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.

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."

Clinton's apologists are content to subsume the allegation of violence into a pattern of sex and thereby dismiss it as immaterial. Stephanopoulos rephrased the rape charge as a question about the relevance of candidates' private lives. Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., dismissed the story as "a private matter," though he later apologized. "I'd like to see us get on to the issues," replied Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., when asked on This Week about Broaddrick's allegation. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., used the same dodge on Fox News Sunday: "Can't we focus on issues that are important to people?"

Already, the media are dissolving Broaddrick's story into a pattern of philandering. The Chicago Tribune called it another allegation of "boorish and immoral sexual behavior." CNN Late Edition panelist Steve Roberts cited its "uneasy familiarity." And This Week co-host Cokie Roberts worried that in pursuing it, the press would again be accused "of asking too many questions ... about the candidate's life." Framed this way, the story is dying.

3. It can't be proved.

Not content to disgrace Clinton morally, his adversaries tried to inflate his cover-up of the Lewinsky affair into crimes and impeachable offenses. Not only did this weak poison fail to kill him, it strengthened his immune system. It raised the threshold for inquiring into Clinton's personal behavior and for obliging him to answer questions. If an offense can't be prosecuted and proved in court, it no longer matters.

This mindset has crippled Broaddrick's story in four ways. First, it has induced a sense of helplessness about charges that can't be legally proved. "There is no way we'll ever know what all the facts are," Daschle argued on This Week. "What we have to do now is move on." Crossfire co-host Bill Press agreed: "There's no way to prove she's telling the truth. ... We'll never know." New York Times Managing Editor Bill Keller added: "The merits of the allegations are probably unknowable. Legally, it doesn't seem to go anywhere." This notion that the charge "doesn't go anywhere" legalizes and objectifies the investigative process, absolving the speaker of responsibility to pursue the question.

Likewise, the word "unknowable" disguises the fact that the merits of the charges are not only knowable; they are known by two people. Broaddrick has now spoken. Shouldn't Clinton? When asked this question, Daschle replied: "I don't think you're going to hear anything from him, nor do I think it's going to lend any new information. Let's move on." Thus the passive prediction that Clinton will successfully lie, stonewall, or evade the question glosses over whether the media have a duty to ask it and Clinton has a duty to answer it.

Second, the legal framework shifts the burden from Clinton to his accusers. When asked on Late Edition whether Clinton was obliged to respond to Broaddrick's allegation, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said that was "up to the president" and called the charge "effectively unprovable." On Meet the Press, Susan Estrich fumed that those who dared to pursue the question would "tear people's lives apart based on a plausible allegation." Estrich demanded "a higher standard" for such an inquiry. On Fox News Sunday, Steven Brill defended Clinton's silence as a legal tactic to avoid a libel suit.

Third, this framework lends a high-minded legal cast to a low-minded excuse for ignoring the story. Instead of admitting to scandal fatigue and fear of exasperating the public, reporters and politicians observe that the "statute of limitations" on the rape charge has expired. A legitimate reason not to prosecute Clinton thus becomes a bogus reason not to question him. "It's not that we're tired, and it's not that we're lacking in moral outrage," Estrich asserted. But "unless you're ready to reopen the impeachment process ... the country wants to move on." The bipartisan movement to kill the independent counsel law provides additional legal cover for this exit. "The time has come for us to close the books," Daschle argued.

Fourth, the notion that the courts are responsible for all inquiry lets politicians and journalists pass the buck. Upon leaving office, Clinton "will be subject to criminal prosecution just as any other citizen would be," observed Wellstone. On This Week, Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, refused to say whether anything should be done about Broaddrick's story: "I'm really not involved in that at all. ... The proper authorities ought to handle it." Conversely, Steve Roberts predicted that the story would die "because Republicans don't want to touch" it, and fellow Late Edition panelist Susan Page added, "There's no legal process continuing with it. There's no impeachment process. I don't see what keeps this story alive."

Maybe Bill Clinton was never in that room with Juanita Broaddrick. Maybe they had consensual sex. Maybe what seemed coercive to her seemed merely rough to him. Maybe he lost control and has regretted it ever since. But the bottom line is that he's giving no answers, and a nation jaded by spin is giving him a pass. It's less and less clear that actions have consequences. And it's more and more clear that ideas do.

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