The Wages of Spin

How you look at things.
March 4 1999 3:30 AM

The Wages of Spin

Thanks to the shouting match over Lewinsky, a rape charge goes unanswered.

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A seemingly honest woman, partially backed by circumstantial evidence, accuses the president of having raped her two decades ago. The president denies it but refuses to say where he was that day. The public believes her but seems not to care. The opposition party declines to press the issue, and the media concede it will go away. How has such cynicism come to pass?

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This is a lesson in the consequences of spin. For more than a year, Clinton's friends and enemies played a game. His enemies conspired to drive him from office. His friends conspired to protect him. Each side did and said whatever it deemed necessary to capture public opinion. The game ended, but the spins remain engraved in our consciousness. Now they are clouding our perception of Juanita Broaddrick's accusation.

1. It's just more politics.

Clinton's enemies, like his apologists, care more about politics than about truth. Together, they have ruined his accusers' credibility. His apologists have dismissed every charge against him as the product of a right-wing propaganda machine, and his enemies have done everything possible to prove that theory right. Rather than let each woman decide whether to come forward, Clinton's antagonists dragged her onstage. Paula Jones said nothing about sexual harassment until the American Spectator outed her three years later. Conservative activists financed and managed her lawsuit. Linda Tripp taped Monica Lewinsky, tricked her into saving the stained dress, and ultimately fed her to Jones' attorneys and to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr.

Likewise, anti-Clinton activists didn't start pushing Broaddrick onstage until he ran for president in 1992. Eventually, they fed her to the Jones lawyers, who sent private investigators to her home, subpoenaed her, and dumped her name and story into the public record based on hearsay, disregarding her denials. Even after Starr chose not to pursue her story, House Republicans used her secret FBI interview--which Clinton had been given no chance to rebut--to persuade their colleagues to vote for impeachment. Jerry Falwell and Matt Drudge pressured NBC to air its interview with her. Fox News Channel, the New York Post, and the Washington Times pushed the story into the public record, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page blew it open. To prove that Clinton had used Broaddrick against her will, his enemies used her against her will. Why did she finally tell her story? Because "all of these stories are floating around," she said, "and I was tired of everybody putting their own spin on it."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

With equal cynicism, Clinton's surrogates used these conservative associations to distract the public from his treatment of women. They dismissed Jones as a right-wing stooge and discredited Starr's investigation as a political "war." While Democrats discounted impeachment as a partisan jihad, the GOP locked arms to prove them right. In so doing, Republicans squandered their credibility. Now that Clinton stands accused of rape, they sit helplessly mute.

Meanwhile, Clinton's allies are burying Broaddrick's story under the usual political dirt. On Meet the Press, National Organization for Women President Patricia Ireland scoffed that the public wouldn't heed attacks on Clinton "from a Bob Barr, who's been married three times and lied under oath." On This Week, former bimbo-leak plumber George Stephanopoulos argued, "Gennifer Flowers starts out in the Star tabloid, Paula Jones [in] the American Spectator, Monica Lewinsky with Matt Drudge, and now this on the Wall Street Journal editorial page. ... We have a history of right-wing pressure tactics to push these into play without verification."

2. It's just more sex.

Clinton's alleged sexual offenses have progressed along a spectrum of violence, from consensual adultery (Flowers) to unwanted solicitation (Jones) to unwanted groping (Kathleen Willey) to rape (Broaddrick). But his enemies, intent on proving a pattern of behavior and destroying him with whichever scandal was at hand, lumped them together and overplayed the lesser charges. Their latest gaffe was to spend a year prosecuting Clinton for lying about consensual adultery, while the Willey investigation remained offstage.

The point of the rape charge is that it's different. Yet once again, Clinton's critics are lumping it into a "pattern." "Broaddrick's story is believable because of its wretched familiarity," wrote columnist Michael Kelly, citing Clinton's "piggish behavior" with Lewinsky as evidence that he could be a "brute." On Meet the Press, ham-fisted moralist Bill Bennett huffed, "How many times does this kind of thing have to come up? ... We have heard, seen this pattern before." ABC's George Will chimed in, "Is this out of character? Please." On Fox News Sunday, host Tony Snow touted a poll showing that 60 percent of Americans "think the allegations represent a pattern of behavior."