Politics & Policy

Spinning Wheels

The scandal is beyond the control of even Clinton's best flacks.

EDITOR’S NOTE:National Review is celebrating its 50th anniversary this week. Throughout the week, NRO is running pieces from the archives to help take a trip down memory lane. This piece appeared in the OCTOBER 12, 1998, issue of National Review.

For the White House, the Starr Report was a political neutron bomb: it left the institution standing but fatally poisoned everybody inside. Ann Lewis, Rahm Emanuel, Paul Begala, and the others who had lied and attacked for the President had been hiding in their fallout shelters ever since the President’s non-apology on August 17 (“Hung Out to Dry” read the Washington Post headline the next day). The Starr report incinerated them even so. Bill Clinton himself can withstand the heat longer because, over the years, he has developed an immune system commonly referred to as “shamelessness.” But those around him are gone. Few people would now take Rahm Emanuel’s word on the spelling of his own name.

According to several reports, one of the main reasons Clinton’s cadre of lawyers had to hit the Sunday shows after the report came out was that no one thought the official spinners could elicit anything but laughter. The worst of it was David Kendall on This Week when he was asked–quite legitimately–if his wife held to the same definition of sex that the President had used before the grand jury. When the cameras went dark, Kendall reportedly walked off in a silent fugue of rage.

The President has now hired a few spiritual advisors-the “God squad,” as some journalists are calling them, to help him on his journey. He has also hired the State Department’s Greg Craig to oversee his anti-impeachment drive. (Some people see this as a demotion of Kendall. Don’t bet on it. He’s still Hillary’s favorite.)

This is a far cry from the salad days of spin back in January. The story then was shaky enough (“We know very few facts,” Mrs. Clinton confidently intoned) that the President could actually pull off an all-out lip-biting denial, and his wife could go on the attack. Holding onto her skirt, the First Lady’s liars and lawyers, fools and assassins, marched behind her in a phalanx carrying out what one White House official called “our continuing campaign to destroy Ken Starr.”

Now when James Carville says such things you might want to smack him with a garden rake like any other slithering annoyance, but you wouldn’t be surprised. What was shocking was the President’s big-tent strategy for his Big Lie. He made his Secretary of State a patsy: “I believe that the allegations are completely untrue,” said Madeleine Albright. “I’ll second that,” chimed in Commerce Secretary William Daley. “I’ve already said that,” clarified Education Secretary Dick Riley. What the heck: “I’ll second that too,” said Donna Shalala, the now-aggrieved Secretary of Health and Human Services.

Total denial was a fifty-yard-line strategy: give no ground and press the attack into the enemy’s territory. The first real crack came when White House press secretary Mike McCurry admitted to the Chicago Tribune that if there had been an innocent explanation it would have been offered. After that the White House spinners started retreating into their bunker. Sure, when Brill’s Content published an article alleging Ken Starr was leaking, Rahm Emanuel went out on the shows and said, “This is a bombshell.” But most of the public “spinning” (to use the most charitable term) was done by fellow-travelers outside the White House who have a deeply vested interest in maintaining the legitimacy of the Clinton Administration or at the very least its better half. The feminist spin was perhaps the most fun, or the most infuriating, to watch because it involved the greatest moral contortion. My favorite episode was when Senator Carol Moseley-Braun solemnly observed on Meet the Press that we need to put things in perspective. After all, “Thirty years ago, women couldn’t even work in the White House.”

The White House was willing to come out swinging, but unable to. In a meeting in my Washington apartment in September 1997, Linda Tripp told my mother (agent Lucianne Goldberg) and me that Bill Clinton was prepared to brand Monica Lewinsky a stalker. It shows what a morally desensitizing year it has been that I remember thinking that was incredibly slimy. Now the universal reaction-including my own-is, “Well, of course Bill Clinton would try to smear Monica if he could get away with it.” What is interesting is that in the end he couldn’t. Because Monica Lewinsky wouldn’t flip on her boyfriend, the White House people kept the stalker card up their sleeve far too long.

According to the Starr report, Dick Morris indeed suggested to the President that the White House hold a press conference to “blast Monica Lewinsky ‘out of the water.’” The President responded, “Be careful. [Don’t] be too hard on [Miss Lewinsky] because there’s some slight chance that she may not be cooperating with Starr, and we don’t want to alienate her by anything we’re going to put out.”

By the time Monica did make a deal, the White House couldn’t demolish her the way it had demolished Kathleen Willey–it would have been too obvious. But someone in the White House may have spun sympathetic journalists on the stalker angle on the QT. I’ve yet to talk to a journalist who doubts that Sidney Blumenthal did. The unholy alliance of Blumenthal, Salon, Joe Conason of the New York Observer, and Gene Lyons of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is widely remarked upon in media circles, as is Mr. Blumenthal’s penchant for whispering destruction like the Norse God of Mischief, Loki. Not surprisingly, the only place the word “stalker” appears in the 445 pages of the report is in the recounting of Mr. Blumenthal’s testimony. The President told Mr. Blumenthal that Miss Lewinsky had “threatened him. She said that she would tell people they’d had an affair, that she was known as the stalker among her peers, and that she hated it and if she had an affair or said she had an affair then she wouldn’t be the stalker any more.”

Gene Lyons made this point-or passed it along-on Meet the Press in mid February. Later, as the August 17 “apology” approached, the White House leaked a similar story to the National Enquirer (represented, as it happens, by David Kendall’s firm, Williams & Connolly).

Still, the Gunga Din of water carriers in this scandal has been Lanny Davis. If Bill Clinton were St. Peter, then Davis would have won himself a place in Heaven for his lawyerly equivocations over the last eight months. When he started out, he had a lot of material to work with. The depositions all lined up nicely: the President denied the affair; Monica Lewinsky’s affidavit hadn’t been contradicted; etc. He could go from program to program arguing trees forever even if the forest was lost. But then after the August 17 admission of responsibility-which the White House tried vainly but earnestly to package as an apology-and Senator Lieberman’s excoriation, even Davis had to argue, finally, for full disclosure, more contrition, etc.

With the release of the Starr report Lanny Davis has gone to earth. At this point there is such a glut of big-name anti-Clinton or pro-resignation talking heads that they often go unopposed. For example, on September 15 the 10 A.M. time slot opened with William Bennett alone on CNBC, former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh by himself on MSNBC, GOP chairman Haley Barbour flying solo on Fox News Channel, and Minority Whip Tom DeLay mano a mano with Wolf Blitzer on CNN. Bennett also had long solo stints on Fox’s Catherine Crier show as well as CNBC’s Hardball. Letting Bill Bennett stroll from channel to channel playing whack-a-mole with the Administration is not exactly a winning political strategy for the White House. One booker told me she would have to reschedule my appearance by a week because that was when the next pro-Clinton guest would be available.

The only people left who will unabashedly and shamelessly defend the President-outside of a few stragglers in Congress and Geraldo Rivera-are the true bottom-feeders. The best example of this coprophagous phylum is Jennifer Laszlo of Laszlo & Associates. A self-described Democratic pollster or consultant, her only paying clients are candidates in foreign countries-such Democratic strongholds as Poland and Barbados. Miss Laszlo is a wind-up toy for the Democratic National Committee driven solely by her desire to appear on television and to get a job in the White House. In a gaudy and expensive newsletter headlined, “Laszlo-First Democrat to Stand Up for President Clinton in America’s Hottest New Media: Talk TV,” with various pictures of herself on television programs like the Montel Williams show, she tries to persuade television producers she is a hot commodity (“. . . political research showed that while I’m not a soccer mom I ‘look like one on TV.’”)

For the White House, a perfect world would be one where Miss Laszlo remained relegated to the Montel Williams show while heavier hitters did the real work. But Clinton defenders are now so scarce that Democratic officials have to spend time defending them. Or so it would appear. In the same newsletter Miss Laszlo purports to explain how she was handed a “pre-publication fax” of Michael Isikoff’s initial Lewinsky story by a producer for Equal Time on January 19. She claims, among other accusations, that Isikoff faxed it around town to spite his editors for spiking the story. Newsweek has threatened a lawsuit, has ordered Miss Laszlo to cease and desist making that charge, and has obtained sworn affidavits from the producers of Equal Time attesting that the “article” Miss Laszlo was handed was in fact the Drudge Report. Who cares? Normally nobody. But Joe Sandler, general counsel for the DNC, has written to Newsweek blasting the magazine and rallying to Miss Laszlo’s cause. The DNC will take help wherever it can get it.

Halting impeachment may be the most daunting challenge spinners have faced since the profession was invented. The best scenario is that they’ll be like the squad in Saving Private Ryan. The spinners might make it through enemy lines and save Private Clinton, but one of them will take the bullet. Unfortunately, the most effective spin for the last eight months now works against the spinners. “Four years and forty million dollars,” may have been the most invoked refrain since “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” House and Senate Democrats have been saying for months that Ken Starr should wrap it up, get it over with, etc. Now this part of the investigation is done as far as Mr. Starr is concerned. But all of a sudden-and for the foreseeable future-Democrats on the Hill are in the uncomfortable position of arguing against disclosure of the very information they have been righteously demanding since January.

Ain’t it grand?

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