[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/05/28/art.mcclellan.ap.jpg caption="The contents of McClellan’s book surprised many of his former colleagues."] (CNN) - When Karl Rove was first asked about the incendiary allegations in former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s new book ‘What Happened,’ he said it was ‘irresponsible’ for McClellan to assume that a meeting between him and Scooter Libby was about getting their stories straight regarding the Valerie Plame leak.
And when current Press Secretary Dana Perino, who cut her teeth in McClellan’s press shop said the White House was ‘puzzled’ by McClellan’s assertions, and repeated what now appears to be the official White House line on this latest turncoat - “not the Scott McClellan we knew”.
Who is the Scott McClellan I knew? I spent 6 years at the White House for CBS News. I first met Scott as the deputy to Ari Fleischer and got to know him pretty well. He was a good guy, though something of a tightwad with information - always frustrating when your job is to pry tangy little nuggets of news out of the Administration. He was a man of good humor, fair and loyal to a fault. I had never known him to cross anyone in the White House, or break a confidence. I think you would hear the same from my former colleagues.
But something changed when McClellan found out he had been duped by Rove and Libby in his October of 2003 assertion that they had not been involved in the Valerie Plame leak. I talked to him about it in his office one day, and while he didn’t give away outward emotion, I could see in his eyes that something had shifted. He had been hung out to dry and he did not appreciate it one bit. McClellan remained the loyal soldier, but from that day forward, you could see that he no longer believed.
That betrayal of trust was much deeper than anyone, including myself could have imagined. His criticism of the White House and the president - extraordinary for a former press secretary - runs the gamut from the CIA leak to an “unnecessary” war in Iraq to Bush’s “lack of inquisitiveness.” I have never known a press secretary to be anything more than mildly critical of his or her former boss. Scotty has very nearly set fire to the building.
And in expected fashion, White House officials, current and former have cranked up the machine to destroy his credibility, dismissing McClellan as ‘out of the loop’, suggesting he was basically a flack and not really a part of the president’s inner circle. Perino even called him a ‘sad’ figure. In the past, the White House has flensed its turncoats with the expertise of a 19th century New England whaleman. Just ask Paul O’Neill or Richard Clarke - former Bush loyalists who dared to transgress the unwritten code.
But I have a sense this time will be different. McClellan is stating the now obvious - the accepted - the widely believed. A minority of Americans think the Iraq war was necessary. A court of law has ruled that Scooter Libby lied. And there’s pretty good reason to conclude that Rove only escaped prosecution by the skin of his teeth.
So the problem with the White House taking the long knives to McClellan is this: With the benefit of hindsight, more reasonable people are likely to believe him than those who denounce him.