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Wrath of McClellan

- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

It's been 12 days since former White House press secretary Scott McClellan dropped his memoir/tell-all/improvised explosive device upon the Washington power establishment.

The thing went off with a defiant - the faint smell of cordite and maybe a whiff of barbecue from all those singed egos.

Mr. McClellan was a man scorned, which can be worse than a woman scorned in this town.

The ideal panacea? Oh, 341 pages worth of vitriol, hand-wringing and finger-pointing ought to do it - followed by a spate of broadcast appearances, heartfelt interviews and a quick publicity tour before the hubbub dies down.

That's what happened with "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," which became the cultural in recent days, wedged between the drone of campaign news and public angst over gas prices.

Mr. McClellan was an instant star with the aura of valor, dedicating his new book to "Those Who Serve." Caterwaul erupted from journalists who were all dressed up with nowhere to go: More than 4,000 assorted articles, reports, editorials, updates, speculations and op-eds emerged from those who parsed Mr. McClellan's revelations, truly a dream come true for the liberal press.

White House bad. White House scary. White House mean.

The official White House reaction was a collective sigh of bewilderment, trimmed with hurt. The baby-faced, honey-voiced Mr. McClellan had become a stranger; Scotty, we hardly knew ye. But the wounding of the White House was very real, some say.

"The sense of shock and betrayal over this book hasn't changed at all, even days later. I've had people tell me I shouldn't be friends with Scott anymore," said Ari Fleischer, who served as White House press secretary from 2001 to '03.

"I think, though, that I must separate the personal issues from the professional issues. This is a professional matter. I think it's better to live your life that way," he said.

Hasty celebrity fosters intrigue, though. The press brought Mr. McClellan's pedigree to light, revealing the Texas native's penchant for grass-roots politics. Assorted relatives have been campaign strategists, public officials, civic figures, prominent lawyers. His champions have included Bush stalwart Karen Hughes. Why, Scott once even managed his own mother's campaigns for public office; Carole Keeton "Grandma" Strayhorn most recently ran for governor of the Lone Star state.

"Yeah, Scott was a pretty good pitchman for George W., who's essentially a good man trapped in a Republican body," said singer/raconteur Kinky Friedman, who ran against Mrs. Strayhorn as an independent in the 2006 midterm election.

"Scott was just listening to the wrong voices at the White House. And he came to realize things were just not kosher in there," Mr. Friedman observed.

Mr. McClellan did not turn tail and race back to the Lone Star state after resigning from the White House more than two years ago. He still lives in the Washington area and currently is represented by the Washington Speaker's Bureau. (His fee listed as "Level 4," or in the $15,000 to $25,000 range.)

At 40, he's done the White House tour, all the morning shows and now must confront the fact that his 15 minutes of fame are ebbing.

"He'll probably make a million dollars, more money than he'd ever have made in the White House. He'll sell most of his books in the next six weeks. As President Bush becomes more irrelevant with the upcoming election, interest will die back, except among the Bush haters," predicts Alfred S. Regnery, former president and publisher of Regnery Publishing, and current publisher of the American Spectator.

"He owes his entire career to President Bush," Mr. Regnery said,

He also noted that Scott McClellan's father - Barr McClellan - had come around to his office in 1999, shopping his own book about his days working as an attorney for former President Lyndon Johnson. The manuscript was rife with ancient, dark conspiracy theories about Mr. Johnson's possible role in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

"I looked it over. It was completely irresponsible. So now I wonder how far the apple fell from the tree," Mr. Regnery said.

The trajectory of the book is on a predictable course, meanwhile. Potshots have been traded, schadenfreude exorcised. Rumors of a film deal have surfaced, which is not surprising. A few critics still quibble over details that sound like the movie of the week. Was the media evil, lazy, complicit with the White House? Was Scott McClellan more of a coward for betraying the president - or for waiting too long to blow the whistle?

He could be victor or victim, bombardier or collateral damage. After his original book proposal was leaked in the Politico last weekend, insiders pondered the notion that Mr. McClellan had originally intended to pen a treatise on the press rather than a White House hit job and was most likely steered leftward by his publisher, Peter Osnos, a Washington Post alumnus.

Mr. McClellan, meanwhile, remains in full virtuous mode.

"It's tough when you take on the system. The system kind of fights back and engages in some personal attacks and misrepresentations of what's in the book," he told CBS this week, later adding, "It's time to move beyond the destructive culture in Washington."

But was Mr. McClellan at the heart of that culture, really just an ex-Bushie behaving badly?

"It depends on your perspective," said etiquette consultant Anna Post, great-granddaughter of manners maven Emily Post and an analyst for Emily Post Institute in Vermont.

"One thing does emerge: This is not simple," Ms. Post said. "Some argue that Scott McClellan was just being honest. Others are convinced his book truly hurt the president's legacy. Personally, the situation has left me convinced that, despite everything that goes on, Americans continue to look to their leaders to be icons of good manners and of decency."

A CAVALCADE OF INSULTS

Who knows? Maybe he'll make a million dollars on his book and go on to minor fame as speaker, pundit or guest contestant on "Dancingwith the Stars."

One thing's for sure, though. Scott McClellan was this week's whipping boy, inspiring insults of every persuasion.

Among the noteworthy:

"Miserable creature" - former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole

"Scott the snitch" - online newsman Matt Drudge

"The picked-on boy who just wanted to be one of the cool guys" - syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker

"Sounds like a left wing blogger" - former White House adviser Karl Rove

"Interesting stuff, Scott, but about 5 years too late." - blog proprietess Arianna Huffington

"It's amazing what some people will do for 30 pieces of silver" - syndicated columnist Michael Reagan

"Like a robot with a new software program" - ABC News' Martha Raddatz