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McClellan latest White House figure to leave and tell

  • Story Highlights
  • Nowadays, few officials wait till end of administration to tell all
  • Scott McClellan latest in a line of ex-presidential aides writing memoirs
  • Historian dismisses most as "instant books" but says works as group may be useful
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By Todd Leopold
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(CNN) -- In 2004, just after the release of Ron Suskind's "The Price of Loyalty," a critical account of former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's experiences in the Bush administration, Scott McClellan, then the administration spokesman, was asked what he thought of the work.

McClellan, Bush

Former White House spokesman Scott McClellan is the latest Bush staffer to write a tell-all book.

"I don't do book reviews," he replied, according to USA Today.

Maybe not, but McClellan might want to get ready to read a few.

With the publication next week of "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and What's Wrong with Washington," McClellan becomes the latest in a long line of Bush administration figures to tell their stories, particularly about the Iraq war and the handling of Hurricane Katrina. Read excerpts from the book »

Those who have written books include former counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke ("Against All Enemies" and the new "Your Government Failed You"), former Environmental Protection Agency chief and former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman ("It's My Party, Too"), former economic adviser Lawrence B. Lindsey ("What a President Should Know") and L. Paul Bremer, former U.S. administrator in Iraq ("My Year in Iraq").

Other administration figures, notably former Chief of Staff Andrew Card and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, are believed to have been primary sources for books by such journalists as Bob Woodward ("State of Denial"). Video Watch other "tell-all" books detailing the Bush administration »

Most of these works have been fiercely critical of the president and his chief aides, especially Vice President Dick Cheney, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and adviser Karl Rove. The books often describe Bush as detached and incurious, and they paint portraits of Cheney and Rumsfeld as champion infighters who steamroll dissent.

Why air such dirty laundry in public? Because there's a market, says presidential historian Stanley I. Kutler, author of such works as "The Wars of Watergate."

Kutler notes that most of these memoirs, which he dismisses as "instant books," "fall into a variety of categories. There are the ones that say, 'I got you' or 'I'm going to get my revenge.' " Occasionally, he adds, "you get a thoughtful one."

The books also can be quite lucrative, particularly for lifetime civil servants who have never enjoyed the lavish lifestyles of Washington power brokers. Some book advances to former White House figures have been high, such as the $1 million reportedly paid to Reagan Treasury Secretary Donald Regan for his memoir and the $2.75 million allegedly shelled out for a book by ex-Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos.

Presidential aides writing memoirs is nothing new, though most used to wait until the president they served was out of office before putting pen to paper. Even then, such books were generally laudatory, Williams College history professor Susan Dunn said.

"These people were proud to serve their great men. Kennedy's men -- [Ted] Sorensen, [Arthur] Schlesinger -- they loved him. They weren't about to betray him" in their memoirs, she told in 2000. (Indeed, Sorensen's new autobiography, "Counselor," continues in that vein; though Sorensen now admits Kennedy's flaws, he's still gracious in his storytelling.)

Such niceties began to disappear with the publication of works by members of President Nixon's administration, though men such as H.R. Haldeman and John Dean didn't publish until after Nixon had resigned.

The timing began accelerating during the Reagan administration. Alexander Haig, Reagan's first secretary of state; David Stockman, Reagan's budget director; and Regan all published books during Reagan's presidency about their administration experiences.

Both Haig's work, "Caveat," and Regan's memoir, "For the Record," featured quite a bit of score-settling. Regan's book is best remembered today for revealing that Nancy Reagan relied on an astrologer to pick dates for her husband's public appearances. (The astrologer, Joan Quigley, later wrote her own book.)

By the Clinton administration, such quick turnarounds had become the norm. Robert Reich had barely left his role as labor secretary before "Locked in the Cabinet," his 1998 memoir, was released; Stephanopoulos put out his memoir, "All Too Human," in 1999.

Though Kutler scoffs at the literary value of most of these works, he says they can be useful to historians in the future -- if they're looked at as a group.


"In 10 years from now, if I were trying to write a history of the Bush administration, I'd read this book and others and weigh them against one another: who seems reliable, what's his ax to grind," he says.

"They work in a cumulative way," he adds. "To put it in archaeological terms, [the McClellan book] is one more shard we pick up in piecing together the puzzle."

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