Guests: Michelle Bernard, Rachel Maddow, Michael Smerconish, Robert Draper
DAVID GREGORY, MSNBC ANCHOR: Tonight, what a difference a memoir makes. Scott McClellan speaks out about his bombshell tell-all book, says he gave the president the benefit of the doubt on the war, but now he regrets that he did. The RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE rolls on.
Welcome to the RACE, I‘m David Gregory. Happy to have you here. It is your stop for the fast pace, the bottom line, and every point of view in the room. Tonight we have Scott McClellan‘s first comments about his book covered. We also go inside President Bush‘s war room to gauge the White House response to this one-time loyal aide now breaking ranks.
At half past, a debate. Is a political insider ever justified in betraying his boss, in this case, the president of the United States? We‘ll have some other headlines from the campaign trail as well. The bedrock of the program, as you know, a panel that comes to play.
And with us tonight, Michelle Bernard, president of the Independent Women‘s Voice. Rachel Maddow, host of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America. Michael Smerconish, radio talk show host on WPHT in Philly, and columnist for both The Philadelphia Enquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News. And for the first time Robert Draper, GQ national correspondent and author of a terrific book called “Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush.”
We begin as we do every night with everyone‘s take on the most important political story of the day. It‘s the “Headlines.” I‘m going to get us started here tonight. My “Headline,” inside Bush‘s brain. What struck me most of all about this book was Scott McClellan‘s criticism of the president‘s decision making.
On “TODAY” this morning, he expanded on his claim that Mr. Bush shies away from intellectual debate and is loathe to reassess a policy. Watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SCOTT MCCLELLAN, FMR. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: He largely is a gut player. I mean, I think he will admit that, that he goes on gut instincts when he makes decisions. And that‘s what happened in the decision to go into Iraq. I think very early on, just a couple months after—a few months after September 11th, he had made a decision that we‘re going to confront Saddam Hussein and if Saddam Hussein doesn‘t come fully clean, then we‘re going to go to war.
So there was really no flexibility in his approach. And then it was put on the advisers, OK, how do we go about implementing this? How do we go about doing this?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: By now you know McCain—McClellan, rather, is under fire from all sides. Why didn‘t he share his views with colleagues when he was on the inside? Are these really his views inside this book? It‘s not just Bush insiders, but those of us who covered the White House, who read these words and say, this doesn‘t sound like Scott.
But what all this criticism doesn‘t acknowledge is the liberation that he may have felt finally escaping the bubble of the White House, a sense of freedom to express what he really felt. A colleague of mine wrote to me today to say he noted sincerity in McClellan‘s account, a clarity about what he didn‘t like about his experience.
The book makes clear that McClellan felt burned by senior advisers and perhaps by the president himself. Was he naive? Perhaps he was. But as this character debate plays out, it is worth considering that in writing this book, this man, who dedicated nearly a decade to George W. Bush, has now in all likelihood thrown it all away.
He will become a pariah in Bush circles, lose his friends, and will likely never speak to the president again. It‘s a pretty big step to take. Others will now have to decide whether he acted out of principal or committed an unforgivable act of betrayal. That‘s my take tonight.
Michelle Bernard, you‘re thinking about the cautionary tales about this book for the candidates on the campaign trail. What‘s your headline?
MICHELLE BERNARD, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely, David. My “Headline” is “memo to Obama and McCain: campaign culture does not die. You know, Scott McClellan in his book tells a really important story for all the candidates to listen to, which is basically that your idealism and promises of change sound great, but they‘re not necessarily realistic. Let‘s take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCCLELLAN: When I went to work for President Bush back in 1999, then Governor Bush, I had all this great hope that we were going to come to Washington and change it. He talked about being a uniter not a divider. This was a president that had a record as governor of Texas of being a bipartisan leader, of someone who brought people together to get things done, an approval rating well into the 70s. And then we got to Washington and I think we got caught up in playing the Washington game.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERNARD: Yes, and what you see from that, from him on the “TODAY” show this morning, David, is something that we were seeing with both Senator Obama and Senator McCain. They are both campaigning as agents of change.
You know, Senator McCain says, look, I‘m an agent of change. I‘m not a typical Republican. Don‘t paint me with the Republican brush. And Senator Obama is saying, look, I‘m not President Bush, I‘m a uniter, I‘m an agent of change. And what history has showed us and what Scott is also telling us in his book is, you come into Washington with idealism, but Washington is very difficult to change and it‘s an important lesson for both of the candidates to hear.
GREGORY: Rachel, you‘re thinking about what impact this memoir has on the campaign. It has put Iraq back on the front page.
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: I think that‘s right. The political campaign has to a large extent driven the coverage of the war in Iraq off the front pages of the nation‘s newspapers. I the McClellan revelations really put it right back on those front pages. Check this out.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCCLELLAN: Contradictory intelligence was ignored. Intelligence that had a high level of confidence was combined and packaged with intelligence that had a low level of confidence and together that made it sound like the threat was more urgent and more grave and gathering than it really turned out to be.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MADDOW: It‘s just like hearing the Marlboro Man saying smoking kills. This puts it right back on the front page. Condoleezza Rice, traveling in Sweden today, is getting asked by reporters if Saddam‘s weapons are really the reasons we went to war. McClellan is alleging that Bush intentionally ignored evidence that contradicted the White House about—the White House line about why we were going to war.
The Iraq debate in this campaign is not going to be just about what to do going forward. That‘s ground on which Republicans feel they can compete well. Turns out we‘re still going to be talking about how the war started. That‘s probably bad news for McCain and Clinton. It‘s probably good news for Obama.
GREGORY: All right. Smerc, you‘re thinking about the other side of this. The memoir and its impact on McCain.
MICHAEL SMERCONISH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I am, David. Politically speaking, I think President Bush is trapped in the cellar. And John McCain, like it or not, is down there with him. And what I mean by that is that the president‘s already low approval ratings don‘t show any sign of getting a rebound between now and November.
You‘ve got Barack Obama continually tying John McCain to the president of the United States, and it certainly doesn‘t help McCain when you‘ve got Bush loyalists like McClellan saying things like this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCCLELLAN: 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SMERCONISH: Call me naive, I always thought that there was an opportunity if things stayed quiet in Iraq that the president‘s approval would come back single digits, a couple of points. I see no prospect of that now. And that‘s going to hurt John McCain through the fall.
GREGORY: All right. Robert Draper, welcome to the program. You‘re thinking big picture tonight. Your headline?
ROBERT DRAPER, AUTHOR, “DEAD CERTAIN”: Yes, my headline, David, is that loyalty has its limits. It‘s worth remembering that Scott McClellan was in a lot of ways the poster boy for George W. Bush‘s tendency to award loyalty over raw talent. I think it‘s fair to say about McClellan that he was not the most erudite of press secretaries, didn‘t have a commanding stage presence.
What he was, however, was a Bush man through and through. Now those loyalties appear to have taken a shift. Let‘s take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCCLELLAN: I have a higher loyalty than my loyalty, necessarily, to my past work. That‘s a loyalty to the truth and it‘s a loyalty to the values I was raised on.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
DRAPER: Now, that‘s a real shift, obviously. But the shift in loyalties began really in 2006 when Josh Bolten came in as chief of staff and decided that loyalty had its limits and decided to replace McClellan, believed that McClellan had outlasted his usefulness.
That, I think, laid the predicate for this. And it‘s ironic that the White House now appears shocked that McClellan is not appearing loyal. The double irony, obviously, is that McClellan got to where he is by being the quintessential company man.
GREGORY: Yes. By being so loyal. And it‘s interesting, the episodes in the book, Scott with his wife, his wife not understanding why he would be pushed out. He was told to basically get out within a couple of weeks. He wanted to do it over a period of months. So it became a bitter experience for him.
A lot more coming up here after we take a break. Coming up immediately, disgruntled, a left-wing blogger, a bridge-burner, those are some of the things McClellan‘s former coworkers are now saying about him. We‘re going to go “Inside the “War Room” of the White House to gauge how they‘re handling it. Will the president say something at some point on the record? The RACE will come back right after this.
GREGORY: Welcome back to the RACE. Time for a special edition of the “War Room.” From the White House to his former coworkers to the presidential hopefuls, everybody has had a day to digest McClellan‘s book. And now they are out with their responses. And they‘re mincing any words.
Back with us, Michelle Bernard, Rachel Maddow, Michael Smerconish, and Robert Draper. First up, what does the president do to blunt McClellan‘s blows? The first reaction was to go on the attack, suggesting that McClellan‘s charges are made up. Dana Perino stating this.
“Scott, as we now know, is disgruntled about his experience at the White House. For those of us who fully supported him before, during, and after he was press secretary, we are puzzled. It is said, this is not the Scott we knew. The book, as reported by the press, has been described to the president. I do not expect a comment from him on it. He has more pressing matters than to spend time commenting on books by former staffers.”
The charge here is that this is made up, it‘s not sincere, that McClellan is just in it for the money. So it deflects the charges in the book evolving into this larger character test for McClellan.
Is that what you see, Rachel?
MADDOW: It is. It‘s kind of the invasion of the body snatchers attack. You know, this guy who we used to think was a rational, quality member of the administration and a friend is now criticizing us and saying something we don‘t like. So he must have been hijacked by alien beings or George Soros.
I mean, to go after McClellan as aggressively as they have, I think it‘s not only an attempt to undermine the charges of the book, it‘s also a warning shot to anybody else who would consider going this far off the reservation in the future.
GREGORY: It just shows you, Robert, this is, again, not a group that has something like this happen. People just don‘t break ranks.
DRAPER: No, it‘s very distinct, this book in that regard. I would refine what Rachel said just a little bit and say that what it sounds to me, the charges that they are making, is that basically the publishers put McClellan up to this. That he may have been a little disgruntled, may have felt badly about getting cut loose, but that it was not within him.
And I think they expressed the surprise, because as Dana Perino has said the other day, she and McClellan would see each other socially and he never once brought up that he had any kind of concerns, the way Matthew Dowd, as campaign strategist for Bush in 2004, often did talk to people like Mark McKinnon and Dan Bartlett about his reservations about the war.
GREGORY: Right. Here‘s—talk about Dan Bartlett. Here‘s another tactic. Dan Bartlett on the “Today” show this morning, discrediting McClellan by what he was exposed to as press secretary, that in fact he was not involved in the policy-making process, particularly in the formulation of the war. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAN BARTLETT, FMR. WHITE HOUSE COMM. DIR.: When Scott, in his book, alleges that there was a lot of manipulating and propaganda and shading of truth, in that case, he was a deputy press secretary in charge of domestic affairs, and he was not in those meetings, he did not hear those deliberations when the president was deciding as to whether to send troops into Iraq.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Yes. In other words, Smerc, the argument here is, he can have his views about the war, but if he‘s pointedly saying that this was what was behind selling the war, what was behind the formulation of the war policy, how would he know?
SMERCONISH: I think it‘s a credible charge to raise against Scott McClellan, that at that time, he was on the B team and doesn‘t have first-person knowledge. In response to what Mr. Draper said, I think it should be pointed out that the comments of Scott McClellan on the “Today” show this morning belie that charge that this is the work of the publisher and not the work of McClellan himself, because he didn‘t back off from anything, having watched that exchange.
And I think that the way the White House ought to respond to him is to be dismissive and say little. The last thing they should do is give more heft to this story and allow you to come back tomorrow night and talk extensively about it again.
GREGORY: Yes. All right. But, Michelle, the question is, does he have standing to make these—this commentary? To make these judgments? I think when he talks about Bush the decision-maker, he certainly has standing to do that. He‘s up close. He knows the guy. He has been around him.
When it comes to war policy, I do think that‘s a different matter. McClellan was involved in selling the war when he became press secretary, he was privy to some information prior to that, but he wasn‘t in the room when it came to what the intelligence was or what ultimately would be the policy for the war.
BERNARD: Absolutely. I completely agree with you. I think yesterday—I saw Karl Rove speaking at another network yesterday and the statements that he gave really talking about just how out of the loop Scott McClellan was when dealing with Iraq War policy, was a pretty strong indictment against that portion of McClellan‘s book.
I think it‘s damaging and I think that it absolutely passes the sniff test. Now, when McClellan in his book talks about Bush as being smart enough to be the president, however, he‘s really somebody who is not reflective and goes more with gut instinct, those are damaging comments by him, because he has been a Bush—was a Bush loyalist, I should say, for many, many years and has been with the president since he was the governor of Texas.
And that is problematic for the Bush administration, but I also agree with our previous panelist. The administration does not really need to address this.
GREGORY: All right. I want Rachel to give a comment here. But first this, the book drawing ire from former White House insiders, begging the question that when you tell all, does it reflect on you, or does it reflect on the subject of your attack? I think a lot of these insider accounts tend to raise that question. McClellan‘s former colleagues clearly siding with the president. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KARL ROVE, FMR. WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF: This doesn‘t sound like Scott, it really doesn‘t, not the Scott McClellan I‘ve known for a long time. Second of all, it sounds like somebody else. It sounds like a left-wing blogger.
ARI FLEISCHER, FMR. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECY.: 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‘re done with him. And he has burnt an awful lot of bridges to people who really always thought fondly and highly of him.
BARTLETT: To think that he‘s making such a striking allegation against his former colleagues, to me, is beyond the pale.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Comment, Rachel?
MADDOW: I think that the vituperativeness and the speed and the volume at which he has been denounced is itself a story. I do think that this is meant to be a warning shot. I would also say that we should pay some attention to what Scott McClellan says about that charge that he wasn‘t involved in the war decisions, that he wasn‘t important enough to know what was going on there.
He says that he was filling in regularly as press secretary then. He was in on the relevant meetings. He is speaking for first person experience. And I think we should pay attention to what they said about somebody like Paul O‘Neill when he came out as treasury secretary and wrote his critical book.
They said, oh, we never listened to his crazy ideas anyway. He was just treasury secretary. That‘s part of the attack on his credibility.
GREGORY: Well, two points. It was easier to marginalize Paul O‘Neill because he was generally off the reservation, and at that point, it was easier to say, the guy was just sort of off the talking points.
Here, it‘s true, he did fill in. But even at the highest level, even if you were the press secretary, there was an aspect of this debate on the war that you were simply not a part of. You became part of it tangentially in ultimately selling the war.
But the role of press secretary under this president was restricted by its very nature from the beginning. All right. We‘ve got to take another break here. Coming up next, “Smart Takes,” people in glass houses by waiting to voice all of this criticism, does Scott McClellan do the very thing he criticized Richard Clarke—who was the counter-terror adviser for the White House, remember, he wrote that critical account, did he do the same thing to him four years ago?
We‘ll get into that when we come back.
GREGORY: Back now the “Race” with Smart Takes. We‘ve combed the newspapers, the magazines, the Web to bring you the most provocative takes on Scott McClellan‘s book. Here again, Michelle, Rachel, Michael and Robert. First Smart Take tonight. Scott McClellan says that he wrote this tell-all book, to speak truth to power and spur change in Washington, but McClellan wasn‘t quite so generous with those who broke ranks when he was the press secretary.
Listen to what McClellan said in early 2004 when former counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke alleged in his book, “Against All Enemies,” that the administration knew Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Politico gave us the heads up. Before you roll that, remember, the knock against McClellan is, why didn‘t he speak up sooner with his concerns? The question McClellan was asked in the briefing was, why did Richard Clarke write this book. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Why all of a sudden if he had all these grave concerns did he not raise these sooner? This is 1 ½ years after he left the administration. And now all of a sudden he‘s raising these grave concerns that he claims he had. And I think you have to look at some of the facts. One, 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.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Robert, comment?
DRAPER: Yes. You know, I think, one can make too much of the timing, but I think what‘s salient about this is that there weren‘t many dissenting voices in the run-up to Iraq. Now Scott McClellan is telling us that he was one of those, that he was one of the few people with access to the president who had reservations about going in. Maybe it wouldn‘t have made any difference to say anything, it certainly hasn‘t made much difference now. It‘s come way to late in the game.
SMERCONISH: Hey, David, can I get in on that?
GREGORY: Yes, go ahead.
SMERCONISH: The last statement, I‘m so glad you put this up. Certainly let‘s look at the politics of it. This is what I‘m asking, everybody‘s asking, why did he write the book? I‘m asking, why is it published now? This guy is a political junkie, like the rest of us. Surely he knew that this was not going to bode well for John McCain if in the thick of this presidential race his sentiments came out. If we take him at face value, that he wants to correct the historical record, why didn‘t he do it next January, February or March? I think this is fairly significant.
GREGORY: All right, let me get another Smart Take in here. Rachel, you‘re on deck for this. The second Smart Take—John Dickerson says, “The way the White House is personally attacking McClellan now, like current White House Press Secretary Dana Perino calling him disgruntled, only supports the claims of McClellan‘s book.” “The attacks,” he writes, “on his character tend to reinforce the heart of McClellan‘s account of the CIA leak case, that the White House smears its critics. And even if McClellan was out of the loop on the response to Katrina—it appears lots of people were—and was not have been in on Iraq planning, neither was then-Secretary of State Colin Powell very much, that doesn‘t undermine its central and most damning critique about the administration utter lack of candor. He describes the administration as one that too often chose in defining moments to employ obfuscation and secrecy rather than honest and candor. As the press secretary who transmitted the president‘s message, McClellan has standing to talk about whether the messages he was transmitting and shaping had truth behind them.”
MADDOW: I think that it is important to note that a lot of the things that McClellan is critiquing are the things that he spoke. And he may not have been the guy that came up with the ideas behind the words that he said, but he was the mouthpiece. That‘s why I saw this is like hearing from the Marlboro Man that smoking kills. You know, the Marlboro Man didn‘t invent cigarettes, but he sure did become the face of them to the country.
I think that the most damning thing in McClellan‘s book—and I leave I might be alone on this on the panel tonight—is that he says that the Bush administration knowingly ignored evidence to the contrary of the case they were making for the war. We ought to have a debate about whether or not McClellan had standing to make that case. But I think that‘s the most damming thing, none of this processed stuff.
GREGORY: OK, fair point, and certainly a lot of critics will point to that. You didn‘t need McClellan‘s book, however, to have formed that judgment. There is objective data that has—you know, to make that claim before other people have done it.
Got to take a break here. Coming up next, we continue with three questions. Don‘t go away.
GREGORY: We‘re back on THE RACE for the back half. We poured through Scott McClellan‘s book to give you some of the highlights, delivered all the responses to it. Now we‘re posing our panel the big questions coming out of it all. Back with us now, Michelle Bernard, president of the Independent Women‘s Voice, Rachel Maddow, most of “The Rachel Maddow Show” on Air America, both MSNBC political analyst, Michael Smerconish, radio talk show host on WPHT in Philly and columnist for both “the Philadelphia Inquirer” and the “Philadelphia Daily News,” and for the first time joining us, Robert Draper, “GQ” national correspondent and author of “Dead Certain, The Presidency of George W. Bush.”
First up, a view of President Bush‘s leadership from someone inside the West Wing; McClellan describes the commander in chief as intelligent, quote, plenty intelligent, instinctive, with a uncanny ability to compartmentalize when approaching problems. But he also says the president has a fear of appearing weak, as well as a resistance to reflection, intellectual debate, and change.
The first question today, what do we know about President Bush that we didn‘t know before. Michelle?
BERNARD: Well, you know, that‘s a very—that‘s very interesting section of the debate in McClellan‘s book. I‘ve got to tell you, there are elements of the book that really seem sort of unseemly and have a “National Enquirer” element to them. For example, there‘s the section of the book where McClellan talks about whether or not the president ever used cocaine. And in the book, he goes on to say that the president, you know, says that he honestly just can‘t remember. And one of the things that I question, because I do find this very tabloidly and unseemly, is why bring it up? What is he telling us, that President Bush is no different than Bill Clinton, who smoked but didn‘t inhale.
You‘ve got to ask yourself, why was this included in the book and what purpose did he think it served by writing that about the president, especially when the book was published at this point in time.
GREGORY: But Robert, the point of that was to say that he‘s telling a reporter on the phone, you know, there‘s all these inquiries about whether he did cocaine and I just don‘t remember. And McClellan says, how do you not remember that, and was this an instance of Bush convincing himself that he didn‘t remember or that he didn‘t do it, and that it was kind of out of convenience. And that he did it a lot and ultimately would do it when it came to Iraq, in terms of believing what he wanted to believe.
DRAPER: The cocaine thing, I‘ve got to use the line before someone else does, does not pass the sniff test. But I think also the book reinforces a lot of things. One thing that I found interesting was, and this was sort of unintentionally self-revealing, that McClellan mentions the Katrina matter, and how Karl Rove ordered at the time the flyover—that he ordered the photographers to go up to the front of the plane to memorialize Bush sort of staring over the stricken city.
If Rove made that call, I find that really weird. That‘s the press secretary‘s call. And it‘s the comment on the dysfunctionality, I suppose, or McClellan‘s failure, inability to control Rove, that he didn‘t or wouldn‘t veto that. He left that up to Rove to make that decision.
GREGORY: It says something, Rachel, about the structure—this goes back to something we were talking a few minutes ago—within the White House. You have a counselor to the president, it was Karen Hughes, who often fought with Karl on communication matters and strategic matters, because she was in some ways closer to how Bush wanted to communicate to the American people, but Rove was perhaps closer to the political mationations inside the president‘s brain, inside of his thinking. And here was another instance of it, where all these people are kind of butting heads because McClellan says he and Bartlett agreed this was not the right course of action, this flyover and taking the picture of it.
MADDOW: That muddiness of the hierarchy shows you how much policy and politics and P.R. all were merged into one thing, that you couldn‘t tell who was in charge of it, because it all felt like the same task. I think the really interesting thing about the fly over section of the book is that when you look at what Scott McClellan said when he said came back to Washington and was back behind that podium talking about the response to Hurricane Katrina, what he did was he criticized people for playing the blame game and going after George Bush and criticized the blame game against the administration, where he‘s now saying in his own book that at the time he had his own deep reservations and worries about the way they were not responding to the crisis.
GREGORY: I want to move on, Smerc, but I want to get to the point about the war. Is there anything about the war, the run up to the war, the decision making, that you feel you learned out of this book that we didn‘t know before?
SMERCONISH: I don‘t want to minimize the whole charge against the administration of having massaged the evidence to take us to war. That‘s one of the beefs I had with this administration that I supported on two occasions. But what‘s new here? What‘s explosive about this book other than the speaker? And I‘ll phrase it differently. If this were written by someone on the periphery or an outsider to the administration, would we even be discussing it? Because it seems to me there‘s no one smoking gun in any of this, even the cocaine discussion. You don‘t have him doing a little blow. You have him talking about did he or didn‘t he?
GREGORY: What seems to be the power of the book is that he was an insider. Even if he wasn‘t in on the decision making, it‘s somebody who breaks ranks to say there was all this inertia within the White House to follow the president and believe in him, and I look back on that and think that was the a bad idea. Let me get to number two, there‘s been no shortage of books criticizing the Bush administration. Bob Woodward‘s “State of Denial.” Thomas Rich wrote “Fiasco.” Michael Isikoff‘s “Hubris,” largely on the leak matter.
There have been other tell-all books from disillusioned Bush insiders, like “The Price of Loyalty,” about Paul O‘Neil‘s experience as treasury secretary, “Tempting Faith” by David Kuo, who headed up the Office of Faith Based Initiatives. John Dilulio wrote another piece. Former CIA director George Tenet, Iraq war architect Doug Feith, ex counter-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke, have all sharply criticized the administration in the books. But McClellan wasn‘t just an insider, he was for a time the voice of President Bush, now making perhaps an unprecedented move of speaking out publicly while the president is still serving in power.
So the second question, what impact does McClellan‘s book have that other tell all books do not have. Robert, do you have a feeling about this?
DRAPER: I certainly do. Scott stands completely apart from all the others. The others were people who served in the Bush administration. McClellan was a Bush man. You have to remember, they go back to Texas. He served under him for seven years. This is really the first book to break ranks—the first individual to break ranks from within that loyal core.
GREGORY: Yes, Matthew Dowd did it, Michelle. He was the pollster. He didn‘t do it in a book. He was not somebody as close to Bush who had worked for him as long.
BERNARD: And the reason for the differentiation here is that it is just—it sort of just shocks the senses that someone who was this close to the president would not only write this type of a scathing memoir about his life in the White House, but also do it at this point in the election cycle, have the book published at this point in the election cycle. It hurts the president only in the sense that Scott was very close to President Bush. He was a quote/unquote Bushy. But the president‘s approval ratings probably can‘t get any lower than they are at this point in time.
What it will do is hurt Senator McCain in the general election because whomever the Democratic nominee turns out to be, they‘re going to continue to use the allegations in this book from a quote/unquote Bushy to tie Senator McCain to President Bush. So you really have to question his motives and why now? Other than the monetary gain that I‘m sure will come with the book.
MADDOW: David, I would—
GREGORY: Rachel, go ahead, and I‘ll ask you a follow-up question. Go ahead.
MADDOW: I was just going to say, I think the thing that this will do is it does echo a lot of the things that people in the press and people on the left and people who are political opponents of Bush have been saying for a long time. But it, essentially, rubber stamps them. It essentially verifies them and says, yes, I was there; what you guys have been saying is right.
So maybe it isn‘t a smoking gun. Maybe it isn‘t new. But the only thing that could be equivalent to this is if we had this kind of book from Karen Hughes or Alberto Gonzales or Karl Rove. There‘s just this handful of Texas loyalists who built George Bush and came to Washington with him. To have it go this deep means that you can‘t get a bigger stamp of approval without going inside the Bush family.
GREGORY: I think there‘s a difference between Scott McClellan and even Dan Bartlett or Rove or Karen Hughes. In the scaffolding, it‘s a different level. Those two—Rove and Hughes in particular—were really present at the creation and did help to form his political persona. The question I was going to ask, Rachel, this debate about whether these are his words, his thoughts, did he have a publisher who somehow nudged him and said, look, you‘ve got to write a controversial piece here; will that matter? Does that become determinative of his credibility and the impact of this book?
MADDOW: It matters if it sticks. Kind of for the same reason that I was just making. Because what he‘s saying essentially verifies so much of the criticism that has been levied against Bush, if they can say, oh, he‘s been body snatched by a Bush critique, then they can say, this is just the same old story. There‘s nothing new here.
If McClellan can maintain his independence and say, you know what, this is actually me. i haven‘t been taken over by a foreign body. I‘m not a spokesperson for George Soros and MoveOn right now. I‘m still Scott McClellan, then I think it will stand apart and have the kind of big impact it feels like it‘s going to have right now.
GREGORY: Let me get to number three; finally, Scott McClellan says, the words didn‘t come easy, but believes he‘s serving a higher loyalty in revealing what he lived and learned inside the Bush White House. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SCOTT MCCLELLAN, “WHAT HAPPENED”: I have a higher loyalty than my loyalty, necessarily, to my past work. That‘s a loyalty to the truth and it‘s a loyalty to the values I was raised on. I talk about my up-bringing in a political family that talked about the nobility of public service and the importance of speaking up and making a positive difference.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Many will see what happened, the memoir, as an indictment of the president, but today McClellan said this about his former boss.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCCLELLAN: I continue to have great affection for George W. Bush, to this day.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you believe you‘ll ever talk with him again?
MCCLELLAN: I don‘t know. I certainly don‘t expect that anytime soon.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GREGORY: Third question, then; are political insiders ever justified in betraying their bosses? Robert, it‘s kind of at the heart of this debate, isn‘t it?
DRAPER: Sure. Yes, it is. And I think the answer is, of course, they‘ve got to follow their conscious. You know, the question is, why is he arriving at this conscious-stricken moment just now? And I think that‘s a salient question, and I think that some of it may go to what you were saying before. Upon exiting the bubble, and exiting as unceremoniously as he did, and being out now in the real world, and being in the world where Bush is a very unpopular president, it perhaps tweaked his conscious in a way that being inside the bubble did not.
GREGORY: Yes, but you know, Smerc, there are others like Colin Powell who had misgivings, we know about that debate at the time. He didn‘t come out and openly criticize the president. There‘s a feeling that if you do this while the president is still in office, it violates a kind of unspoken code, and that it shouldn‘t be done.
SMERCONISH: I happen to believe that. And I think that the core question you‘re asking is whether there‘s a justification for whistle blowing, and the answer is, well, yes, of course there is. But where are the goods? What exactly does he have here? And what does he have that couldn‘t weight seven months. I want to go back to something I said earlier, that I think Michelle is buying into; I questioned his motivation relative to the presidential cycle.
Let me say it flat out. Does Scott McClellan wish to see the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States? Because surely he knew that this was going to come back to haunt John McCain.
GREGORY: Rachel, what do you say on this overall question?
MADDOW: I think, you know, whistle-blowing is one thing, but what Scott McClellan is doing here, it‘s like a variation of whistle-blowing. What he‘s saying is this presidency was riddled with huge mistakes that the American people haven‘t really grappled with. And the worst allegations you‘ve heard from the left and his political opponents, they‘re true. And I want you to know about them before you vote for the next president.
GREGORY: But what do you mean by—what do you mean that the American people have not grapple with them?
MADDOW: They haven‘t grappled with them because the fight about, for example, the lead up to the Iraq war has been caricatured as critics of the president who are attacking because they don‘t like, and they‘re attacking him for political grounds, versus people who know what really happened, and know that the president was just duped like all the rest of us. That‘s the way that has been caricatured by the president‘s supporters, by the Republican party, and honestly, by John McCain‘s campaign.
McClellan is saying, that‘s not the way it was. What they‘re saying—what the critics are saying is right about George Bush and you need to know that.
GREGORY: Michelle, I think there‘s a different debate about the level of debate in the country prior to war. I think that‘s different from grappling with the Bush presidency after Katrina, after the war has followed the course that it‘s followed. I think that grappling has happened.
BERNARD: Yes, I absolutely agree. I think the grappling has happened. I think the people will continue to go back and forth. But I think what most importantly is going to come out of this book is that many Americans will sit back after dust sort of settles and ask themselves, why did Scott McClellan do this? Why did he do this at this time? And it‘s not just endangering the president‘s legacy, but people will ask, has he endangered the country in any way as we are getting ready for probably the most historic elections we will see in our lifetime?
Is he endangering the country? Is he endangering the electorate? Why did he do this? And if he was speaking because he feels that he is doing a great good for our nation, why didn‘t he speak out years ago when he became disaffected with what he was seeing in the administration?
GREGORY: I think that what we‘re not seeing here that is certainly part of this is this is a guy who feels like, A, he‘s got a story to tell and felt burned by the administration. He‘s a loyal guy, maybe he was naive, as I pointed out at the top. But he felt like he had been mishandled and that his credibility as a press secretary, which is so important, was yanked from underneath him by people that he trusted. And I think that comes through in these pages as well.
We‘re going to take another break and come back with some other political news, a special edition of headlines dealing with some of the other aspects of THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE today. Don‘t go away.
GREGORY: Back now with THE RACE. We‘ve spent the past 45 minutes focusing on Scott McClellan‘s revealing book about President Bush, his accusations, the raging response. Now we‘re going to switch gears a bit and fill you in on what‘s going on in the ‘08 race. Still with us, Michelle Bernard, Rachel Maddow, Michael Smerconish and Robert Draper. Let‘s check in with everyone yet again and get their headline on the ‘08 campaign.
Michelle Bernard, you have a headline on a new roadblock for Hillary Clinton. What is it?
BERNARD: David, my headline tonight is Nancy Pelosi now stands in Hillary‘s way. Conventional wisdom is telling us that Senator Clinton is going to take this race all the way to the convention. Today we have an interesting thing come up in this campaign. Nancy Pelosi‘s done an interview with the Chronicle out in San Francisco and she says that this election cannot go to the convention, that the decision has to be made prior to then and that if a decision is not made this weekend, she‘s going to step in in June.
So here‘s the interesting question for Senator Clinton. Does she speak out against Nancy Pelosi, particularly given the fact that she has come out and said that sexism and you misogynist men are standing in her way and holding her back. What does she do when a woman says, I‘m going to intervene and I‘m not letting this go to the convention.
GREGORY: We‘ll see. Robert Draper, you‘re talking about missed opportunities for Obama in Florida. What‘s your headline?
DRAPER: My headline is for Obama another failure to connect. We‘ve learned that the Clinton supporters are going to stage this huge demonstration outside the DMC this weekend. This is how the Obama camp responded. They said, “we are not encouraging our people to gather in protest. With a click of a mouse in the mid Atlantic, we could get thousands of people there. But in the interest of party unity, we are not encouraging a protest. We don‘t think a scene is helpful as we try to bring the party together.”
This strikes me as a failed opportunity and very much of a piece of the Obama who failed to connect in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. This was an opportunity for him to show some empathy, to use a Clinton phrase, that he feels the pain of the supporters. Instead, he‘s waving the wand and saying unity now. I don‘t think it‘s going to work that way.
GREGORY: Rachel, you‘re thinking about end game for the Democrats.
MADDOW: My headline today is that there is no magic number for the Democrats. In the Democratic race, the question of who‘s wining the popular vote in the primaries is bull puckey and it always has been. Democrats pick their nominee based on delegates and delegates only. The bombshell that has quietly burst is that it looks like we will not know how many delegates a Democratic candidate needs to clinch the nomination until their convention in August, with the DNC lawyers saying only the Credentials Committee has the authority to accept or reject Clinton‘s argument about seating all the Florida and Michigan delegates.
Credential‘s Committee decisions get ratified at the convention with no agreed upon magic number for winning, I think Obama can‘t clinch. Then Clinton—
GREGORY: Smerc, less than 30 seconds.
SMERCONISH: Hillary‘s new math. Democratic lawyers in anticipation of this weekend‘s rules committee meeting cast doubt on Senator Clinton‘s ability to count all of Florida and Michigan. So it is down to this for her. She‘s got to thump him in Puerto Rico, win the popular vote, go to the super delegates and say, look, your one job so to pick a winner and it‘s me.
GREGORY: All right. And if she does all that, she gets a trip to Disney World. When we come back, your play date with the panel. Don‘t go away.
GREGORY: We are back. And in our remaining moments, your play date with the panel. Back with us, Michelle, Rachel, Michael and Robert Draper. This e-mail, very interesting, and it comes to us—is that we‘re looking at here? “There was only one moment during the leak episode”—no, this has something to do with something else.
This is Steve in Virginia. And he writes this: let‘s put it back up there; “the White House is attacking Scott McClellan, but I haven‘t heard them speak out on the substance of what he wrote. It makes me think that what he wrote has merit.” It is interesting. Condoleezza Rice got into some of the merits by taking on the case and his criticism about Iraq. But everyone else has made this about him and whether he has standing to make these claims, and where was he, why didn‘t he speak out before and we never knew he ever thought something like this. All of this to sort of take out the source of the information and not re-litigate the issues.
DRAPER: It‘s the most efficient way of dealing with it. They don‘t want to get into a back and forth. That could last for several news cycles. The longer this story is up on the air, the more it benefits McClellan and the sales of his books. The more injurious it is to the White House. So it‘s best for them to paint this with a broad stroke and just try to take down the messenger.
GREGORY: Yes, Jane in California asks this: “we have an insider confirming what many theorized, in a sense, about Vice President Cheney‘s role in lying about going to war and we have Rove meeting with Libby to get their stories strait. So can we have some impeachment now?” Clearly not a fan of the president or the vice president. It is interesting, Rachel, the meeting that he talks about is one that he doesn‘t say with any verification was about the leak episode, but it is his suspicion that it had something to do with that. Karl Rove has said that was not the case at all.
MADDOW: He says, explicitly, I have no idea what they talked about. That‘s not a good basis for impeachment proceedings. I‘m really hung up on this intentional ignoring the exculpatory evidence in Iraq. If you‘re going to follow an impeachment trial, that‘s the that one I would follow.
GREGORY: And there is a Senate Intelligence Report that may in fact come out next week that may reenergize this debate at a time when it could become a big issue in the campaign. Paul in Illinois writes in with this: “Scott McClellan‘s character is not the issue. The important things are the facts and the truths that may be gleaned from the book. To jump on McClellan is to misread the nature of American society. Do we see people commonly standing up for their morals and quitting big jobs in government and business? No.”
So what‘s the point, Michelle, he didn‘t do it in this case either. I did an interview with Rachel for a piece that‘s going to run in the morning, and she says, now you tells us this. A lot of people who were critical want him to have done this earlier, but it is interesting to point out that it‘s not so easy to do that. It was certainly not easy to do that in this White House.
BERNARD: It‘s not so easy to do it, whether it‘s in this White House or anywhere else. But when people stand up and are very moralistic in their standing, or saying that I‘m doing this for love of country and I‘m doing this very for very high moral reason, then it is a sound question to ask why didn‘t you have this love of country earlier on. It‘s an important question. I understand the back and forth on it, but it‘s a sound question to ask, why didn‘t this happen one or two years ago?
GREGORY: But, Smerc, I think that it‘s not inconsistent to say what he says today, which is, look, I was for the war. I was a company guy. I was a bush guy. I was for the war. I was giving everybody the benefit of the doubt. In a way, it‘s an acknowledgement that he was not involved in the policy. But nevertheless, once he got out into the real world, he said, you know what, this doesn‘t make sense for me anymore. I look back on it and I think there were too many mistakes made that they‘re still not admitting.
SMERCONISH: I think if he had a moment of enlightenment while at the White House relative to the cause that took us to Iraq, he should have walked off the job then. And if he weren‘t going to walk off the job then, he should have waited out the final seven months of the Bush administration and then said what he had to say.
GREGORY: I think that‘s a point a lot of people might agree with. Barb in Minnesota wonders this: “Am I wrong thinking that Scott McClellan could have prevented the Iraq war? Couldn‘t he have resigned and told Congress that they were being lied to?” The point is well taken. I think critics may agree with that to some degree. But again, Scott McClellan was not actually formulating policy for the war. I don‘t think he was in a position to lead that charge.
We got to leave it there. Thanks to the panel. A quick programming note, “COUNTDOWN” tonight with Keith Olbermann will have an interview with Scott McClellan. That‘s at 8:00 eastern time right here on MSNBC. See you tomorrow night. Thanks for watching. Have a good night.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.