06/06/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McClellan, Right and Wrong

I haven't read Scott McClellan's book yet but, like a lot of people, I'm looking forward to it.

Somewhat infamously, I covered the Bush White House from 2003 to 2006 for Time magazine and got caught up in the C.I.A.-leak case, something that was also a signal moment in McClellan's tenure as White House press secretary. For those who need a refresher course in the leak case, I had two sources discuss Valerie Plame's identity as a C.I.A. employee with me—Karl Rove and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. When I called Rove on July 11, 2003, and asked about Ambassador Joseph Wilson, whose New York Times op-ed "What I Didn't Find in Africa" had electrified Washington, Rove brought up the fact that Wilson's wife worked at "the agency." The next day I asked Libby about that and he confirmed it.

A story I co-authored that appeared on—a few days after conservative columnist Robert Novak had outed Plame—called "A War on Wilson?" noted that the White House was launching a counteroffensive against Wilson's op-ed. Wilson's piece criticized Bush for claiming in his 2003 State of the Union Address that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa to develop nuclear weapons.

That charge became one of the causes for the war. The piece led to my being subpoenaed as a witness in the leak case—something both me and Time Inc., which was the owner of my notes and emails, fought mightily in the courts to avoid. Eventually Libby and Rove gave me permission to talk and I, like every reporter touched by this case from Tim Russert to Robert Novak to Bob Woodward to Judith Miller, wound up speaking under oath.

I rehash all of this because McClellan famously defended Rove and Libby, saying they had no role in the leak case. He had gone to them and they had, to put it charitably, misled him. McClellan, not exactly a silver-tongued orator, assured the press that they played no role. A defter press secretary would have made a small but crucial distinction by saying: "They tell me they played no role." McClellan, in his book titled What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception, now laments that he watched his credibility disappear after it emerged in 2005 that Rove had been my primary source.

I feel badly for McClellan—Libby and Rove hung him out. Now, he not only bashes them in his new book, but he notes seeing them holding an unusual meeting shortly after the case broke, which McClellan speculates was a chance to get their stories straight. Maybe. I don't see how we'll ever know. I think it's doubtful that the Special Counsel in the case, Patrick Fitzgerald, who remains the U.S. Attorney in Chicago, would reinterview Libby, who was convicted on four felony counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, one of which dealt, in part, with his conversation with me. Since Bush commuted Libby's sentence, what's left for Fitzy to do? Restart a new case based on this thin reed of an allegation? As for Rove, he made five grand jury appearances and was reportedly on the verge of an indictment when the prosecutor declined to pursue. I doubt McClellan has given him enough to reignite his case.

What's the larger thing we should take away from What Happened? In a way, both McClellan and his critics are right. Certainly everything McClellan says about the rush to war and the incompetence of the administration has held up over time. He now finds himself with the nearly three-quarters of Americans who disapprove of the president's job performance. But the Bushies do have a point when they note that McClellan did not raise these objections while he was in the White House. There is something unsettling when a George Stephanopoulos or Scott McClellan rides a presidential candidate and then a White House to fame, and then dumps a critical memoir out there.

I have no stomach for Bush hagiography. Karen Hughes' book was exceeded only by Ari Fleischer's in its slovenly kiss of Bush. But there's probably some middle ground between knee-jerk praise and self-serving disclosure. Plus there's a resignation issue. If McClellan was this agitated, didn't he have a duty to quit? It's a fair question being posed.

Those who have left administrations in anger have produced the best memoirs. Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's tale was written by journalist Ron Suskind as a reported book, but it was O'Neill's story. My favorite presidential memoir is the late Donald Regan's, For the Record. Regan had been the head of Merrill Lynch and was tapped by Ronald Reagan to be his Treasury Secretary. He amassed an impressive record, including guiding the 1986 Tax Reform Act through Congress. Then he switched jobs with James Baker, who took over Treasury as Regan became White House chief of staff. He ran afoul of Nancy Reagan and her astrologer—whose role in the sainted Reagan White House was astonishing—and took the rap, unfairly, for the Iran-Contra affair. Regan was asked to quit quietly. The former Marine did so loudly and dished out one of the juiciest memoirs ever.

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