The Spinmaster Aptitude Test

Politics and policy.
March 9 1997 3:30 AM

The Spinmaster Aptitude Test

Are you good enough to spin for the White House?

Contrary to popular belief, the Clinton administration did not invent spin. But the Clintonites have produced an extraordinary amount of it. This is partly because they have a lot to spin about, and partly because they just seem to like spinning.

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Lately the outpouring has been especially torrential. In addition to the spin coming from the president ("The Lincoln Bedroom was never sold") and the vice president ("There is no controlling legal authority"), there has been a steady gush from administration spokespersons Mike McCurry, Ann Lewis, and Lanny Davis at daily White House briefings and on television. Judged in terms of how effective it is at defusing the fund-raising scandal, this PR work ranges from catastrophically bad to fairly good. What is odd is that the Clinton administration, spin-happy as it is, doesn't seem to have any sense of which kinds of spin are effective and which only make matters worse.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

To get a taste of the different styles, I put some generic scandal questions to various administration flacks. Ann Lewis, the deputy director of communications, was the first one I reached. I asked Lewis to explain why Gore's fund-raising calls from the White House did not violate the law prohibiting the solicitation of funds on government premises. She said only the White House counsel's office could discuss legal issues, so I asked, on a more general note, whether Gore was in any trouble. "Obviously I don't think he's in trouble," she said. Why not? "Well, I think what we have so far learned, what the Washington Post seems to have learned, to their great astonishment, is that candidates for re-election would actually campaign on their own behalf. A Democratic candidate in 1995--at a time when Congress was shutting down the government, repealing the ban on assault weapons, and trying to shut down the Department of Education--would have taken seriously the issues that were at stake. Shocking!" That was all Lewis had time for.

My next call was to Amy Weiss Tobe, the spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. I pressed her on a different issue--the White House sleepovers. I accepted, I said, the administration's position that there was no price on staying in the Lincoln Bedroom. But wasn't the Lincoln Bedroom one of the tools Clinton used to help raise money for the 1996 election, as Clinton's handwritten "Ready to start overnights right away?" note clearly indicates? "There was no link," Tobe said. "The president can invite whomever he chooses to stay over. He invited friends and supporters and others. There was no ticket price." Understood, I said, but weren't sleepovers used as a fund-raising tool? "I don't believe so," she said. "Again, there was no price on it." After a third try, I gave up trying to get her to admit the obvious.

Finally, I reached Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary. When I asked why Gore hadn't broken the law, McCurry directed me to a story in that day's New York Times, which suggested that Gore might have broken the letter but not the spirit of the law. "If you look at the history of the [law], it was intended to make it impossible for federal officials to extract payments from federal workers," he said. On the blanket prohibition against raising money on federal property, McCurry suggested that it couldn't sensibly apply to the president and vice president, who actually live on federal property. But, he added, "this issue has not been tested." Next I tried the Lincoln Bedroom question. Wasn't it used as a fund-raising tool? "Staying over at Clinton's house was certainly a tool. I wouldn't dispute that," McCurry said. "It was a tool Clinton enjoyed using." Bush and Reagan, he added, used a variety of fund-raising tools as well.

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Let's look a bit more closely at these approaches. Asked a direct question, Lewis immediately changes the subject to some other issue, like gun control. She never gives so much as an inch in admitting wrongdoing. At a news briefing Feb. 25, Lewis offered the following kerfuffle: "The president and Mrs. Clinton enjoy spending time with their friends. They regularly asked people to stay at the White House ... especially old friends and sometimes people they ... met more recently and--here's the key--wanted an opportunity to talk to ... in a personal and nonofficial setting when they could. ... And I'll also say, having gone over the list and having read through it this weekend, I can now see why the president and the first family are proud of the people who came to the White House as their personal guests." Lewis went on to explain that one of the guests was an old friend who was dying of cancer. This unctuous display infuriated members of the press corps--several told me they avoid talking to Lewis. One prominent national reporter describes Lewis' style as commenting on the rain outside by claiming that the sun is shining. Because she is viewed as an apparatchik, anything Lewis says is discounted 100 percent.

Tobe and Lanny Davis (the official scandal spokesman at the White House--who never called me back) are less spin-happy than Lewis. They will not try to tell you that the Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers were really about old friends dying of cancer. Rather, they stick to an authorized script--and when that fails, they retreat into a fog of obscurantism. At the Feb. 25 White House briefing, Davis was asked whether "access" had been sold to contributors. "Of course, people coming to the White House have access to the president by definition, because he's there. But we regard the notion of special access because a contribution is made as something that is contrary to our policies." Huh? That evening, on Nightline, Davis repeatedly told an incredulous Ted Koppel that Clinton's note about sleepovers was meant to refer to friends and supporters. "Ted, I'm struck by how many people are looking at dots, connecting them where there's no evidence to connect them. The president has clearly said that there was absolutely no requirement, no price tag. These were friends and supporters of his coming to his residence." This mirrored the low-spin style of Ron Ziegler, Nixon's spokesman during Watergate. The president acknowledges that a wide variety of meteorological conditions, including precipitation, are common this time of year. You might call that "rain," but we don't. It provokes a mixture of sadism and sympathy from reporters, who proceed to turn the hapless flack into a human punching bag.

McCurry takes a different approach. Rather than sticking to a line that is obviously absurd, he admits problems. He then goes into impressive detail about what the law is, and how it might or might not have been broken. Having proved that he is a sentient human being, he subtly points his questioner in a different direction--weren't practices similar to this one actually common under previous presidents? McCurry's model is John F. Kennedy, who would fully engage with reporters, occasionally deflect a question with humor, and seldom--if ever--get caught out. Is it raining outside? Sure it's raining, McCurry tells you. In fact, it has rained 0.23 inches today--average for the year.

Only the last of these approaches works. But the Clintons, who dislike and distrust the press themselves, seem not to have learned the obvious lesson. Instead of credibility, they have looked for the quality of ultimate loyalty in their flacks. The previous scandal spokesman was Mark Fabiani, a McCurry-style spinner who was liked and trusted by reporters and who managed, almost single-handedly, to cure the FBI-file scandal with a dose of openness. But the administration replaced Fabiani with Davis, whose main qualification was that he had volunteered to defend the Clintons on Crossfire. It hired Lewis for the same reason--she devised the "Don't Pillory Hillary" campaign on her own. As their relations with the press deteriorate to levels of hostility not seen since 1993, the Clintons are failing once again to recognize that a lack of loyalty is not their biggest problem. A lack of credibility is.