The Bush White House is known for secrecy and strict message control, and a new book by its former press secretary details extraordinary measures it has used to manage what information gets out.
Keeping the chief spokesman — and thus the news media and the public — out of the loop at times is not unheard of, but President Bush has taken it to new lengths, Scott McClellan writes in his insider account.
Bush told McClellan’s predecessor, Ari Fleischer, that he would purposely not tell him things at times. Then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice cut off Fleischer’s authority to read notes on Bush’s phone conversations with fellow world leaders. This attitude filtered to other top advisers, who resisted filling in the press secretary, McClellan said.
“No one charged with keeping the press and the public informed about the workings of the government should have to play such frustrating games,” McClellan writes.
White House press secretary Dana Perino says it was his own fault if McClellan was an outsider. “You can be as in or out of the loop as you choose to be,” she said.
Current and former White House aides, unaccustomed to someone from their famously tight circle spilling the goods, have reacted to McClellan’s explosive — and immediately best-selling — book by trying to discredit their old friend. In the kind of seemingly coordinated lockstep familiar to reporters who have long covered the Bush White House, they have suggested in similar language that he is betraying his former boss for money or rewriting history to vindicate old grudges.
They also say that McClellan wasn’t in the know, implying that his account now can’t be trusted.
But this line of criticism serves to support the central accusation of McClellan’s book: that Bush and, on his order, his aides value secrecy over transparency — to the detriment of both his presidency and the public.
“The Bush administration lacked real accountability in large part because Bush himself did not embrace openness or government in the sunshine,” McClellan writes in “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception.”
The ultimate loyalist who worked for Bush as Texas governor, jumped to his presidential campaign and then followed him to Washington when he won, McClellan came to be known as a presidential spokesman who perfected the art of the anti-flair.
Over nearly three years, he was super-cautious in televised briefings, blandly repeating talking points until questioners tired. Behind the scenes, he was a journeyman spokesman, diligently tracking down details and keeping up good relations with the press corps. But he never revealed cracks in the message machine.
McClellan says his views about that machine, and his role in it, have changed in the two years since he left. He writes critically about what he said is Bush’s distrust of and dislike for the national media and laments a culture of secrecy that left “a large black hole in my understanding of what was really going on inside the administration.”
Looking back to when he met with Bush in 1999 before being hired as a senior spokesman in his gubernatorial office, McClellan recalled the governor’s expectations, most concerning tight discipline over information. Bush told McClellan he valued “the importance of staying on message” and public statements that “were coordinated internally so that everyone is always on the same page and there are few surprises.”
Four years later, McClellan was asked to take on the far bigger job of White House press secretary and writes that he had reservations. Knowing Bush’s preferences, he wondered whether he would be “privy to the real rationales behind every important administration decision” or “simply be presented with the final product and told to sell it.”
McClellan was promised all the access he needed to the president and presidential events. But “it was clear,” he writes, that the president’s definition of necessary would “keep the press secretary on a pretty short leash.” This included being barred from key internal decision-making discussions, National Security Council sessions and even the daily communications meeting attended by the president, vice president, chief of staff, political adviser, national security adviser and counselor.
Stephen Hess, who served in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and wrote the press secretary section in the Encyclopedia of the American Presidency, said “it’s like the kids game of telephone” and doesn’t serve the public well.
“The more filtered information is, the less accurate it’s likely to be,” said Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution.
But while the Bush White House is “one of the most closed-up” in history, he said all press secretaries struggle for information.
Marlin Fitzwater, for instance, who was press secretary during the Reagan and first Bush presidencies, has complained that some officials acted as if he could not be trusted and that he felt at times like a reporter seeking information people didn’t want him to have.
Press secretary Mike McCurry said he lost his access to Bill Clinton’s inner circle after allegations that the president had sex with a former White House intern and tried to cover it up. McCurry found himself shunted aside by Clinton’s lawyers as White House aides were slapped with subpoenas to testify in a grand jury investigation.
There have been 29 modern-day press secretaries and only a few, such as Jody Powell under President Carter and James Hagerty for Eisenhower, had truly extensive access, according to Hess.
“The more typical press secretary spends a good deal of his or her time trying to find out what’s going on,” he said. “They’re up against a lot of people who are busy and who don’t really trust the press. … You’ve got to be pretty insistent.”
Ed Gillespie, as White House counselor one of Bush’s closest advisers, said Perino is exactly that — and allowed to be by the Bush White House. She is “at the table on everything that’s done here,” Gillespie said. That means Oval Office access as well as participation in top-level meetings to debate and make decisions about policy, planning, legislative strategy and other matters, he said.
“I don’t want for attendance or invitations,” Perino said. “And on the rare occasions I have not been `on a list,’ I’ve been able to appeal.”