Spin Cycle: How the White House and the Media Manipulate the News (2 cassettes)by Howard Kurtz, Kurtz
Bill Clinton is the most investigated president since Richard Nixon; facing inquiries into Whitewater, campaign fundraising abuses, and sexual misconduct, and yet he improbably began 1998 with approval ratings as high as those of Ronald Reagan. But the new year has brought a barrage of new allegations, and the president and his advisers face once again the challenge of spinning the news to their advantage, a challenge they have mastered many times before.
In Spin Cycle, award-winning Washington Post reporter Howard Kurtz reveals the inside workings of Clinton's well-oiled propaganda machine, arguably the most successful team of White House spin doctors in history. He takes the reader into closed-door meetings where Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Mike McCurry, Lanny Davis, and other top officials plot strategy to beat back the scandals and neutralize a hostile press corps through stonewalling, stage managing, and outright intimidation. He depicts a White House obsessed with spin and pulls back the curtain on events and tactics that the administration would prefer to keep hidden, including:
- The secret report that Hillary Clinton ordered on a reporter investigating the Whitewater affair as part of a plan to discredit her.
- A tense, almost paranoid White House atmosphere in which the spinmeisters do not question the President about the various scandals because they don't want to learn information they might have to reveal to prosecutors or the press.
- The secret meeting between a Clinton operative and the editor of The New York Times that led to a presidential interview in which Clinton knew the questions in advance.
- Bill Clinton's success in reaping favorable publicity by secretly courting selected reporters and columnists in off-the-record White House meetings.
- Al Gore's feelings of betrayal as the scandal-hungry press turned on him and jeopardized his presidential candidacy in 2000.
Spin Cycle is an all-too-human drama in which political operatives wrestle with their consciences as they struggle to protect the boss. As the scandal drums beat louder and louder, Kurtz shows what it takes for the president and his people to survive, and what happens to the truth along the way.
- Simon & Schuster Audio
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Abridged, 2 Cassettes
- Product dimensions:
- 4.58(w) x 7.10(h) x 0.81(d)
Read an Excerpt
THE ISSUE OF THE DAY, IMPROBABLY ENOUGH, WAS SLAVERY. It was just after one o'clock on Tuesday, June 17, 1997, and Joe Lockhart, the deputy White House press secretary, was ticking off issues that might come up at the afternoon briefing. Lockhart, who had been Bill Clinton's campaign spokesman during the 1996 election, had just joined the staff, and his first big assignment was to work the press on Clinton's new initiative on race relations.
During one of a spate of interviews on the subject, the president had been asked on CNN about a bill that would require an official government apology for the era of slavery. Clinton wasn't expecting the question; in five months of endless meetings on race relations, the issue had never come up. He said such an apology could be "quite important" and he would consider it. House Speaker Newt Gingrich quickly denounced the idea. Now reporters were flooding Lockhart with questions about whether the White House would formally embrace the proposal. USA Today was working on a cover story. It was time to fish or cut bait.
"We need to bring this to closure," Lockhart said. Lockhart's boss, Mike McCurry, agreed. They had checked with the Hill, and even the Congressional Black Caucus wasn't pushing for an apology over an abhorrent practice that had ended 130 years earlier. The idea was clearly going nowhere. But McCurry wasn't about to wing it on such a racially charged issue without asking the president.
Twice each day the press secretary and his staff went through this exercise before the "gaggle," as McCurry called the regular briefings. There was the 9:15 session each morning in his office, where television cameras were barred, and there was the more formal early-afternoon gathering in the White House Briefing Room, filmed by a bank of cameras and often replayed on C-SPAN. The staff had to sift through a dizzying array of complicated issues, any one of which might blow up into tomorrow's screaming headline. McCurry needed to know what to confirm, what to deny, when to bob and weave until another day. The nuances were crucial. Each issue, from air pollution to welfare, had a bureaucracy behind it that had painstakingly hashed out its position with its constituency groups. Anything McCurry uttered from the podium magically attained the status of official White House policy, and if he deviated later on, the administration would be accused of the dreaded sin of flip-flopping.
But there was a hidden benefit to all this thrashing around. The need for McCurry to field questions in the briefing room forced the administration to decide just what the hell its policy was. The very act of dealing with the press compelled a sluggish bureaucracy to resolve its interminable disputes. True, it was governing by sound bite, but in an administration obsessed with the media, it worked.
McCurry yawned. He had woken up in his Silver Spring, Maryland, home at 3:30 that morning, playing back in his head the answers to various questions that might arise that day. He was always worried about being caught unprepared. By Friday he was usually exhausted.
The scene in his sunny, spacious office, with its four television sets and working fireplace along one wall and the other plastered with his kids' crayon drawings, sometimes bordered on surreal. As McCurry and his aides sat there plotting media strategy, they watched a gang of reporters on the lawn staking out some official visitor ten yards beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows. Flipping a button on a squawk box, McCurry began listening in on the correspondents through a hidden intercom as they chatted among themselves. It was one way he could figure out where a story was heading.
The day's spin cycle had begun at the 7:45 senior staff meeting in the office of Erskine Bowles, the White House chief of staff. McCurry attended this meeting every day, as did Rahm Emanuel, Bruce Lindsey, Doug Sosnik, John Podesta, and Sylvia Matthews, the other deputy chief of staff. At the top of the agenda this Tuesday morning were the ongoing negotiations between the tobacco industry and a group of state attorneys general over an agreement that would limit the companies' liability in exchange for massive payments and stricter regulation. The man closely monitoring the talks was Bruce Lindsey, a lean, secretive Arkansas lawyer who had long been close to Clinton. Though Lindsey was regularly checking with both sides, the White House wanted to resist becoming a full-fledged participant.
The morning papers had strikingly different takes on the matter. The 'Washington Post' quoted unnamed sources as saying the administration "refused to intervene" in the tobacco talks until both sides agreed on a final package. The 'New York Times', however, cited "a top Clinton administration official" in saying "that the White House might be willing to play a more active role if negotiators were not able to produce a completed plan." The reporters had obviously relied on different administration leakers.
Rahm Emanuel, the ever-intense presidential assistant who was assuming a larger role in dealing with the press, stuck his head in McCurry's office. "I had my headline in the 'Washington Post'; Bruce had his in the 'New York Times,'" he said. It was a rare instance of two White House aides pushing their competing views in public, and Emanuel felt lucky that no journalist had called them on the contradiction.
The Post account was the one that reflected the White House consensus. In fact, the president's pollster, Mark Penn, had secretly surveyed the public on that very question. Only 33 percent of respondents said they would be more favorable to Clinton if he tried to broker the agreement, while 48 percent said they would be less favorable.
Bowles agreed that McCurry should say something on the record about the administration's refusal to be drawn into the tobacco talks. When McCurry returned to his office for the nine o'clock meeting with Lockhart and fourteen other press aides on his staff, he asked them to get Bruce Lindsey on the phone to bring him up-to-date.
"The consensus of the senior staff meeting is that I should just go ahead and confirm," McCurry told him. Lindsey agreed.
Lockhart raised some other issues that might arise at the morning gaggle. The 'New York Times' was reporting that the Federal Communications Commission had put off the president's request to ban liquor ads on TV. The 'Washington Times' was reporting that the administration was on the brink of ending a twenty-year ban on high-tech arms sales to Latin America. The New York 'Daily News' was reporting that John Huang, the elusive Democratic fundraiser who had been implicated in so many aspects of the fundraising scandal (and who had been invoking the Fifth Amendment), might be willing to testify on the Hill. The consumer price index was up 0.1 percent. And the press wanted to know whether Gladys Knight would be singing at a White House dinner that night with or without the Pips. The final question proved impossible to resolve.
The meeting soon wound down. "Okay, bring 'em in!" McCurry shouted to his assistant, Lori Anderson. Two dozen reporters, led by Helen Thomas of United Press International, the seventy-six-year-old doyenne of the press corps, filed into the room.
The gaggle ranged across the global terrain. The Balkans. Title IX sports programs. Health insurance legislation. Trade with Africa. A flag-burning amendment. The tobacco talks. Aid to Jordan. From behind his desk McCurry smoothly delivered the answers. The mood was brisk and businesslike. They had all been through it hundreds of times.
But, as always, questions arose that McCurry couldn't anticipate. One reporter asked whether the president, as a Southern Baptist, would support a proposed Baptist boycott of the Walt Disney Company. McCurry said he would have to check. (Clinton later declined to back the boycott.)
The reporters were also buzzing about the day's historic import, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Watergate break-in. CNN had just aired a poll showing that 20 percent of the American people thought Clinton's involvement in Whitewater was more serious than Richard Nixon's involvement in Watergate, compared to 49 percent who saw it the other way around. Helen Thomas, who well remembered the stonewalling tactics of Nixon's press secretary, Ron Ziegler, ribbed McCurry about sitting at Ziegler's old desk.
McCurry was in the process of turning the Watergate question into a pitch for campaign finance reform when another reporter tried to bait him.
"Ben Bradlee says the lesson of Watergate is for the White House to tell the truth," she declared.
"He's right. We do," McCurry replied, and he ended the briefing. "That's a wrap," he said.
Moments later McCurry gathered his papers and disappeared for forty-five minutes to his hideaway, a secluded spot elsewhere on the "campus," as staffers called the place. The location of his hideaway was his most closely guarded secret. Only two uniformed guards knew where to find him, and if his staff wanted to contact him they had to send messages by pager. McCurry needed time to get away from the phones, to clear the mental cobwebs. In the hideaway he would sit, read, make notes, focus on the upcoming briefing. This time alone was a way of maintaining his sanity. Jody Powell, who held the job under Jimmy Carter, once told McCurry that he had done the same thing.
McCurry soon faced another part of his job--ironing out disputes with other agencies. At 12:30 he held his daily conference call with the spokesmen at the State Department, the Pentagon, and the CIA. The call was an outgrowth of the Persian Gulf War, when Marlin Fitzwater, George Bush's press secretary, needed to coordinate the day's military and diplomatic news with the other agencies. McCurry had been on the receiving end of the call when he had been the State Department spokesman during Clinton's first term. Now he played referee from the West Wing.
Today the issue at hand concerned Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger, the national security adviser, who had been skirmishing over who would get to unveil a new aid package for Jordan. Albright, who had spent considerable time on the $100 million development fund, wanted to make the announcement and thus reap the publicity benefit. Berger wanted a presidential announcement. McCurry didn't really care, and since Albright was playing host to the crown prince of Jordan, he told the State Department the secretary could go first. Clinton would put out a statement and undoubtedly be quoted in the stories as well, but Albright would have her headline.
Lockhart drifted back in to talk about the president's race initiative, which loomed large on the White House landscape. The president's speech the previous Saturday, calling for a "national conversation" on race and announcing the appointment of a special commission, had gotten the biggest publicity buildup of the second term. There was intense jockeying in the press over who would get the first interview with Clinton on the topic. Michael Frisby of the 'Wall Street Journal' was throwing some sharp elbows in the process.
A few days earlier, on a different story, Frisby had found himself pointedly excluded. Rahm Emanuel had passed the word to 'USA Today' that Clinton had decided to ask the Federal Election Commission to outlaw the use of "soft money," the large, unregulated donations that filled both parties' coffers. As other reporters picked up on the buzz, Emanuel also leaked the story to the 'New York Times', the 'Washington Post', and the 'Los Angeles Times'. Even though it was not much of a story--the odds that the FEC would take such action were slim--Frisby immediately called Emanuel when he realized he had been bypassed.
"I'm going to fuck you," he declared.
Emanuel knew exactly what Frisby meant. Frisby was renowned inside the White House for tossing poison darts at uncooperative aides in the Journal's gossipy, anonymously sourced "Washington Wire" column, which ran on the front page every Friday. No one wanted to be the next target.
But Frisby was throwing a fit for a reason. He knew that some White House aides were promoting other newspapers for the first interview on race. Doug Sosnik, the president's counselor, argued that the exclusive should go to the 'Los Angeles Times' because L.A. was a multicultural melting pot and because Clinton was about to deliver his race speech in San Diego. Frisby wanted to make sure Emanuel owed him, and the race interview was precisely the sort of payback he had in mind.
Emanuel had his own reasons to lobby for Frisby. Not only was he the only black reporter covering the White House for a national newspaper, but he had written about race and politics for years and understood the nuances of Clinton's position. A front-page piece by Frisby the day before the San Diego event would frame the speech in precisely the way the White House wanted. After much discussion Erskine Bowles gave Emanuel the green light. Frisby was on vacation in the Poconos, but he talked to Clinton by phone and wrote the story from his hotel room. His editors, though, were less convinced of the story's value, dismissing the effort and the newly named commission as horseshit. Frisby understood their skepticism--so much of what the White House did was smoke and mirrors--but as an African American he was impressed that Clinton was venturing into territory that other presidents had avoided. He carried the day, much to Emanuel's satisfaction. Frisby's piece, which led the paper, stressed Clinton's popularity among blacks. "Not since Lyndon Johnson has an American president devoted such energy to race relations," he wrote.
The Journal article was part of a saturation strategy. Clinton spoke to 'Time', 'Newsweek, and 'U.S. News & World Report', appeared on CNN's Late Edition, spent an hour with a group of black columnists. Some were unimpressed, but Courtland Milloy, a local columnist for the 'Washington Post', marveled that he was sitting in Janet Reno's chair in the Cabinet Room, staring out at the Rose Garden. "I could feel the wool being pulled over my eyes. And it felt good, too," he wrote.
On a purely tactical level, all this was a remarkable achievement. Simply by trumpeting a single speech, without an O.J.--like backdrop or even a tangible proposal, the White House got most of the media talking about race, or at least about the president's approach to race. Clinton, who as a white southerner with a lifetime of black support enjoyed special credibility on the issue, had, at least briefly, put the nation's rawest wound atop the public agenda.
But to what end? Was talking about race really enough to put Clinton in LBJ's class? Not in the eyes of the press, which largely dismissed the initiative as more presidential hot air. It was Clinton as college professor, as talk-show host, as pop-culture priest, feeling the nation's pain but shying away from concrete efforts on affirmative action or urban aid that might ease that pain. Even before he spoke, the 'New Republic' ridiculed the whole thing as "therapeutic exercises" that were an "insult" to the public. U.S. News called it "hand holding as policy." Hours after the San Diego speech, the networks were strikingly skeptical. CBS's Bill Plante spoke of fears that Clinton's initiative "will be a whole lot of talk and not nearly enough action." ABC's John Donvan noted that "those 4,600 words contained few solutions."
This was the heart of the problem that McCurry and his colleagues constantly faced: how to push a substantive story that would resonate with the public without drawing overly cynical coverage from the press. They had a fair number of techniques at their command--uplifting presidential speeches, dry policy statements, grand photo ops, whispered leaks--but ultimately the dozens of news organizations that covered the building provided the filter through which the message had to pass. Ultimately the soaring rhetoric got bogged down in niggling questions of policy and politics, leaving McCurry and his staff to deal with the minutiae. The sausage-making process was not pretty.
Now, as McCurry sipped a cup of cream of asparagus soup at his desk, they had to deal with the slavery question. Lockhart went looking for Sylvia Mathews, the deputy chief of staff who was overseeing the race initiative. He returned a moment later. "She's in the Oval now," he said. "You want to barge in?"
"That's a good idea," McCurry said. Unlike some of his predecessors, he had the freedom to burst into a meeting and grab the boss whenever he needed an answer.
McCurry told the president he wanted to knock down the idea of an apology for slavery. "Enough of the press corps is interested in whipping this thing up today that we need to put it back in its box," he said.
"Look, when I got this the other day, that was the first I'd actually heard about it," Clinton said. He signed off on McCurry's approach.
McCurry also briefed Clinton on the tobacco talks and told him that reporters were asking about the Watergate anniversary. He suggested that if the press raised the subject, the president invoke the abuses of that era to underscore the need for campaign finance reform.
Lockhart was waiting when McCurry returned. "Up or down?" he asked, gesturing with his thumb.
"He agrees with what we're saying," McCurry said.
"We'll take a half a cycle of grief," Lockhart predicted.
They started playing with the wording. "With all the enormous work that lies ahead on the race initiative," McCurry began, "the president doesn't feel like this is the issue to start with. It might make sense to think about at some time. But the president has other tasks he wants to take on first."
Lockhart wanted something firmer. "If pushed, he's not prepared to support this resolution at this time," he suggested.
"Yeah," McCurry said.
"I don't think we'll get a lot of blow-back on that," Lockhart said. McCurry asked him to type something up and run it by Sylvia Mathews.
The phone calls were coming faster now as the scheduled 2:30 briefing approached. Bruce Lindsey called and started chewing over his strategy toward the tobacco negotiators.
"It's probably best for us to be where we are and say we can't write the deal for them: 'You gotta do the hard work and we'll take a look at it when you're done.' That probably keeps the heat on them anyhow," McCurry told him. It was not unusual for him to offer strategic advice on the issues, for he was more than just a passive spokesman.
As if McCurry's plate were not full enough, Cheryl Mills, the deputy White House counsel, walked in with a court ruling. A federal appeals court had overturned a judge who had supported the administration's attempt to withhold subpoenaed documents from the special prosecutor investigating former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy. But the court had set a fairly high standard for prosecutors seeking such communications between a president and his senior aides. This could obviously affect the battle for documents in the Whitewater case. While Mills was explaining the ruling, her boss, Charles Ruff, the White House counsel, called to discuss his statement. McCurry had to skim the decision and make sure he properly described it as a moral victory for the White House.
Minutes later Dennis Boxx, a spokesman for the National Reconnaissance Office, was on the phone. In a top-secret operation, the FBI and the CIA had arrested Mir Aimal Kansi, a Pakistani native accused of killing two CIA employees in a 1993 shooting spree outside the agency's Langley, Virginia, headquarters. Kansi had been seized near the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan and was being returned to the United States by military aircraft. The question was when to announce the arrest.
"They ought to pop it around eight o'clock tonight," McCurry told Boxx, proposing a time that would barely enable the newspapers to cover the story for the next morning's editions. "You get everyone moving on it, and then you get a second-day tick-tock on it. You get two bites of the apple." A tick-tock was a journalistic reconstruction of how a complicated event unfolded. The suspect was still in the air and McCurry was trying to figure out how to stretch the arrest into a two- day story.
Boxx said he wasn't sure the story would hold. ABC was already sniffing around.
McCurry flipped on the TV. On the White House's closed-circuit feed, channel 32, the president and first lady were attending a flag-draped gathering of African diplomats to announce their new trade initiative toward the continent. Hillary was addressing the audience. This was her second public appearance of the day; she had also been at an event with Jackie Joyner-Kersee promoting Title IX sports programs for women.
McCurry was sure some reporters would ask about her sudden visibility. They were probably writing the story in their heads now: "In an effort to expand her role.... Privately, the first lady has been frustrated at the drift in the White House.... She is moving her advisers into the White House." The message of these Hillary-to-the-rescue stories, McCurry felt, was always the same: the white boys were fucking up.
As the press staff gathered again on chairs and couches around McCurry's desk, he stared at his looseleaf binder, underlining key phrases. He started tossing questions at Anne Luzzatto, his new deputy for foreign affairs, who was thumbing through the diplomatic "guidance"--the suggested answers to possible press queries--at a small table to his right. Was there anything new in this China policy? Clinton was meeting with President Kiro Gligorov of Macedonia; were American troops there under U.N. command? What was the U.S. policy on this land mines bill now before Congress?
McCurry frowned as he scanned the Espy ruling again. "It's awfully hard to get to the punch line here," he said. "The PR issue here is they're all gonna say, 'Hey, wait a minute, you guys lost.' "
He decided to push back the briefing by an hour. Four administration officials, led by Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, would brief first on the African trade initiative. The reporters would be steamed, for McCurry was always running late. But there was a hidden benefit. The droning on Africa would wear out the press corps and ease the pressure on him. It worked every time.
Just after 3:30 McCurry slipped a navy jacket over his crisp white shirt and maroon tie and headed past the guard's desk, down the carpeted ramp to the lower press office. He stood behind the sliding door that separated the warren of offices from the briefing room. He popped a couple of chocolates from an open box and walked in as the trade experts were winding up. It was time for some performance art.
The regulars were all in attendance. The network correspondents --Rita Braver of CBS, David Bloom of NBC, John Donvan of ABC --sat in their first-row seats. CNN's Wolf Blitzer was in the second row, next to Peter Baker of the 'Washington Post'. Behind them were Alison Mitchell of the 'New York Times' and Mara Liasson of National Public Radio. A few Japanese reporters were in the back, trying to find out if Clinton was going to meet with Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto later in the week.
McCurry thanked the briefers for "warming up the audience." The session began with routine questions about Hill legislation. Donvan asked about the Espy case and the administration's "pretty concerted effort to exert executive privilege."
McCurry launched into his spiel. Looking down at his notes, he hailed the decision as "strongly reaffirming the president's constitutional right to protect confidential communications both directly with the president and among his senior advisers." The reporters, who had just gotten word of the ruling, didn't bother to challenge his upbeat assessment.
Blitzer asked why the White House was refusing to get involved in the tobacco talks. "If both sides have asked you to come in and close this deal, why not do that?"
"Because we're not a party to the negotiations," McCurry said.
Suddenly they all started firing at once. The tone was one of moral outrage at the administration's callousness. How dare the White House not solve this dispute in time for the evening news?
"They're clearly looking for some guidance from you," Bloom said.
Blitzer jumped in: "Did you say that if the benefits to the American people--namely, stopping children from smoking--are good enough, the White House would support a deal that would limit punitive damages that the tobacco industry--"
"I was very careful not to say that," McCurry said, sticking to the approach that he, Bowles, and Lindsey had agreed upon that morning.
"Can the president imagine a deal that would both meet his objectives and also boost the stock of the tobacco companies?" Liasson asked.
"Wildly hypothetical," McCurry said.
"How important is it to the president that this be an accomplishment that he brings to the country?" Braver asked.
"The White House is willing to walk away?" Bloom said. And then: "One of the attorneys general told us today that he thought the president was being unpresidential."
"If it was important enough for the president to step into the baseball strike," Blitzer asked, "why not important enough to step in and resolve this?"
"Because children don't die as a result of going to major league baseball games, Wolf."
"But that's the point."
McCurry knew exactly what was going on. The tobacco story was the only chance for these esteemed television correspondents to get on the air that night. They were trying to goad him into making some news, and he was stubbornly standing his ground.
Finally the topic was exhausted. After a few queries on affirmative action and Macedonia, Helen Thomas sounded the traditional thank-you--her privilege as the senior wire-service reporter--and the half-hour session was over.
Back in his office, McCurry shook his head. The one question they had sweated over all day--slavery--hadn't even come up. Rhetorical combat was like that sometimes. You spent hours in training, sizing up the enemy, mapping plans for battles that never took place. But the tobacco questions had been contentious, and McCurry's battle plans held up perfectly. At least no one had mentioned his own nasty habit. McCurry never smoked in public, had been trying to quit, but even some of his relatives didn't know about his weakness for tobacco. The White House spokesman was the most public of figures, but in some ways he had managed to remain anonymous.
McCurry got his chance to address the slavery question that evening when he appeared on the CNN program 'Crossfire'. Cohost Pat Buchanan asked whether Clinton would apologize for slavery.
"The president said simply, look, that may be an issue for down the road," McCurry said. "There's apparently a piece of legislation on the Hill. The president at this time is not prepared to support that legislation."
"You seem to be backing away from the White House position," Buchanan said.
Buchanan had missed the point. There was no White House position--at least, not until that moment. It was a moving target, a floating crap game that McCurry had gradually mastered, distilling the blur of government deliberations into a ten-second made-for-TV answer.
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