Presidential spokesmen traditionally have worn cloaks of loyalty to their graves. But are they really honor-bound to toe the party line after they leave the White House?
Some former White House spokesmen think Bush’s one-time press secretary, Scott McClellan, should have stepped down if he really believed, as he says in his new book, that Bush “signed off on a strategy for selling the war that was less than candid and honest.”
At a minimum, they say, he should have kept his book off the shelves until Bush left office.
“I guess that last vestige of decency is gone,” said Ari Fleischer, who was Bush’s first press secretary.
At the podium, McClellan was a dutiful defender of Bush’s handling of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and a host of other issues. McClellan writes that he came to view his stint as press secretary, from mid-2003 to spring 2006, differently after he was replaced as press secretary by Tony Snow.
Marlin Fitzwater, press secretary for both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said people are free to think and say whatever they want, but the unwritten rule for presidential advisers is to wait until the president is out of office before publishing a book.
“Why wait?” asked Stephen J. Wayne, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University.
Wayne sees nothing unethical about McClellan’s staying on the job, even if he had started to have a change of heart, or writing a book critical of the Bush White House while the president is still on the job. Wayne pointed to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who disagreed with Bush’s war policy yet stayed on as a loyal soldier.
Wayne said it’s not fair to expect a press aide to tell the president, `Mr. President, you’re not asking the right questions,’ or ‘You’re not inquisitive enough,'” Wayne said. “That’s for the chief of staff or senior advisers.”
McClellan’s book, which stunned Bush White House insiders, quickly shot to No. 1 on Amazon.com’s best-seller list. The publisher, PublicAffairs of New York, better known for its independence rather than its lucrative book deals, has already doubled the printing from 65,000 to 130,000 copies.
McClellan insists that the words he uttered from the podium were sincere but that he came to realize that some of them were “badly misguided.”
“You’re in a bubble atmosphere,” McClellan told AP Television News on Thursday. “And sometimes because of your affection for the person you’re working for and your belief in that person, you sometimes lose perspective on some of the larger truths out there.”
“I felt it was important to step back from my personal affection for the president and take a good hard look at the truth. The truth isn’t always pleasant.”
McClellan has received a bruising for his White House critique.
If a presidential spokesman finds the White House policy so distasteful, he should quit, not package it up in bundles of notes and then write a tell-all book, said Sheila Tate, who was press secretary to Nancy Reagan and to George H.W. Bush during his presidential campaign.
She recalled that Jerald F. terHorst resigned as President Ford’s secretary in protest over Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon. “I think it’s unethical to carry out a job and then turn around and kiss and tell,” she said.
McClellan defends his decision not to speak out during the run-up or early days of the war in Iraq. “I very much gave the benefit of the doubt to the president and his foreign policy team,” McClellan said.
“I now look back on that and reflect and realize my confidence and trust in them was wrong on that particular issue.”
Both Fleischer and Joe Lockhart, press secretary during the Clinton administration, worry that the 300-page book might cause future presidents to be less candid with their press secretaries.
Still, Lockhart said the public has a right to know now what happened in the Bush presidency before they elect a new leader. McClellan was right to trade loyalty to the president for loyalty to what he believes is the truth, Lockhart said.
“I do think that in Scott’s defense, this story needed to be told,” Lockhart said. “If you believe Scott, this was deception on a massive scale.”
In the past, presidential advisers waited a while and then wrote a book that might be critical of the president, but respectful nonetheless, said David Gergen, a White House adviser during the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations.
He sympathized with McClellan’s decision to stay on even if he had started to question White House policy.
Still, Fleischer said it would have been more “honorable” if McClellan had stepped down, for instance, after the incident involving the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity to the news media. McClellan was ordered to say that White House aides Karl Rove and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby were not involved in leaking Plame’s identity. Later, a criminal investigation revealed that they were.