What Happened With What Happened

Peter Osnos on the McClellan book and its raging critics

Although Scott McClellan is hardly the first Bush Administration insider to write a book about his travails, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception has unleashed a firestorm of criticism from the president’s supporters. In the New York Sun, for example, Eli Lake called it the work of an “illiterate naïf.” Bob Dole suggested that the former press secretary was a “weasel.” But an editorial in The Wall Street Journal ratcheted up the rhetoric still further, suggesting that the book’s publisher, PublicAffairs, was part of a left-wing conspiracy, and fingering editor-at-large Peter Osnos as a primary culprit: “Readers can guess what advice Mr. Osnos gave [to the book’s author and editor] about how to make headlines and sell a book six months before a presidential election in which Iraq will be a major issue.” In an email exchange with Columbia Journalism Review’s James Marcus, Osnos—who is the magazine’s vice chairman—discusses the evolution of McClellan’s memoir and his own role in that process.

James Marcus: First, can you address the WSJ’s suggestion that PublicAffairs is essentially a stalking horse for George Soros?

Peter Osnos: A couple of years ago, the European Wall Street Journal called me “Marxist leaning” in an editorial about Soros. I complained and they printed an apology. I am very proud of our work with Soros and like to say (although I’m not sure it’s true) that we are the only people in the world who send him checks. In any case, PublicAffairs is an independent company founded eleven years ago. We have published hundreds of titles, including Natan Sharansky’s The Case For Democracy, which President Bush said was one of the most important books he had ever read.

JM: Do Richard Holbrooke or Jim Johnson (both of whom sit on the board of the press’s parent corporation, Perseus LLC) have any editorial input?

PO: Neither Holbrooke nor Johnson has any role in PublicAffairs. We are investment partners with Perseus LLC, which is the owner of the Perseus Books Group. PBG provides sales, marketing, and financial management to us. The left-wing allegation comes from the fact that every book of ours carries tributes to three mentors of mine: I.F. Stone, Ben Bradlee, and Robert L. Bernstein, former chairman of Random House and the founder of Human Rights Watch.

JM: Can you tell us how What Happened came to PublicAffairs?

PO: An agent named Craig Wiley sent it to my colleague Lisa Kaufman, because he liked the way she had handled another of his clients who had cancer. As I’ve learned in the last week, Wiley sent it to many places. After having what we thought was a good conversation with Scott, in which it became clear that he understood who we were (not corporate, politically independent), we called reporters who had covered the White House and Texas politics. All said the same thing about Scott: he had a very difficult hand, was often awkward on the podium, but was fundamentally a straight and decent person who would write an honest book. We made a five-figure offer and Scott accepted.

JM: Did McClellan’s initial proposal differ greatly from the finished product?

PO: I barely glanced at the proposal, because talking to him and others about him seemed the way to test our instincts for what would be in the book.

JM: How did the editorial process work?

PO: The book took shape over a year, and starting last fall, [the process] became intense. Lisa was his editor and we brought in Karl Weber, who we have worked with in the past, to help with turning rewrites and edits around quickly. My largest contribution was to suggest the title, What Happened, as a means of organizing the narrative around the story of how this administration, which arrived with one set of expectations, turned out so differently. I think the book’s success so far is due to the fact that people want to know the answer to that question.

JM: Did the author seem hesitant about producing an attack on his former boss?

PO: It is a critique, not an attack on Bush. And the author was perfectly at ease with what he was saying. At the end, we suggested that he reread the manuscript carefully to be sure it said what he wanted to say. He didn’t change a word.

JM: How do you think this book differs from such earlier Bush-whacking chronicles as Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies or Ron Suskind’s collaboration with Paul O’Neill, The Price of Loyalty? Is there anything new here?

PO: Scott is a Texas insider, a close associate of Bush, Karl Rove, and Karen Hughes. That gives him credibility of a particular kind.

JM: Obviously you’ve read Bob Dole’s blistering communiqué to McClellan, and have noted the unusually vitriolic responses elsewhere. Is it simply the timing of the book, published smack in the middle of the election season, or is something else going on?

PO: What has been especially characteristic of this year in politics and media is that you can pretty much say anything in a blog or email and it gets widespread circulation. This is a combative era. Politics and media are not a tea party, but reading the blogs—as I have done over the last week—is stunning. Anything goes, including all that stuff about PublicAffairs in The Wall Street Journal, which was lifted from right-wing bloggers that anyone can find on Google, right alongside citations from The New York Times and the Columbia Journalism Review.

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James Marcus is the deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine. His next book, Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Emerson in Eighteen Installments, will be published in 2015.