Features

Mr. Spin

National | The Clinton White House took political "spin" to a whole new level, from which most Beltway journalists believe future administrations will never recover. The next White House spokesman will have to be a big-time spinner, but must he be so bald-faced about it?

Issue: "How shall we then govern?," Oct. 28, 2000

In Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine, the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz writes that "the modern presidency is, above all, a media presidency." To a great extent, he's right. Enjoying ever larger First Amendment protections, the press over the past 80 years has become "the media," encompassing not just newspapers and magazines but also radio and television (including cable television), and, the big new thing, the Internet, with its 'round-the-clock demands. The result has been a growth in media power beyond what anyone would have imagined 100 years ago, much less when this country was first settled-note that the first newspaper in this country came out in the morning (in Boston, in 1695) only to be banned in the afternoon. Meanwhile, also over the past century, the presidency itself has grown in importance. Presidents, conservative and liberal alike, have since the progressive era been expected to initiate new courses of domestic action. They have also been the source of major scandal. Naturally, with so much going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, journalists have concentrated much of their energy upon it. The result has been the media presidency Mr. Kurtz speaks of-a more powerful presidency besieged by a media grown bigger, more diverse, and more formidable. Bill Clinton's media presidency has been one of a kind. While previous White Houses tried to get across their "messages" and put the best face on negative events, the Clinton White House engaged in so much "spin" on all fronts that lying became all too common. The pattern was evident from the start. In the summer of 1994, Post White House correspondent Ruth Marcus wrote in an op-ed, "Nineteen months of repeated falsehoods and half-truths have corroded the relationship between this White House and the reporters who cover it." And the pattern continued. Consider that White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry and his aides insisted that the infamous White House "coffees"-which came to light in Clinton's second term-were not fundraisers, "even though," as Spin Cycle shows, "White House aides referred to them in memos as fundraisers, even though some of the finance people used them to coax big contributions, even though Clinton knew this was being done, because the guests were hit up for dough before and after the coffees but not while sipping the stuff." Mr. Clinton's successor will have a media presidency, but must he be as bald-faced about it? Howard Kurtz told me that the next president "might not be as spin-obsessed" as Mr. Clinton, but columnist Bob Novak worries that the obsession is so deep it can't end, regardless of who's elected. "I don't think it can be stopped," he said. Still, one must hope. And certainly the only way the next president can go is up. "There's been an overall loss of dignity and standing in the press office," said Brit Hume of Fox News. The central question for the next president is whether his White House will bluster and lie its way through whatever crises befall it, doing harm to the presidency and the nation. Or will it conduct itself more honorably, in ways that help restore credibility? More than one Washington journalist interviewed for this article said the next press secretary should not be "a political person" but a kind of independent press secretary-someone who represents all the people. This suggestion represents an understandable reaction to the job of press secretary as it degraded under Bill Clinton. It has become a highly politicized one, often requiring nonstop defense of the president and assaults on anyone perceived as an "enemy." In previous years, for example, White House press secretaries did not take on, say, the Speaker of the House. Bill Clinton's did. "McCurry," said journalist Fred Barnes, "became the chief foil of Newt Gingrich. This was an entirely new role for a press secretary." That's a natural reaction from reporters wearied by unending spin. Still, it would be a mistake for a president to choose as his press secretary someone who is not a political person-that is, someone who does not support his views. A president is unquestionably a political person, and if a president had the time to represent himself to the press-to be his own press secretary-he would be entitled to do so. He thus has the right to have someone in the job who holds to his views, and can articulate and defend them. An independent press secretary might be too independent to be much good to anyone. Of course, it's also true that a president has the right to have someone who can defend him to the public in instances where he is under fire (including civil or criminal investigation). But this is where a president should draw the line by making sure that any questions concerning an investigation of him are routed outside the White House press office-probably to his personal lawyers. Otherwise the press secretary would be distracted from the president's agenda and the public's business. He could also lose credibility, should he reflexively defend the president in a matter where the president is telling lies. Ideally, a press secretary-like every other government official-should share the president's views but also have a high sense of public service. Here, as with all appointees, an official asked to do something that he cannot in good faith accept has the honorable (though rarely used) option of resignation. Members of the press are not so cynical as to think a White House press secretary cannot serve both his client (the president) and the country. "The loyalty of any White House press operation is to the president," said the Post's Kurtz. "But it can also serve the country by providing a steady flow of issue information that might help illuminate and educate as well as persuade from a partisan point of view." According to numerous surveys, the members of the Washington press corps are more liberal than not in terms of their own political and social views. This fact has significant implications, which differ depending on who is elected president. For George W. Bush, his press secretary will need to be prepared for questions framed on liberal premises. For Al Gore, his press secretary may have the easier task-cultivating agenda-friendly reporters. The more salient fact about the Washington press corps is not its liberalism, however, but its negativity, seen in its pursuit of conflict and controversy seemingly for its own sake, the substance of issues aside. The adversarial press, observed Ted J. Smith of Virginia Commonwealth University, has assumed the position of a critic "not of the society but somehow outside and above it." There is no question that the next press secretary will have to have a thick skin to endure the edgy questions that will be thrown his way. Howard Kurtz says that in recent years the Washington press corps has become "much more prosecutorial." It has, but the development can be explained. President Clinton failed spectacularly on his promise to give us the "most ethical administration" in history, and the media have had their pick of scandals to cover. It's not likely that the next administration, even if it tried, could spawn as many scandals as Mr. Clinton's has. Still, Bill Clinton himself is a reminder that the next president's communications effort will not turn, in the final analysis, on whom he picks to be his press secretary. It will turn on the president himself, since it is his character that will determine whether the Clinton legacy of spin and lies comes to an end.

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