Last spring, Former White House press secretary Scott McClellan scandalized Washington with the release of “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception” (PublicAffairs), a scathing memoir of his years working for the second Bush administration. In his book, McClellan accuses senior officials of lying to the public to advance Republican political interests and build support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. McClellan talked exclusively to ESSENCE.com about his thoughts on the spin and strategy of the 2008 presidential candidates, the reasoning behind choosing Sarah Palin and the changes he’d like to see in the White House.
ESSENCE.COM: In your book, “What Happened”, you talk about passing poor or false information to the public based on information you were given from sources in the White House. Can you see that trend continuing if the McCain-Palin ticket wins the election?
SCOTT MCCLELLAN: It goes into the broader question of how the two presidential candidates intend to govern. I noticed that Senator Obama talked about the way one runs his campaign is a reflection of how they may govern in office. Now, I don’t know that it’s that black and white, but there are some signs that the way you campaign may show glimpses of how you may intend to govern. My concern is when that carries into governance, and then government is run like what we had in the nineties, or with this current administration, where everyone is trying to govern by manipulating the media to their advantage instead of doing what is good for the country. I’m concerned about how the McCain campaign has run the negative strategy of focusing on tearing down their opponent as opposed to focusing on Senator McCain’s agenda for the country. Personally, I prefer to see less of those kinds of negative attack strategies.
ESSENCE.COM: Some have argued that McCain’s vice-presidential pick was nothing more than an attempt to take thunder from Obama’s campaign and steal back some of the lost media attention. Would you agree?
MCCLELLAN: I do think that.… I think Senator McCain made his decision based more on political calculation than governing. He wanted to satisfy and energize the conservative base by choosing Palin. He also wanted to be able to reinforce an image that he wants to portray, which is that of a maverick reformer. And he wanted to neutralize the historic nature of Senator Obama’s candidacy by picking a woman. So, I think it was more a selection based on political calculation than governing. When McCain was asked by one news analyst if he thought that Palin would be ready to [serve as] Commander in Chief, he said, “Absolutely.” Well, I don’t think that’s the kind of straight talk he’s said in the past. If he had said, “I think she would be ready in short order to be Commander in Chief,” that would have been a more honest answer, but to say that she is ready right now I think is a bit of a stretch.
ESSENCE.COM: So how responsible is the media for not challenging such assertions from McCain more?
MCCLELLAN: That’s one of my big concerns. The traditional media are complicit in advancing this culture of deception, as I refer to it in my book. They tend to focus on horse-race winning-who’s up and who’s down; who’s winning and who’s losing; and who’s shaping the narrative as opposed to who’s right and who’s wrong. They get too focused on polls, and then the most important truths underlying all these issues and differences get secondary positions to those aspects.
ESSENCE.COM: It’s been reported that some of McCain’s advisers have taken certain positions before the public only to have McCain make a comment stating the opposite. How would you clean that up?
MCCLELLAN: I think there’s a little bit of that going on on both sides. McCain has conceded that this whole election will be a change election, but he wants to reach undecided voters by saying, “I’ll bring change by way of my strong personality.” Obama is saying, “I’ll bring about change based on policy.” He’s betting that undecided voters are going to go with him because they’re fed up with the policies of the current administration. McCain believes it’s not so much policy that needs change, but a stronger character in office. Both messages are very effective in their own right.
ESSENCE.COM: But McCain has admitted that he doesn’t mind if there are conflicted opinions and messages among his staff, and he’s even said that type of chaos and tension could be good. Do you agree with this logic?
MCCLELLAN: It’s not good to have mixed messages. Sometimes there may be some strategic thinking behind it, where a spokesperson can go further than the candidate in the way he attacks the other side or their opponent, but I don’t think it’s helpful. My concern is when you see such an intense focus on negative attacks. Then you have to wonder whether that is going to be the way he may govern in his presidency. If that’s the case then that would not be someone who would really change things in office, or who could unite Democrats and Republicans around a common purpose. The question for me is: Which candidate will best be able to change the culture in Washington?
ESSENCE.COM: You also wrote about how you hoped divisive campaigning and governing would end and a more united American government would emerge. Do you think that will happen under the next president?
MCCLELLAN: Obviously it depends on whoever wins the election. But we need a president with more candor and openness with the public and the press about government. Unfortunately, we’re not seeing that today. We also need a candidate who’s driven by bipartisanship and problem-solving. It ultimately will take the right person who is fully committed to making that happen.
ESSENCE.COM: So who do you believe is the best candidate to lead the United States?
MCCLELLAN: I’m still sorting through that. I haven’t made any long-term decisions yet because I want to hear more. I would hope that the press would pin them down on specifics. There’s plenty of information on their policy positions. But I think we need to know more about the reality of how they will implement their policy decisions. You can’t change our big problems until you change the way Washington works, and when I talk about the big problems I mean the economy, the war in Iraq, immigration, climate change. These are the major issues that need to be resolved in our country, and that needs to be done in a bipartisan and consensus-building way.
Do you agree with McClellan that the only way to tackle our country’s biggest concerns is through bipartisan participation?