March 6 1998 3:30 AM

Why did the press corps toast a notorious White House spinner?

The guest of honor at the Feb. 2 party was Lanny Davis, President Clinton's outgoing minister of damage control. The venue was the Holeman Lounge at the National Press Club in downtown Washington, D.C. And the celebrants included--among others--investigative reporters from the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times, all gathered for a final kiss of the master spinner's ring.

Why did the top reporters make merry with Davis for three hours and pay tribute to him with bawdy toasts? After all, Davis had earned a reputation as one of the city's most egregious news twisters during Sen. Fred Thompson's campaign-finance hearings, spinning any reporter who came near that the hearings' findings were old news. In the early days of the Lewinsky eruption, Davis provided the same obfuscating service.

The truth is that we Washington reporters love being spun--or, to put it bluntly, love being lied to. The underlying reasons are transparent. If politicians and their mouthpieces gave it to us straight, we'd have nothing to interpret and write. So we swoon when important people return our calls. (We've been asked to dance!) We thrill at the telephone game of question and evasion, thinking our guile and cunning will ultimately yield truth. We play the tortuous game of spin and leak because we must feed the deadline beast--that is, serve a new piece of the puzzle to our reading public every day. So what if some of the pieces are ill-fitting and manufactured from partial truths?


There are few new steps in this dance. In his book on Henry Kissinger, Walter Isaacson recounts how the diplomat would summon reporters for supposedly intimate discussions and solicit their opinions. Then he'd feed them junk, which they'd publish. Lee Atwater was more cynical, deliberately telling reporters things off the record, knowing that they'd view that information as more credible and use it.

Technically, the Davis party wasn't a celebration; it was a roast. Davis aide Adam Goldberg booked the room, purchased appetizers, and conjured the crowd. (At least it was a cash bar.) Glenn Simpson, an aggressive reporter at the Wall Street Journal, agreed to lend his name to the party to make it seem like a press-related event. The invitations were faxed around town, with Simpson as the RSVP contact. Joining Simpson at the party were a bunch of White House types and about two dozen journalists, including Susan Schmidt from the Washington Post (herself a victim of recent White House spinning), Thomas Galvin from the New York Daily News, and Marc Lacey of the Los Angeles Times.

Simpson declines to talk about the party, citing Journal policy. He was anything but speechless at the party itself, serving as master of ceremonies and delivering what many thought was a hilarious speech.

One attendee conceded that the appearances of the Davis fete are all wrong. "We were treating it almost as a birthday party," the reporter said, asking for anonymity. "We all wrote a big card and signed it and thanked him."


"I wrote on this card if you come across any news call me," said Lacey. He insisted that such socializing is a cost of doing business in Washington: "For me it was a sort of source-development thing." But he added, "You wonder whether it just shows that folks are too close."

Lacey's anonymous colleague spots a parable in the Davis prom: "In this town, you are judged by how well you can get a story leaked to you, not how well you can develop a story on your own and connect the dots," she said. "You get stuff leaked to you in the caste system. You don't have a lot of people out there filing FOIAs or figuring out some path that hasn't been walked before."

But reporters don't need artful seducers like Davis to make news. One of my colleagues who worked for the New York Times' Washington bureau during Watergate says that getting your calls returned by official sources like Davis is a false, overvalued currency. You claw your way into a position to get your calls returned by actually breaking stories, but that reward is empty. It means that you're the seventh or eighth on the call list to be lied to, instead of the 25th.

Although Davis has officially retired from the game, he's still mixing sense and nonsense for public consumption. Just two weeks ago, I watched him on Rivera Live spin the nation on the subject of the president and Monica Lewinsky's relationship.


"She was not like 800 interns," Davis said. "She had come to know Betty Currie very well. She had come to know the president, through proximity and through being around that office, very well. The president and Betty Currie had some concern about her.

"I know that most interns don't get a chance to know Betty Currie and don't have the many contacts that Monica Lewinsky had with the president. ... It certainly was a fact that Monica Lewinsky, by her own intentions, as a matter of public record, spent a lot of time around the Oval Office getting to know [Betty Currie] and the president.

"As a matter of fact, I would agree that it is unusual to have that kind of access and relationship with the president's personal secretary and the president himself and his friend, Vernon Jordan. Yes, factually, it's unusual."

Icalled Davis to ask about the foundation of his statements and what he could add to them. Actually, you can't call Davis. You page him and he, joy of joys, returns your call.


Davis denied any firsthand knowledge of the Lewinsky affair, claiming that he was merely spewing back what he had read in published reports.

"I was making a statistical comment out of all the interns that work in the White House," he said. "I can't characterize the relationship between her and the president. ... I used the word 'unusual' as a statistical comment."

But you didn't qualify your remarks on television, I said.

"When you are on television, you have to respond quickly," Davis explained.

Now I understood.

"If you write anything, you should know that I have no personal knowledge whatsoever about anything."

Thanks, Lanny, here's to you.