Scott McClellan didn't make a lot of new friends this week. While the left lauded the candidness of his memoir "What Happened," many complained that the former White House spokesman should have spoken up sooner. On the right, McClellan has been called a "betrayer" and "opportunist." NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone spoke with McClellan about the fallout and his plans. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What has the reaction been from the inner circle of your former colleagues?
Scott McClellan: There are a lot of supportive e-mails and phone calls I've been receiving. I expected some of the hostility that would come with it, but if it takes talking about unpleasant truths to force some kind of change in Washington, then so be it. I was raised in a family that instilled in me the importance of public service and of speaking up to make a positive difference. I believe with this book, I am being loyal to the values I was raised on and loyal to what's most important, and that's the truth. This is a sincere expression of my views after a lot of reflection of how things went so badly off course. I know it's difficult for some former colleagues to agree that things went off course, but I think things turned out a lot differently than we all expected. Talking openly about it is the only way we can learn from it.
Karl Rove said you sounded like a "left-wing blogger." Did that irk you?
[Laughs.] No, I expected the initial reaction to some extent. I was a little surprised by the personal nature of it. The White House would have probably preferred that I not go out and speak so openly. I think it's important for not only today but future generations to learn from what I experienced. That's the objective.
Was the book heavily edited?
Not at all. I went through a great deal of reflection and researched these issues carefully. The book evolved from where it started off. I came to some different conclusions than I initially thought I might reach, and the end result is exactly what I wanted to accomplish.
Despite all your criticisms, you still say the president is a decent guy.
Look, I have a lot of personal affection for the president. There's been a lot of discussion in the wake of this. The White house has been suggesting that I had some sinister motives behind some of these issues described in the book. But when people read the book, they'll see that it's a serious book that was carefully thought through. What I'm saying is that we got too caught up in this personal campaign culture and the excesses. That's what contributed in a big way to things veering so badly off course. We were not as open and forthright as we should have been. It's more a question of judgment than people's motivations.
The heavily partisan culture in Washington hasn't changed, as President Bush promised to do when first elected. What happened?
That's one of the things I wanted to look at: why did this popular bipartisan governor of Texas become such a polarizing and divisive figure? What happened? As I reflected upon my experiences and my time there and what I lived and learned, I came to the conclusion that the responsibility lies first and foremost with the president and his administration. No one has a larger bully pulpit from which to set the right tone and elevate the discourse and change the way Washington works. We fell far short of that because we got caught up in the way the Washington game is played, rather than changing it.
Are you still a Republican?
I don't know what my future plans are. There are a number of Republican ideas I like, a number of Democratic ideas I like. What's most important to me is contributing in some small way to changing the way Washington governs today—getting us back to a state of bipartisan cooperation.
It sounds like you've been talking to Barack Obama.
You've said that he intrigues you. Would you vote for him?
Well, I have great affection and admiration for John McCain too. Sen. Obama's message is actually very similar to the one the president ran on in 2000, being a uniter and not a divider and changing Washington. Sen. Obama talks about changing the way that Washington works. This book talks about how difficult is to do that. There has to be a constant focus on elevating the discourse and counter weights put in place to minimize the excesses of the permanent campaign culture. It's not an easy thing to accomplish. If anyone's going to come in and do that, they better have a plan in place and constantly work to make sure that it's happening. I offer some ideas for making that happen.
Your brother [who was the Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator] also worked in the West Wing. What was his reaction to this project?
He's been very supportive, he understands where I'm coming from. Look, the initial reaction tried to put this book in "gotcha" points. I think now that we're starting to move past that initial reaction stage, people are starting to look at the larger message within the book.
The kind of disillusion you describe, is it common? Or do you feel alone in this?
No, I think it certainly has happened to a number of other people. You come to Washington with these high hopes and strong idealistic viewpoint. You get here and the destructive culture kind of overtakes and overpowers everything else. I'm certainly not the first and I won't be the last to go through this kind of disillusionment that I experienced in my final 10 months at the White House.
Critics view some of your former colleagues as sinister figures. What's Karl Rove really like?
Well, in the book I talk about the permanent campaign culture. Karl didn't create the permanent campaign culture; the permanent campaign culture created people like Karl Rove. Their focus is on the political manipulation that drives too much of our national political discourse today. Karl's got a lot of good attributes and this is not a book that is personal. This is a book that is focused on a much larger message than any one person.
What about Vice President Dick Cheney?
[Laughs.] The vice president is a guy who keeps things pretty close to the vest. I think the president has at times been too deferential to him and delegated the implementations of some policies more so than he should have to the vice president. I think that [Cheney] has a dark view of the world and is willing to use some tough means. In some circumstances, the end justifies the means of getting there I think in the vice president's viewpoint.
You're critical in the book of [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice. Do you have similar criticisms of other administration officials, like [former Chief-of-Staff] Andy Card and [current Chief-of-Staff] Josh Bolton?
I think it's important for people to understand the key personalities and characters that shaped this White House. I tried to give them an honest perspective from my standpoint. I'm probably as tough on myself as anyone. For all the flaws that others had, I had just as many if not more. I try to look at their good human attributes as well as their very real human flaws. I give people what my perspective is. That's all you can do in the end.
What's next for you?
I'm in the process of beginning to explore new opportunities. Right now, I'm so focused on this book project. I haven't had to time to think about this in too much detail.
Your job at the White House was to speak to reporters on many contentious issues. How did that compare to this week?
There's certainly plenty of similarities. But now, I'm speaking for myself and not expressing the views of the person that I worked for. This is a tough book and I expected that there would be tough questions about it. That's what the press is supposed to do and for the most part they do a pretty good job at it.
Now that you're speaking for yourself, is that liberating?
To a large extent, yes. I've learned a lot by going back and reflecting on my experiences. The whole time I was at the White House was a political education for me. And now I have the opportunity to help people learn what I learned from it.