McClellan: I'm "Intrigued" By Obama

CBS News anchor Katie Couric interviewed former White House press secretary Scott McClellan about his explosive new book - and the criticism it is stirring. What follows is a transcript of the interview.



Couric: Do you support John McCain?

McClellan: I haven't made a decision yet. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Sen. McCain. He is certainly someone who has governed from the center, and that's where I come from; I am pretty much a centrist who believes in working together to solve problems and get things done and putting the country ahead of partisan politics. I also am intrigued by Sen. Obama's message (smiles). It's a message that is very similar to the one Gov. Bush ran on in 2000, and won on, promising to bring bi-partisanship and honesty and integrity to Washington.

Couric: So you could see yourself actually voting for Barack Obama?

McClellan: I just said I haven't made a decision, but I do think, you know, McCain talked about ending the permanent campaign recently, Sen. Obama talks about changing the way Washington works. They better have a specific plan for doing that if they're gonna actually be the president of the United States, because it is difficult to do.

Couric: While you were press secretary, you were famous for denying access to reporters who asked tough questions. And now you're criticizing the press for not being tough enough. So isn't that the height of hypocrisy.

McClellan: Well in the buildup to the war, and … in the national press corps as a whole, there could have been more done to ask the tough questions. What happened, this is again, how the press becomes complicit enablers in this permanent campaign culture by focusing on the march to war rather than the necessity of war, that's where the emphasis and focus was and I think the emphasis and focus should have been more on finding out the truth. And, you know, I talk a lot about that in the book.

Katie Couric: Weren't you the ultimate complicit enabler, though? I asked a tough question before the Iraq War and you personally called an executive at NBC News and you threatened to deny access to us.

McClellan: I did?

Couric: Yes, you did, once the war began.

McClellan: Me personally? I don't, I don't remember that.

Couric: But did you strong-arm people into not questioning the administration?

McClellan: My style usually wasn't that way.

Couric: Well, it was you who made the call.

McClellan: I just, I just don't remember that. That may be but I certainly don't remember that incident. In terms of my style of working with reporters, it was usually straightforward when we were dealing with each other; I think I had that reputation with White House reporters. I just don't recall that specific incident.

Couric: Scott, the New York Times editorial page today said your book belongs in the genre of "I knew it was a terrible mistake, but I didn't mention it until I got a book contract." Why didn't you come forward with these criticisms earlier?

McClellan: Well, first of all, I think when you're inside the White House bubble, some of the larger truths can sometimes be obscured. You are working for someone that you have a lot of affection for, you're working 24/7, and sometimes it's hard to step back from what's going on and reflect upon it.

Couric: Do you feel any sense of guilt that the Iraq war, which you helped sell to the American people, has resulted in the loss of life for thousands of American soldiers?

McClellan: Well, I … do want to make sure that we learn from what happened and that we don't repeat the mistake of rushing into war again, unprepared. I do believe now, looking back and reflecting and knowing what I know now … a lot of which we didn't know at the time, that this was a war of choice. The intelligence was what it was but we took that intelligence, and then portrayed is it. And packaged it in a way to make it sound more grave and more urgent and more ominous than it was.

Couric: While you were press secretary, you were famous for denying access to reporters who asked tough questions. And now you're criticizing the press for not being tough enough. So isn't that the height of hypocrisy?

McClellan: In the build-up to the war. And it's the national press corps as a whole, that there could have been more done to ask the tough questions. What happened is, again, how the press becomes complicit enablers in this permanent campaign culture by focusing on the march to war rather than the necessity to war. That's where the emphasis and focus was when I think the emphasis and focus should have been more on finding out the truth.

Couric: Did you ever challenge the message you were being instructed to deliver or did you simply swallow it whole?

McClellan: Katrina is another example where I talk about how I advocated the president not do the fly-over which became - the policy was the more problematic issue there - but I thought it made the president look too detached from what was happening on the ground when people were still being rescued off of rooftops.

Couric: And yet the response was appropriate.

McClellan: There were times I would bring things up, but in the end, when the decision was made, my job was to go out there and advocate for the president, someone I still have great personal affection for.

Couric: In the run-up to the Iraq war, as you know, the administration linked Iraq to 9/11, to the point where the majority of the American people believed there was, in fact, a connection, even though none actually existed. Did the White House intentionally promote the notion of this connection in order to bolster support for the war?

McClellan: I don't think so. I think there was an impression left because of the connections we were making to al Qaeda in terms of Iraq, that there are contacts there. The vice president as he tended to do, got a little more out front than others …

Couric: He did make that suggestion.

McClellan: Yes, he did, but the president always avoided that, and I believe my predecessor, as well as … me, always avoided making that connection as well.

Couric: Why did the vice president do so?

McClellan: You know, I don't know. He is ... someone who … sometimes does things his own way, and i think that this president probably too often has shown him too much …

Couric: On your last day the president said this about you, let's take a listen.

(From video of President Bush speaking): One of these days he and I are going to be rocking in chairs in Texas talking about the good old days.

Couric: Can you envision that ever happening now?

McClellan: I don't want plan on it at this point.

Couric: Do you feel as if you're biting the hand that fed you? Do you feel any sense of disloyalty writing this?

McClellan: I don't look at it that way. There's a loyalty much higher than my loyalty to my past public service and that's a loyalty to understand the truth and the loyalty to the way I was raised, the values I was raised upon. I was raised in a political family that believed very deeply in public service and the importance of speaking up and making a positive difference. Hopefully I've done that with this book

Couric: Scott McClellan. Scott, thanks very much.

McClellan: Thanks, Katie.
  • Katie Couric

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