspective. I think we might hear more from him. He‘s really quite unusually—when he said who he is going to vote for, he‘s not saying I‘ll go down the party line. He‘s obviously think about where his life is. It sounds like he‘s something of an independent right now.
OLBERMANN: Part of that bipartisan Texas thing, his mother was first a Republican mayor of Austin or candidate for it and—first a Democrat then a Republican. That explains that to some degree. Place him and what we have seen here in the historical context of the revelations about a still incumbent presidency and take a starting date out of thin air. Pick June 25th, 1973 and just work from there. How does he fit in?
DEAN: Actually, I think I‘ve read all of the memoirs of everybody who served in the White House at one time or another, going all the way back as early as I can find them. This is an unusual one. We‘ve not had—my situation was of course testimony. I was under oath. There was an intense investigation going on. This is really not in the same context. I can‘t think of anything quite similar. I was thinking about press secretaries. The only one who has come anywhere similar was Ford‘s press secretary. who resigned over the pardon and his disquiet with the pardon, where he said he was unhappy with what was going on.
Ron Nissan (ph), to a degree, was fairly frank but he had left office. When I look back at all press secretaries, this is probably about the only time I can think of a press secretary ever really coming forward while a president was still there and laying out some of the ugly truth.
OLBERMANN: Is there anything to do with this information, other than add to the historical record? You have the Plame outing, Bush‘s commutation of the Libby sentence, Bush‘s involvement in the leak, do the acts constitute obstruction of justice or grounds for an investigation? Because impeachment would be the logical follow up here, but, obviously, the clock on impeachment is running down if it hasn‘t run down already.
DEAN: On the obstruction, he told you he had given everything he had to in the special prosecutor who was investigating that. I don‘t think there‘s anything new there. He will discover in his new life subpoenas will come his way and he‘ll have to be wrestling with whether or not he really believes this mythical position that the Bush administration has taken about executive privilege, that they can somehow block somebody from testifying.
As far as impeachment, I think we are too far down the road. Just the mechanics of starting it—I didn‘t find anything so far in the press accounts I have read. While there‘s a lot of revelation and a lot of troubling things in there, something that will ignite an impeachment drive. It will take more than—It somewhat is corroboration of what we already knew.
OLBERMANN: Yet, it is extraordinarily worth while and greatly informative just by who the source is.
John Dean, author of “Worse than Watergate” and “Broken Government” and in Scott McClellan‘s story, we are reminded once again of the process that you faced in 1973 and 1974. And again, our thanks for doing what you did then and thanks for being with us tonight.
DEAN: Thank you. He can look forward to a good life not having these burdens to carry.
OLBERMANN: Yes. Thank you, John.
That‘s COUNTDOWN for this 1,885th day since the declaration of mission accomplished in Iraq. I‘m Keith Olbermann, good night and good luck.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.