May 29th, 2008
01:29 PM ET

Scott McClellan’s Ethics

Editor's Note: Bruce Weinstein, "The Ethics Guy" will analyze the ethical issues at stake with former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan and his new book, tonight on 360° 10p ET.

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Bruce Weinstein
The Ethics Guy, BusinessWeek

For the past several days, there has been a lot of discussion about Scott McClellan and why he has written his tell-all book, “What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington's Culture of Deception.” Much of the criticism has focused on McClellan’s motivation for writing this book. Is he disgruntled? Does he feel guilty? Is he simply trying to cash in on his former position in the Bush administration?

As provocative as these questions may be, they are not nearly as important as the central ethical question raised by this story: was it right for McClellan to write such a book?

Looking at the ethical issues at stake, I argue the following:

  1. McClellan not only had a right to pen this book. He had an ethical obligation to do so.
  2. Yes, it is important to be loyal to one’s friends, colleagues, and employer, but it is more important to tell the truth, particularly when lives are at stake, as they are in this case.
  3. Yes, it would have been better for McClellan to have spoken up earlier, but there is no statute of limitations on telling the truth.
  4. Ethics is the ultimate non-partisan issue. The above argument applies not just to Scott McClellan, but to everyone. Had Jody Powell, the press secretary in the Carter administration, or Dee Dee Myers, the press secretary in the Clinton administration, made similar revelations, these too would have been ethically justified.

Of course, not all kiss-and-tell books are ethical. In 2004, I argued on AC360 that it was wrong for Michael Bergin to write “The Other Man,” which detailed his purported love affair with Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. Her untimely death prevented her from responding to the claims in the book. (On that program, Randy Cohen, who writes the ethics column for the New York Times Sunday magazine, argued against my position.)

In recent columns for BusinessWeek.com, I’ve considered the ethics of talking politics at work, the ethical responsibilities of the presidential candidates, and the art of losing well.

Filed under: Bruce Weinstein • Ethics • Scott McClellan
soundoff (54 Responses)
  1. Scott

    I personally think its hysterical that the media thinks this is "news". It's not. Scott McClellan wrote a book to make money. Period. He's smart enough to know that the sensationalist media and people of this country (who already hate Bush, the Iraq War, the price of oil and the economic downturn that has gripped the country) would love to hear a "tell all from behind the scenes". It's the perfect money making opportunity. All of the things he says in the book don't even have to be true, just the idea of an "inside look" gets the media frothing at the mouth and the American public lining up in advance to catch even a glimpse of what the book says. True or not it makes absolutely no difference. He has accomplished what he set out to do. The book will be a best seller.

    And the worst part of all of this: While every national news outlet gives him free publicity when they have "experts" argue whether he should have done it or not, whether it was "right" for him to do it, whether what he said in his book actually happened...... Mr. McClellan will be making money hand over fist.

    May 29, 2008 at 11:15 pm |
  2. penny

    "He was riding on the Titanic and it sunk. It might have been too late if he had waited to write the book." Everyone by now knows GW Bush isn't brightest kid on the block. I don't understand why they are complaining now. They voted for "HIM"!

    May 29, 2008 at 11:04 pm |
  3. Rick Richman

    I am glad folks like McClellan are finally providing their opinions on what happened at the White House. David Gergen, who is one of my favorite commentators, stated on your show that he was surprised by the deterioration of standards in relation what former White House staffers are saying about their former employer. I believe that this deterioration is likely the byproduct of another deterioration, that of the integrity of the office of the current President, as it is perceived by the majority of Americans. Personally I haven't heard any compelling argument discrediting McClellan, as the folks presented to argue against his statements seem disingenuous so far.

    May 29, 2008 at 10:57 pm |
  4. Greg

    I usually find David Gergan's perspective on the money, but the only thing he had on that other guy tonight was he wasn't quite as irritating. For Gergan to suggest 'there are many different truths' is crap. I hate to use the over-used word 'spin', but if you are not laying out facts but instead are crafting your message so it plays to your benefit, then you are lying. I've taught my children that the omission of facts when they recount things is a form of lying. I hope they don't grow up to be lawyers like Gergan and toss that wisdom aside.

    May 29, 2008 at 10:37 pm |
  5. Erma Nering

    If I, a no-nothing nobody knows that what Scott McClellan says in his book is true about the run-up to the Iraq War, and knew this during the run-up, why would I doubt him now? Or my own intellect? It's about time the whistle was blown. AGAIN. Why is it so hard to believe? Is it because the Bush administration has never been held accountable? Why so many Bush-bashing books?
    Look at the record. Look at common sense. Look at the facts.
    Can it be possible that so many people in control of this country are as stupid as Bush? There has to be alternative reasons why this war was fought. If nothing else, follow Bush's progressive reasons for the Iraq war which are opportunistic as one reason falls, then the next, etc.
    We, as a country, held Clinton accountable for sex but have not held Bush accountable for an attrocity against another country and against those men and women who gave their life for absolutely nothing.

    May 29, 2008 at 10:36 pm |
  6. Erich G

    "Cash strapped hack with short person complex; period."

    Boy – now there's a typical GOP style attack... Ridicule someone for being poor and short – Nice work, JC... You should call the "puzzled" folks in the White House – you'd make the perfect replacement mouthpiece for them..

    Oh, and have you read the book yet? Well, we know you don't feel the need to get any facts straight before shooting off that super clever mouth of yours...

    May 29, 2008 at 10:33 pm |
  7. Paula

    Why waste air time to promote this guys book?

    May 29, 2008 at 10:28 pm |
  8. Doral A.

    With this coming out and history showing it was true – I am wondering why isn't the issue of impeachment coming up with Bush for possible lies to wage a war that is in part ruining our economy when people were calling for Clinton's impeachment over a sexual act that had nothing to do with the lives of our soldiers, the economy of our nation, the low rate of the dollar and fuel prices?

    May 29, 2008 at 10:23 pm |
  9. Connie from Ohio

    I wish Scott would have spoke up sooner. I think we all knew all of this was going on. That Bush was just the puppet for Cheny and his cohorts. We are not stupid....that is why everyone wants a change.

    May 29, 2008 at 10:14 pm |
  10. La Mar Allen

    Good for you Scott ! Now where is Ken Starr?

    May 29, 2008 at 10:07 pm |
  11. Paulet

    I think that Scott has shown courage in writing this book and having it published at this time. Funny listening to the pundits and the staff doing a CYA. Katie Couric from the big 3 was the only one to say yes the press gave Bush carte blanche.
    As far as speaking out sooner, look at all the four and five star generals who were put out to pasture in early retirement for saying something no one wanted to hear. Say as I say or here's the door! And to listen to Dan Bartlet or Ari Fleisher is like listening to Propaganda - big time. And Ari saying if he had only come to me, poor Scott - like he really could have trusted him enough to speak with. Tony Snow was the only one who left after a short tme, I haven't heard a word from him amongst all the spinmiesters, and I hope he is well.
    I thought Scott came across very well on the questions and look forward to watching him on CNN as well.

    May 29, 2008 at 9:59 pm |
  12. Annie Kate

    I don't see why there is so much fuss about this book. So Scott came clean and told the truth and what really happened from his prespective. In the end it changes nothing.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    May 29, 2008 at 9:59 pm |
  13. patrick lewis

    Why should anyone think that Scott has any ethics the administration he worked for has not shown any ethical behavior in 8 years. You get all of this backlash because the truth hurts.

    May 29, 2008 at 9:53 pm |
  14. Kathie,Ontario.Canada

    All the White House administrators past and present never called
    Scott McClellan a LIAR not one single one of them.
    They were just upset that he came out and exposed them ..exposed
    them for what everyone already not only suspected but knew in
    their hearts.
    If the media didn't play ball with Bush they were labelled
    unpatriotic.. Today if the media doesn't make obama their boy
    they get labelled racist.
    Nothing has really changed has it?
    Nothing has been learned.

    May 29, 2008 at 9:25 pm |
  15. Darla Morgan

    Scott McClellan had ample opportunity in Texas during Gov. Bush's last two years in ofice to figure out his boss is incapable of admitting or taking responsibility for his own mistakes. Most everyone in Austin had heard that Dan Bartlett and Karen Hughes were busy at Camp Mabry sanitizing Bush's national guard files and knw that the boy governor blamed and then fired his own staff when the state lost funding for battered women shelters because he was too busy running for president to sign the applications given him to sign. Just think of the lives, freedom and money we would have saved if Bush's lies had been exposed before the Supreme Court appointed him to office and Dick Cheney ganed control.

    May 29, 2008 at 9:18 pm |
  16. Jan from Wood Dale IL

    McClellan may have had a crisis of conscience, but used it to become a profiteer. That alone suggests ethics wasn't his main priority.

    May 29, 2008 at 9:14 pm |
  17. creighton meade

    Ethics? And President Bush in the same paragraph? What about the former treasury secretarys words about the Iraq war? Fat chance any one couldv have stopped the rush to war considering the machine that was pushing it. I notice theMcClellan book stimulus on Bush supporters.

    May 29, 2008 at 7:44 pm |
  18. Sabrina in Los Angeles

    When the government likes to purposely hide the truth and spin things to be what they want, you have to find a way of getting the truth out with out being "quieted".

    He had to get it out there without anyone knowing what it said so that the truth could be told.

    You don't make sudden movements around wolves, you back away easily and then bleat when you are safe.

    His look at the farwell address said that he didn't think that Bush and he would be on good terms later in life once he told what he knew.

    I think he felt used and lied to and this was his way of setting it straight.

    The whole "Good enough for Government work" ethic needs to stop. They need to be accountable and tell the whole unadulterated truth.

    His colleagues are "shocked" that he told the truth when he probably seemed to be part of the "Good old boys club."

    Sad government....self serving instead of social serving.

    May 29, 2008 at 6:53 pm |
  19. Andy

    How did President Bush feel about protecting the interests of the 60+ military contracting companies, and their 22,000+ workforce who are immune from prosecution? Wasn't it the corporate interests, the unbid contracts, and specifically Halliburton's ex-CEO Cheney who sent us to Iraq for the oil, not WMD's? Why were 142 Saudi's, including 24 members of the Bin Laden family, allowed to leave our country on 6 private jets and 2 dozen commercial planes, without interrogation, days after all commercial aviation was grounded? Isn't Cheney really making all the decisions, how are his stock options these days?

    May 29, 2008 at 6:35 pm |

    We seem to be focusing on whether Scott McClellan is a good guy or an opportunist. To me it would be more important to know if what he says and implies is actually true. Did an American president lead the country to war for selfish financial reasons? Has he sacrificed 4000 soldiers in order to protect the takeover of the Iraqi economy and the looting of our tax dollars? If there really was no threat, no WMD, no 9-11 connection, no AL Qaeda connection, then we deserve an explanation. That kind of thing is not supposed to happen here. We have checks and balances, division of power, a free press. The congress abdicated their power rather than be called unpatriotic and the press pretty much rolled over. How about some answers?

    May 29, 2008 at 5:40 pm |
  21. GAIL Centre,Al;

    Way to go MCClellan, it's about time somebody told the truth.

    May 29, 2008 at 5:35 pm |
  22. GAIL Centre,Al;

    Anderson, The only surprise to me about the book, is one of their own told the truth. Ithink the book is right on the money, it's about time somebody told the truth. With all the lies from this administration Bush , Cheney, Karl Rove, and the whole bunch need to be in prison.

    May 29, 2008 at 5:31 pm |
  23. Teresa Henley

    I've known all along that Bush was pulling a big one and I can't believe that I was the only one who could see through the smoke screens. Has nobody bothered to ask how or why so many staff members have left the dear man since he went on his mass destruction campaign? Why this country has allowed our president to continue destroying us is beyond my comprehension! Bush is one of the biggest terrorist that this country has ever known and we've allowed him to continue spreading hate and fear, far and wide! The other past government officials will come around to writing their books and you guys will continue to act scandalized by Bush's actions as president! He should have been deposed long ago and his VP along with him!

    May 29, 2008 at 5:21 pm |
  24. Carol B., Virginia

    Unfortunately, this is a sensational and confessional culture, which most of us aren't completely immune. We can equate some of this behavior to high school or collegial periods in life,until age and maturity arrive. However, there is a big difference between a relationship and never happened, tall-tales. TMI applies to many things, but not interest in national security. The administration is probably angry some of his divulged information is accurate and is concerned about what future authors are going to shock and awe them.

    May 29, 2008 at 5:17 pm |
  25. Larry

    Cool! A fictional blog 🙂

    May 29, 2008 at 5:12 pm |
  26. Kent, Illinois

    We have watched as so many people "close" to Bush have left this administration.....Rumsfeld, Powell etc. You could argue that more have left this White House than ever before. McClellen's book makes people mad because they thought they were in the clear. They wanted everyone to forget. Why would this man alienate himself from everyone for money?..........I don't believe it is about money. He is freeing himself from the guilt he has over his own part he played in this whole charade. And, he is trying to make everyone understand what goes on in Washington and how it clouds everyones judgement and how wrong it is...........Good for you McClellen...........

    May 29, 2008 at 5:02 pm |
  27. Donna R.

    To many have protected themselves by not exposing the truth. At least McClellan decided to put the facts out there for those who are interested in seeing for themselves, what so many have know for so long. He probably could have done it sooner, but at least it is out there now. This is a part of history, every little bit of information that can be put out there will help people in years to come to understand what really happened. McClellan knew what he would be up against for publishing this book, so he must feel comfortable with what he had written. Before judging perhaps we need to take the time to read what is in his book.

    May 29, 2008 at 4:58 pm |
  28. Susan


    The ethical thing for Scott McClellan to do would have been to resign if he no longer could support his boss. Apparantly his conscience was telling him at that time that something was wrong, but he continued the lies. Not only to the public, but also to himself.

    Colin Powell left the Bush administration, as he could no longer support his boss. His is a man of great character and ethical principals. He did not write such a book and probably never will.


    May 29, 2008 at 4:57 pm |
  29. Jay, Denver CO

    Better late than never... the 70% of sane America welcomes you back Scott.

    May 29, 2008 at 4:35 pm |
  30. John W

    Attacks on McClellan for writing this book are just a continuation of the politics of American conservatives. When they don't like the message, they attack the messenger.

    May 29, 2008 at 4:33 pm |
  31. Frances - Nashua, NH

    Scott McClellan seems to be the proverbial "mushroom" for the Bush administration.

    Kept in the dark and fed B.S. all day.

    No wonder he wrote a book.

    May 29, 2008 at 4:24 pm |
  32. Paris

    He wasn’t loyal to his country because he lied while he was at the White house. Now he is not loyal to the White house!! Opportunist.

    His credibility is severally damaged and I question his ethics with writing this book. He did it for money and it is very clear.

    CNN You can interview him everyday but still doesn’t change the fact that no one wants to hear from this unstable, weak, opportunist.

    May 29, 2008 at 3:51 pm |
  33. Lorie Ann, Buellton, California

    The sad fact is that both parties, Democrats and Republicans, have lost their sense of right and wrong. This is not an issue for this administration alone. We as a society, are all guilty to some degree, of allowing greed, lies, fibs, money and everything in between, to weave itself into our lives. Doing the right thing? It needs to be brought back into usage. Make it the "in" thing to be, honest with ourselves and others. Just my thoughts.

    Lorie Ann, Buellton, Calif.

    May 29, 2008 at 3:15 pm |
  34. Joseph Kowalski, North Huntingdon, PA

    I have no problem with Scott McClellan writing this book exposing the Bush administration lies and deception. My only problem with Scott McClellan is that he wrote this book a few years too late. The Bush administration has committed impeachable offenses far greater than the trumped up charges leveled against Bill Clinton. How many American soldiers and Iraqi civilians died because Scott McClellan wrote his book a few years too late?

    All of these former Bush supporters who are now jumping ship at the end of the Bush administration are cowards who are trying to clear their own consciences and in the process, make a few bucks by writing a book.

    I don't know who's more disgusting.

    May 29, 2008 at 3:12 pm |
  35. Shane Bertou

    I don’t think the White House has ordered an assault like this since Normandy! 😆

    May 29, 2008 at 2:54 pm |
  36. nerakami, Miami

    We always seem to have a problem when it comes to mixing up the messenger with the message. America did not vote Scott McClellan into office. We elected George Bush who in turn used his judgment to elect people who embarked on a path of deception and lies.

    If McClellan did not write this book, we would still be in the land of suppositions and "shades of truth" about this administration. I don't care about his motives cos I didn't give him my vote. I care about what the PResident of this country did and if the President himself, were not at the helm of this Ship of Deception........ no one on board would dare to play by those rules...

    May 29, 2008 at 2:46 pm |
  37. Bev C NY

    I agree with you. However, it's too bad that he didn't have a conscience when he worked for Bush. Remember in the "old" days when people resigned rather than do something immoral or illegal for their boss in the White House?

    May 29, 2008 at 2:28 pm |
  38. Cindy

    I think when Scott first realized what was going on and that it was wrong he should have left and told the nation what was happening. The fact that he stayed shows me he has no ethics! He stayed to be a part of the gang no matter what was being done wrong. And on top of it all he kept quiet! So he lost any respect that may have been given him.

    The fact that he then wrote this book just seems like he is in it for the money. If he really cared one iota he'd have told everything that he knew to congress and who ever else would listen and not profited from it. Instead nothing until he put this garbage out. He is in it for nothing more than the almighty dollar and to trash Bush. Who ever can't see that is blind.

    May 29, 2008 at 2:20 pm |
  39. Jo Ann

    I look forward to watching Anderson’s interview with Scott McClellan tomorrow. I am hoping he will bring up McClellan’s criticism of Richard Clarke during his White House Press Briefing on March 22, 2004, after Clarke released his book “Against All Enemies” in the middle of the presidential campaign. I wonder how McClellan reconciles what he is now doing with his criticism of Richard Clarke. I am sure when he spoke these words he had no idea he would be finding himself in the same position.

    MR. McCLELLAN: Well, why, all of a sudden, if he (Richard Clarke) had all these grave concerns, did he not raise these sooner? This is one-and-a-half years after he left the administration. And now, all of a sudden, he’s raising these grave concerns that he claims he had. And I think you have to look at some of the facts. One, he is bringing this up in the heat of a presidential campaign. He has written a book and he certainly wants to go out there and promote that book.

    I wonder if McClellan thinks what he is doing is any more ethical than what Clarke did. Maybe he should offer Richard Clarke an apology.

    Jo Ann
    North Royalton, Ohio

    May 29, 2008 at 2:19 pm |
  40. AZM

    The ethical thing to do would have been walk away... dignity in tact... and tell the truth while still time for something to be done.

    To simply profit from a book on it now is sickening!

    May 29, 2008 at 2:15 pm |
  41. Mark, Sacramento, CA

    McClellan is right on to write his book, and expose the corrupt, greedy, and self-absorbed Bushie administration. The Bush cronies think they are above the law and any/all ethics as well. Shame on them and to hell with all of them. I can't believe all the staff in the Bush administration who are spewing "disbelief" and confusion, etc. What do you think McClellan was supposed to do?? One negative *peep* out of you if you're in the Bush admin. and you're effectively "writing your own pink slip." Bush and friends don't tolerate questioning or disagreement or criticism of their messed-up, misguided policies and programs. They live with their blinders on... So McClellan just wanted to save his job and not speak up and "rock the boat" so he wouldn't be fired/dismissed. Good job, McClellan. Expose the Bush harlots-vermin to all the world! Bas_ _ _ _ s!~!

    May 29, 2008 at 2:08 pm |
  42. CaseyJPS - California

    Thank you for boiling this down so articulately. I"m a firm believer that, when everything is stripped away from us, whether it be career, home, family, security, friends, position in the community or whatever it may be that we value, all we've got is our reputation and our integrity. With that in mind, I suspect Scott McClellan experienced a moment of clarity that ultimately led to this book. It's hard for me to imagine that anyone would write a book that put them in the middle of a firestorm or criticism and scrutiny unless they fully believed in what they were doing, regardless of the financial potential.

    May 29, 2008 at 2:03 pm |
  43. DJ

    Scott McClellan has prove a point the Media is about rating only and that help get us in this War. Corporate executive shout down the true stories to protect ratings. Cable news networks are the biggest enabler to spin mean less stories. Example "bitter gate" they had the video from The Charlie Rose Show to clear Obama statements, but their rather watch people argue. A weak media will lead to uninformed public.

    May 29, 2008 at 2:02 pm |
  44. xtina, chicago

    How do we know McClellan is telling the truth? McClellan is saying in the book that he lied while on the job. He was White House spokesperson for years, during which time he LIED repeatedly, right? So who's to say he isn't still lying? His book is "textbook (no pun intended) anti-Bush"; it echoes the same things you read at moveon.org, et. al. Isn't that odd? Why didn't McClellan raise objections while he was in his job? Was he a sell-out then? Is he a sell-out now? Now that George Soros is backing him (and that usually means millions of dollars), he does a 360 (pun intended).

    May 29, 2008 at 1:58 pm |
  45. Brian H (Charlotte, NC)

    You know...I'm just not the Scott I used to know...You know what I'm saying?

    Brian H (Charlotte, NC)

    May 29, 2008 at 1:58 pm |
  46. Praetorian, Fort Myers

    He's not puporting anything in his book that most rational Americans (even within his own party) already knew long ago. The war was fabricated, yellow cake in Nigeria was fabricated, weapons of mass destruction was a grand ruse.

    Despite his propoganda machine–75% of Americans saw through the smoke and mirrors–thus his very sad approval rating.

    Thanks for coming forward now McClellan. If you'd done the right thing sooner (and without a multi-million dollar incentive) you might have more credibility. Hope your book gets used as toilet paper.

    May 29, 2008 at 1:57 pm |
  47. Tammy, Berwick, LA

    And of course, you all assume the truth is being told even though Mr. McClellan did not have firsthand access to much of what he wrote about the events leading up to the war. Why don't you try being ethical and reporting the whole truth instead of a version hell-bent on supporting this book that does nothing more from what I can tell than talk trash? I forgot. You write about business ethics, a field that is an oxymoron in and of itself.

    May 29, 2008 at 1:56 pm |
  48. JC- Los Angeles

    Cash strapped hack with short person complex; period.

    May 29, 2008 at 1:55 pm |
  49. Claudia, Houston, Tx

    The media calls it a "dog and pony show" when politicians visit Iraq and John McCain wants Obama to be part of that. Politicians visiting Iraq don't go out and talk to the people who are affected by the war and the U.S. soldiers are limited to what they can say. Further, it is reported that the amount of security for these politicians is more than the president himself has. McCain is a stupid old fool.

    May 29, 2008 at 1:48 pm |
  50. Michelle

    It is simple. The press was played by the Bush administration.
    Reporters were afraid of being labeled anti-American by the
    spin cycle. TV news needs to find a way to be like Current TV,
    viewers have their say in what is going on over the airwaves
    not the media manipulators.I think it has long been established
    that the media failed the public when it came to the Iraq War,
    No one can claim the ethical high ground. My only worry is
    the media has not learned it's lesson, just look at how the
    2008 presidential coverage is going out on the airwaves.
    Each day it is talking points from the RNC, talk radio and
    bloggers. Where is the independence ?

    May 29, 2008 at 1:47 pm |
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