WASHINGTON As President Bush's press secretary, Scott McClellan was a dutiful practitioner of the swift, efficient and highly coordinated strategy the White House typically employs to take on Bush's critics.
On Wednesday, McClellan got a taste of life on the other side.
As news of McClellan's new tell-all book in which he calls the war in Iraq a "strategic blunder" and accuses Bush of engaging in "self-deception" dominated the airwaves, the White House and a tight-knit group of former aides pushed back. They sought to paint the former press secretary as a disgruntled man trying to redeem his own reputation after long remaining silent about concerns he is suddenly taking public.
The result was a kind of public excommunication of McClellan, waged by some of the people with whom he once worked most closely, among them Karl Rove, the political strategist; Frances Fragos Townsend, the former domestic security adviser; Ari Fleischer, Bush's first press secretary; and Dan Bartlett, the former counselor to the president.
Their cries of betrayal served as a stern warning to other potential turncoats that, despite some well-publicized cracks, the Bush inner circle remains tight. Their language was so similar that the collective reaction amounted to one big inside-the-Beltway echo chamber.
All seemed to take their cues from Dana Perino, the current press secretary. Perino used the words "sad" and "puzzled" to describe the White House response, as if McClellan had undergone some kind of emotional breakdown, while making the case that if McClellan had problems with Bush, he should have raised them while in the president's employ.
And all seemed to suggest that maybe McClellan had been hijacked by liberal New York book editors who prodded him to turn out a memoir that did not reflect his own beliefs.
"This doesn't sound like Scott; it really doesn't," Rove said on the Fox News Channel. (In the book, McClellan accuses Rove of being untruthful with him about the administration's involvement in leaking the identity of a CIA operative, Valerie Wilson.)
"You've heard the way Scott briefed it doesn't sound like him," Fleischer said. He said he could not wait to hear McClellan talk about the book on television, "to see if there's a written Scott and an oral Scott."
McClellan is hardly the first Bush insider to write a negative account of life in the White House. But because he comes from Bush's Texas inner circle he joined the staff of Gov. Bush in 1999 and his brother, Mark, is a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and because his criticisms of the Iraq war go to the heart of the Bush presidency, his words seemed to cut deep.
"At least Paul O'Neill raised these questions while he was in office," Bartlett said, referring to the former Treasury secretary, who was openly critical of Bush after leaving. "I think what makes this surprising is that a completely different person is emerging in this book than the one we knew. This one is kind of like an out-of-body experience."
The book, "What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception," is due out next week; copies leaked out Tuesday night. In it, McClellan, who was press secretary from 2003 to 2006, bluntly accuses Bush of misleading the nation into war, though he says the biggest mistake the White House made was "a decision to turn away from candor and honesty when those qualities were most needed."
He also uses the book to drop a personal bombshell, recounting a phone conversation between Bush and a political supporter in which, he says, he overheard the president dismiss "ridiculous campaign rumors" about accusations of cocaine use by saying he could not recall if he had tried the drug.
"We had some pretty wild parties back in the day," McClellan writes, recounting Bush's words, "and I just don't remember."
Bush was in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Wednesday, defending the Iraq war in a commencement speech to the graduates of the Air Force Academy. Perino said he had been briefed on the book but was unlikely to comment. The president, she said, "has more pressing matters than to spend time commenting on books by former staffers."
So he left that task to other former staffers, some of whom, in the time-honored way of Washington, insisted that there were no hard feelings between them and McClellan even as they went on television to attack him.
"I'm always going to feel close to Scott," Fleischer said, adding that he and McClellan his onetime deputy had exchanged e-mail messages on Wednesday.
As for McClellan, he was mum on Wednesday, apparently deciding it was best to cede the airwaves to his former colleagues-turned-critics. But not for long. Thursday is another day. It will begin, according to NBC, with a morning appearance by McClellan on the "Today" show.