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Chronicle of the White House Spin Machine

BY John Prizer

May 17-23, 1998 Issue | Posted 5/5/99 at 1:00 PM

 

Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine by Howard Kurtz (Free Press, 1998, 32 pp., $25)

With the end of the Cold War, politics seems less important to most Americans. The president, in particular, has become a much diminished figure now that he is no longer locked in nuclear combat with the Soviets. Instead the occupant of the Oval Office is treated like just another celebrity. The press covers him using the same set of rules that it applies to pop-culture icons like Leonardo DiCaprio, Dennis Rodman, O.J. Simpson, and Madonna. White House handlers have to compete with sports and mass-entertainment events to get the nation's attention. So style becomes more important than substance, and image is more valued than policy positions.

The Clinton Administration seems to have understood those changes in media better than anyone else and used them to their advantage. Ever since the revelations about Clinton's relationship with Gennifer Flowers at the beginning of the 1992 presidential primaries, tabloid-like scandals and allegations of financial and political misdeeds have dominated the news, often obscuring Clinton's public-policy message. The amount of sleaze is overwhelming. To list just the most publicized items, there have been Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, the Paula Jones lawsuit, the Webster Hubbell payoffs, the campaign finance scandals, and Monica Lewinsky.

To survive this onslaught, Clinton has developed a highly sophisticated method of damage control. Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz was allowed behind the scenes to observe this operation for most of 1997, and his record of its Byzantine maneuvers — Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine — is the best-ever chronicle of White House media relations and how they have been effected by celebrity-driven values. The main actors are press secretary Mike McCurry and anti-scandal spokesman Lanny Davis. Kurtz lets us see them stonewall, stage manage, and intimidate reporters with surprising success.

Ronald Reagan was more mediagenic than Clinton, and his handlers manipulated this to good effect. Their credo was that “television pictures mattered far more than what the correspondents said,” Kurtz writes. “The entire Reagan Administration was a made-for-TV enterprise, a daily staging of visuals for the networks.”

The Clinton gang took spin-doctoring one step further by redefining the role of the presidential press secretary. McCurry's predecessors had always labored to keep some information from the media, but the sheer volume of accusations forced Clinton's press secretary to compartmentalize his job. When questioned about a scandal, McCurry “followed a path of willful ignorance, repeating only information that the counsel's office had assembled and not quizzing Clinton directly if he could help it,” Kurtz notes.

Reagan's top flack, Larry Speakes, and Bush's spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, would have been embarrassed to admit publicly that they were out of the loop, and when pressed, they almost always queried other aides to find out the president's position. McCurry first employed his “willful ignorance” tactic during the campaign fund-raising scandals and refined the technique to perfection during the Lewinsky affair. He has learned that it works. Journalists are silenced, entire areas of investigation are shut down, and stories are killed.

McCurry, of course, sees himself as a good guy. He believes his job is to give the American public a window into the White House and to protect his boss from enemies. Unfortunately, the paranoid Clinton Administration sees the entire press corps as unfriendly even though both groups are ideologically liberal. Reporters “viewed themselves as the cavalry, the last line of defense against a corrupt White House that had perfected the art of the cover-up,” Kurtz observes. They were “the one force in society that could charge through the fog and uncover the truth.”

McCurry is able to counter these hostile attitudes because he understands reporters are also worried about career advancement. He masterfully grants or withdraws favors like one-on-one interviews with Clinton to bring them to heel. “For all their animosity, the White House spinners and their cynical chroniclers were ultimately joined at the hip in a strangely symbiotic relationship,” Kurtz writes. “McCurry and company needed the press to peddle their message to the public, and the journalists needed an action-packed presidency on which to build their reputations and name recognition.”

Clinton's spin doctors achieved their greatest success during the campaign finance scandals. The issues cut to the heart of the way politics was being conducted, and, for once, the voters seemed to be listening. Clinton appeared to be selling off his office to the highest bidder, and foreign governments were alleged to have made illegal contributions in order to influence policy.

Congressional investigations were scheduled, but McCurry and Davis decided to get out ahead of the story and release all the documents with potentially damaging information before the hearings. They would take some hits, of course, but the bad news would come out in dribs and drabs in a convoluted fashion that would be hard to follow. The net result would be to deprive the hearings of any dramatic disclosures with which to grab the headlines.

The strategy worked. Davis stood outside the hearing rooms and persuaded reporters that all the charges under discussion were “old news.” From a public opinion standpoint, the congressional investigations turned out to be a bust.

“In boxing terms, the White House had clearly won on points,” Kurtz writes. “Through ceaseless spin cycles, Administration officials had walled off burgeoning scandals and managed to convey Clinton's message, however muted, to a skeptical public.”

But the main casualty in these White House-media wars is the truth. Nowadays presidential spin doctors aren't expected to be any more honest than the PR reps of Hollywood stars or big-time sports figures. And media standards aren't much higher.

“The Clinton presidency fits the tabloid times,” Kurtz concludes. “The battle between the president and the press was viewed as a clash between two morally ambiguous forces … and Clinton proved to have more firepower than anyone imagined.”

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.