Whose Side Are You On?
Mike McCurry was in a good mood. I was in his office on December 10, 1996, my second day in the White House, and he was trying to explain my job as the press's point man on scandal. He was grinning like a Cheshire cat as if he knew something I didn't know, saw something I didn't see. His feet were on his half-moon desk. Behind him were watercolor paintings by his children, giving a surreal impressionistic backdrop for a tutorial on how to handle the scandal machine.
This is going to be fun, he said, watching me suffer.
Some fun, I said.
I remembered the first time I talked to McCurry about whether I should take the job, just a month or so before. My title was supposed to be "special counsel to the president," but my central responsibility was to deal with the press on behalf of the president and the White House on a variety of "scandal" stories, primarily the ones dealing with the allegations of Democratic campaign-finance abuses. My concern was that since McCurry spoke for the president and the White House, and since I was supposed to do the same, if I took the job how would I know where his job ended and mine began?
"That's easy," he said. "Have you ever seen the bumper sticker, 'Shit Happens'?"
"Well, when shit happens you speak."
We both laughed the kind of nervous laughter, however, when a joke cuts just too close to the bone of truth. McCurry got suddenly serious. He told me, Your work on the scandal watch is more important than you realize, and has serious implications. Every time I am able to shovel a bad scandal-story question over to you, you'll be helping me and the president to put public focus on the president's agenda, on issues that the American people care about and elected him to work on. That means, he reminded me, that it's your job to take the poison, to catch the flak. (Whatever the metaphor, I got the point.) Your role, he went on, will be to separate the president and his press secretary from these scandal stories so that we can concentrate on doing the business of the country. This will be critical to the president's success in his second term. Remember that, he repeated, the stakes are enormous.
Then we talked about the strategic rules for damage control that we had both come to understand through more than two decades of experience in national politics, political campaigns, and dealings with the press corps. We did not invent these rules; they are well known to corporate crisis managers and to political consultants and press secretaries who try to minimize the damage of a negative breaking story. My predecessors at the White House Harold Ickes, Jane Sherburne, Mark Fabiani, and Christopher Lehane had had great success following these rules as well.
You can't help the president, McCurry said, unless you are credible to the press. In this place, there are some people who don't get it and will accuse you of consorting with the enemy, of forgetting whose side you're supposed to be on, and worst of all, of pandering to the press. Forget them. To help your client the most, you have work to do to establish your credibility with the press. Right now, he said, most of the reporters think you're a partisan pit bull for Clinton. (I winced inwardly, hearing that, realizing it was largely true.) You need to prove so them that you can defend your client while still being straight with them and helping them do their jobs.
He reminded me of the one absolute rule, with no exceptions: Never, never lie or mislead the press. If you are under pressure to, then refuse or resign. If you can't answer a question completely and honestly, then tell the reporter exactly that. If giving them half the information is going to mislead them into writing an inaccurate story, then give them nothing.
In this context, we then talked about the difference between "good spin" and "bad spin." The rules for dealing with bad news are not about turning bad news into good news. Facts are facts and no amount of spinning will alter those facts. We can't change bad facts or avoid all damage. Rather, good spinning aims to minimize the damage by surrounding bad facts with context, with good facts (if there are any), and, if possible, with a credible, favorable (or less damaging) interpretation of these facts. Even if there is no such damage-limiting interpretation of the information available, there is still a good chance that reporters and the public will discount the impact of the story if the object of the bad news proactively puts the facts out: "If they helped put the story out, how bad could it be?"
In recent years, the word "spinning" has been given a somewhat pejorative connotation. But this fails to distinguish good from bad. Bad spinning is essentially a strategy of deception. It attempts to turn a bad story into a good story by hiding or obscuring bad facts, by releasing information selectively and misleadingly, and sometimes by being less than completely forthright in answering media questions. As I was to learn, bad spinning is not only dishonest, it is ineffective. Sooner or later, the reporters will catch up with the omitted facts or, ultimately, with the misleading information. Then the story will be written with the additional "Gotcha!" element that always makes it worse and the reporters who were the victims of the deception will almost certainly find a way to enjoy their revenge.
It was clear that McCurry and I spoke the same language, had the same philosophy about disclosure and accuracy. We talked for a while about his unhappy experiences the preceding fall, in the last few weeks before the November elections, when the Democratic campaign-finance stories first broke. He warned me that because the White House had mounted such an effective blocking action before the election to stop the press from writing stories about controversial Asian American Democratic fundraisers like John Huang and Charlie Trie, the press was out for blood and I would be the recipient of their ire. Which brought him to the next point, the core of our strategy in handling the campaign-finance scandal: I had to get all the bad stories written before the opening day of the Senate hearings, if possible over the Christmas holidays, when the politicians would be out of town and most normal people would be more concerned about their families and Christmas shopping than about John Huang and Charlie Trie. The key premise was that all these bad and embarrassing campaign finance stories are coming out anyway. By definition, the worse they were the more certain it was that they would come out. Better that they get written now so that they will be old news by the time the Senate hearings begin. People will be bored with this stuff by the time the TV cameras are turned on.
I'm going to be helping reporters write bad stories? I asked. Stories that will embarrass us, even damage us politically?
That's the inherent paradox in your job, McCurry said.
And you'll back me up when I am criticized for being on the wrong side for consorting with the enemy? I asked. I knew that charge would be made early and often.
Yes, I will.
This is a job where I am certain to make mistakes, I said. I'm going to hold you to that.
We then discussed the importance of the baseline or "predicate" story: Help the reporter writing the first story, make sure it's complete, with everything in it and in all likelihood the story will be over. From that point on, other reporters will find it when they search the LEXIS-NEXIS database of published newspaper stories, and so it will become the starting point for all future reporting. If you let the story dribble out in pieces, we agreed, there'll be ten bad stories, each half right and incomplete, rather than one bad story.
There are different ways of getting these predicate stories written, he pointed out. Sometimes there will be reasons why the White House will not want to officially put a story out on the record. I'd have to figure out a way to put them out anyway without asking permission.
Learn how to place stories with individual reporters on background, he said be fair, rotate so that each news organization gets a fair shot and make sure they have enough information to write the stories fairly and completely.
He said he wanted to be kept informed at all times, but he would trust me to use my judgment, given my legal training, as to how much he should know or needed to know. If the leaks get you in trouble with some of your colleagues, he said, remember: As long as you are following the strategy of getting these campaign-finance stories that are coming out anyway written before the hearings, then taking the flak inside this place is as much your job as taking it from outside. He added, pointedly, Some people will seem unhappy with your leaks while knowing you are doing the right thing and giving them deniability.
Which brought him to his final point: The toughest part of your job is that you have three constituencies to be worried about, who at various times will be at cross-purposes: Your client, the president of the United States; the press; and your fellow lawyers in the counsel's office. When you are in the room with your fellow lawyers in the counsel's office, you have to be vocal in representing the White House's political and press interests. You will be the only person in this place who wears all three hats, he said. You will have to run the risk of angering some of your fellow attorneys by playing that role, but that's your job.
I was growing more and more anxious. It seemed as if he was prescribing a role for me destined to fail: one with a high risk of alienating my legal colleagues in the counsel's office; one of possibly angering the president by helping the press write bad stories about him; and, inevitably, one of being cut up in the press through anonymous leaks as being ineffective in obtaining information and lacking support from within the White House. And that would be the end of me. I said as much to McCurry.
He grinned, mischievously. Everyone who is a friend of Mike McCurry knows that grin somewhere between childlike and evil.
He said I'd be fine, waving me out of the office, his feet back up on the half-moon desk. I tried to smile back. As I walked through the door, I was asking myself how the hell I had ever said yes to this job.
Hey, Lanny, one more thing, he called out. I turned around.
I'll back you up, he said. But don't fuck up.
There was that grin again.
I quickly learned, the hard way, that it's not enough simply to take the rules for damage control and start applying them. There was another set of rules that had to be learned too the press's rules. A press secretary has to know these rules, just as a lawyer has to know the law. I had to learn the vocabulary for conversations with the press corps, their ethical values, the work habits and rhythms and pressures of their professional life. I had to learn how to argue without offending, how to concede the point and yield damaging information without being disloyal to the president. I had to learn how to be fair and avoid giving unfair advantages among hard-driving, ambitious competitors, while also grasping the subtleties of helping reporters who have given you a fair shake and not going out of your way to help those who haven't.
Vocabulary training was my first lesson. Unfortunately, when I arrived at the White House, no one, including McCurry, thought to teach me the difference between "off the record," "background," and "deep background." I guess they assumed I knew the difference. I guess I assumed I knew the difference. We were all wrong.
Less than two weeks into my job in the White House, on Sunday afternoon, December 22, 1996, I received a call from Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post. As I had already discovered, if there was a reporter anywhere working on a scandal story relating to the Clinton White House, the system McCurry had already put into place was that they would now be calling me, not him; and it would be my responsibility to listen to their questions, prod them into telling me as much information as possible to enable me to get them the accurate answers, and then get back to them. In this capacity, in the ordinary course of a day, I would receive twenty-five to fifty phone calls. In the middle of a breaking hot story, the calls would balloon to almost twice that number all of them from reporters asking questions, needing information, public comment, or background comment, and needing it within hours or sometimes within minutes to meet their deadlines.
Ruth Marcus of the Post was interested in what had been discussed at a spring 1996 meeting between Michael Cardozo, director of the Presidential Legal Defense Fund (established to help the Clintons pay their legal bills), and senior White House staff. Specifically, she wanted to know whether the White House officials attending that meeting had advised Cardozo on what to do about returning hundreds of thousands of dollars in suspicious checks raised by Charlie Trie, a Little Rock restaurateur who knew Bill Clinton from his days a governor of Arkansas. Some of the checks, delivered by Trie in a brown paper bag, seemed to be legal, but many were written in the same handwriting, with the same misspellings, although each was signed with a different person's name. The issue of whether White House officials had advised Cardozo had important legal and political implications, because the Legal Defense Fund was established to be completely independent of and insulated from the White House, with a bipartisan board of trustees.
It had been reported in various newspapers that such a meeting had been held, and reporters were suspicious that senior White House officials had indeed been very much involved in the decision to return the checks, and then, remarkably, had kept the Trie checks secret from the press until after the November elections. Marcus was specifically interested in whether any White House official had argued to Cardozo that the nonsuspicious checks raised by Trie did not need to be returned, especially given the fact that the Clintons owed millions in legal fees. I had the impression from Marcus's questions and tone that she had a source telling her that such an argument had been made by someone at the meeting with Cardozo.
I hung up the phone and called one of the White House attorneys who was assigned to supervise my fact-finding in response to press inquiries. During my first days at the White House, I was informed by my supervisors in the counsel's office that I was not permitted to do any independent fact-finding to answer reporters' questions. I had to ask one of the White House attorneys to do the fact-finding for me. In this instance, I was told I could not call anyone directly who attended that meeting to ask Marcus's questions myself. The explanation for this two-stage process was that there might be information that I could not reveal to the press, and thus I might be compromised if I found such information out.
This rationale made no sense to me. If, for example, I received information that was subject to a legal privilege, I could always tell the reporter that I could not answer the question. In any event, this was one of the early arguments I lost or, more accurately, chose not to press at the moment. I was too uncertain of my position, my leverage, or my ability to obtain reliable facts within the multilayered bureaucracies that constituted the White House complex. But I made a mental note that at some point I would probably have to break out of this prohibition and do fact-finding myself. I perceived that the real reason for limiting my fact-finding powers was to keep information closely held and to avoid leaks. It was also obvious that there must have been some perception that I might leak some information that was nonprivileged but embarrassing. In fact, that was precisely what McCurry and I had agreed I was supposed to do get the bad stories out.
The fact-finding attorney called me back in a few minutes and said that the subject of not returning all the checks had been debated at the meeting, but that no White House official had taken a particular position one way or another. That sounded okay to me, so I called Marcus back. I told her that I didn't have a certain answer yet, since we were still trying to contact other people who had been at the meeting, but that for now, "on background," I could tell her that the subject of not returning some of the checks had been debated.
Several hours later the White House attorney called me and said that after making several more calls to participants in the meeting, I needed to refine somewhat the answer that I had given to the Post reporter. The subject of not returning the checks had not been debated, but rather, a "question had been raised" as to whether the checks needed to be returned. I was puzzled; I did not perceive a significant difference between having a debate and raising a question. Aren't we asking for trouble by hairsplitting words like that? I asked. No, was the answer, a debate implies that White House people were taking a position on this matter, and that's not accurate. I called Ruth Marcus back and gave her the refinement.
"But that's different from what you told me earlier," she said, agreeing with the White House attorney that there was in fact a significant difference between my two statements.
"It's really not that different," I responded. "Debating something, versus raising a question whether something should be done that's not really that different. Anyway, I was talking on background, and I told you we were trying to confirm this by talking to other people at the meeting."
After some back-and-forth discussion, in which I attempted to persuade Marcus that there really wasn't too much difference between the two formulations, she reluctantly agreed to use the second one.
A short time later, the White House attorney called me again. After talking to still more people who attended the meeting, the consensus was that the question that was raised at the meeting by a White House official was not whether the good checks needed to be returned, but rather how it would look to the public if the good checks were returned. The concern seemed to be that there might appear to be an ethnic slight if perfectly legal checks, all drawn by people with Asian surnames, were returned to the donors.
I thought this was a valid point to be concerned about, and I said so, but I also commented that this formulation was quite different from the previous two. Well, came the response, that is the most accurate answer, and you need to call Ruth Marcus back. I respected this attorney's devotion to accuracy and factual precision. But I worried that at this point I would be pushing Ruth Marcus one step too far. The attorney was adamant. I called Marcus back and told her the new formulation. "This is clearly the one most people remember, Ruth," I said.
Her reaction was not very positive, to say the least. She suggested that I had changed my story to avoid admitting that the White House had gotten involved in a substantive discussion with the Defense Fund trustees, and that she found it very interesting that I had given her three different versions within a few hours. That in and of itself, she said, was newsworthy.
"Wait a minute," I said, my stomach beginning to roll as I sensed that I was starting to get into very troubled waters. "We were on background. I told you I was trying to confirm this information each time we talked."
"I won't quote you by name, just as a White House official," she said. "That's what 'on background' means."
"I thought it meant off the record until I can confirm it," I answered, trying to hide my panic.
"Sorry, it doesn't."
"But you've got to use my last comment to you, because I am told that is the most accurate consensus of people's memories," I said, hearing a note of pleading in my voice.
There was a pause. I half held my breath, waiting.
"Okay," Marcus said. "I'll put into the story your last formulation someone asking about how it would look to return all the good checks if they are all from Asian American names."
"Thank you, Ruth," I said, relieved.
"But I will also quote the first two statements you gave me on background," she said.
My stomach began to roll again. "What? You can't do that. That wouldn't be fair I told you, I thought 'on background' meant 'off the record,'" I said.
Marcus was unrelenting: She believed that I had been tugged around by White House participants, who were concerned about a news report that some had, in fact, urged Cardozo not to send the good checks back and, now that the story had come out, were trying to blur what happened. Again I was struck with the impression that she had other sources on this, and that she knew more than I did.
I knew it was my fault for not knowing the difference between "off the record" and "on background," but I felt that in the first couple of weeks on the job, I should have been given some slack by Marcus. I asked her if I could appeal to her editor. She was very amenable to that, to her credit. Some time later, in the early evening, I had a conference call with Marcus and her editor, Sharon LaFraniere. I explained what had happened, but I could not convince LaFraniere that the Post should not print the fact that I had given out three different versions.
The next day's story headlined and led with the fact that the White House had described in "three different ways" what was discussed about the return of Charlie Trie's checks at the spring 1996 White House meeting. Clearly, a reader would be left to conclude that the anonymous "White House official" who put out those three versions was incompetent or dissembling or both. When I arrived at the White House that morning, the White House counsel, Jack Quinn, summoned me into his office and, in the presence of several other White House attorneys, told me there had been a great deal of unhappiness with my performance on the Post story expressed at that morning's senior staff meeting. I took the responsibility for not knowing the difference between "off the record" and "on background" and said nothing more. But as I left, I wasn't very happy about being forced to rely on others to do fact-finding and then to be left hanging alone when things turned out badly. I resolved that from this point on, I would do my own fact-finding when I felt the need to without footprints, if necessary.
I went down to McCurry's office to commiserate and to complain that he had forgotten to teach me the difference between "on background" and "off the record." He agreed it was an oversight. He explained that "on background," as I had learned from Ruth Marcus, meant that the source would be identified not by name but by some generic job description or identifier, such as "a White House official," an "administration official," a "White House lawyer." And "deep background" a term made famous by Bob Woodward's agreement with "Deep Throat" during his reporting on Watergate means that the information or facts may be used, but the source cannot be identified, even generically, or quoted directly.
I never forgot during the rest of my White House tenure that it was necessary, indeed imperative, to start every conversation with a reporter with the question, "What are our ground rules?" Then I discovered that some reporters interpreted "off the record" as allowing them to report what I told them, but without attribution which is what I understood "deep background" to mean. So I realized that I had to be clear what I meant by "off the record." I would frequently add the expression "not to be used at all," or "no pencil please" meaning "no notes" and the reporter could not use what I told him or her, not even as a way to provoke another source to confirm it. Similarly, I discovered that there were different possible definitions of the expression "deep background," and it was wise to discuss what our understanding was when we agreed on this ground rule. For example, "deep background" can mean that the information cannot be used unless it can be confirmed by another source, or that it can be used, but only with a completely anonymous attribution such as "sources say," or with no attribution at all.
Just as I came to learn from on-the-job experience working with reporters that there were shades of gray in the definitions of key words and phrases, so I learned-from experience that McCurry's absolute nile about not lying to or misleading a reporter might not be so absolute when, for example, it conflicts with another equally important imperative: to keep your word and protect another reporter's exclusive story.
During my first few days at the White House, McCurry called and told me to call the Washington Post and invite them to come over for an exclusive release of John Huang's correspondence with the White House. Huang was the controversial fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee whose suspect campaign fundraising had triggered the Democratic campaign-finance scandal. McCurry explained that the Post had been inadvertently left off a list of news organizations who had received information about Huang's visits to the White House, so he owed them one. The correspondence did not contain anything significant, as far as I could tell, but because of Huang's high profile and the increasing press interest in anything to do with the Democratic campaign-finance story, it would still have some news value.
We guided two Post reporters to a conference room in a corner office of the Old Executive Office Building and let them take notes while reading the correspondence. I was instructed by a White House attorney not to allow them to make copies so they could work back at their offices. I could not understand that, but I didn't argue. The reporters grumbled about it but went along. Since we had already turned these papers over to the congressional committees, which would be leaking them soon anyway, I saw no reason to make things difficult for the reporters.
I left the Post reporters in the conference room, attended to by my colleagues, and went back to my office for introductory appointments with two network broadcast journalists Jackie Judd of ABC and Rita Braver of CBS. Each asked me whether there was any news breaking that evening, or anything new that the White House was releasing. I had to look them both in the eyes and say, No, there wasn't. In other words, I lied.
The next morning, after the Post's John Huang scoop was published, I received a not very friendly phone call from Jackie Judd and an even less friendly call from Rita Braver. I explained to both of them why I couldn't answer their question honestly. "If it had been your exclusive, I would have had to be dishonest with another reporter who asked me the question," I explained.
Both seemed to appreciate the difficult position I was in, but they were still angry that we had favored a print organization with an exclusive. Rita Braver pointedly reminded me that the White House frequently released documents and other news items after the evening deadlines for the network news shows, preventing her from broadcasting the story until the next evening, when it might be old news. She asked me to promise that I would never deliberately do that.
I had to be careful. I knew that we had to reserve the right to try to lessen the impact of a bad story by releasing it after the networks' deadlines or, for that matter, the daily newspapers' deadlines. I promised Braver only that we would treat the networks and the news organizations fairly and, if we were doing a generalized release of information, I would try my best to do it early in the day so that the networks would have equal opportunity to report it. I used the expression "generalized release" to leave us the option of selective placements of news stories with particular news organizations and at particular times.
I learned some important early lessons about the disadvantage of these preferential placements, even if they were driven by valid damage control reasons. There is a serious equity imperative when a reporter or a news organization has developed proprietary information from its own investigations meaning information derived from its investigative reporting that no one else has. However, in the case of McCurry's leak of the Huang correspondence exclusively to the Washington Post, there was no proprietary interest to protect. The exclusive was a present from McCurry, evidently because he had burned them on a previous occasion and felt that he owed them one. I learned that if I chose to give an exclusive story to one news organization, I ran a great risk of alienating the others and losing my credibility. At the very least, as McCurry had previously advised, I would have to rotate those leaks so everyone got a fair chance.
This was my first insight into the importance, and fragility, of the mutual trust between me and the reporters, which became a mandatory, indispensable staple of my ability to do my job effectively and of theirs as well. An oral agreement that something is off the record, or a commitment to protect a proprietary work product by an investigative reporter, or an agreement by a reporter to protect my anonymity these were the daily, mutual acts of faith that bound me to the reporter and vice versa. The fact that over time a culture of trust developed between me and the reporters with whom I did ardent combat each day on behalf of my client is still, in retrospect, a significant component of my White House education.
The need to protect the proprietary work product of the various reporters I dealt with was often complicated. Investigative reporters are often in a bind if they seek White House help, or reaction, to a particular story, they run the risk that someone at the White House will tell one of their competitors about the information. Unless they could be confident that I would do my utmost to protect the information they had given me, they would not confide in me. A lack of such trust would have hurt the White House and the president, since it would have meant that we would not be able to comment or react to correct possible inaccuracies in a story until after it had been published. Sometimes the commitment to protect a proprietary piece of information meant that I was barred from conveying the information to anyone in the White House. I realized that I needed to be able to assure a reporter of this commitment, or else I would not learn the information at all. But I also worried that in such circumstances I could find myself in a clear conflict of interest, especially if I learned something very damaging about the president, something that the White House counsel's office clearly needed to know.
Another difficult problem was to sort out the protection of a reporter's proprietary work product when there were several reporters working on similar but not identical stories. One example of this related to the series of stories that were published in the first few months of 1997 concerning efforts by White House officials and friends of the Clintons to help former associate attorney general Webster Hubbell find clients for his law practice after he was forced to resign under a cloud in March 1994. The investigative journalists were operating under the theory (unproved to this day) that Hubbell had received all this assistance in order to keep him quiet concerning his knowledge of wrongdoing by the Clintons in Whitewater-related matters. It didn't seem to matter that no one could produce specific evidence to support this theory no evidence at all that Hubbell knew anything that could hurt the Clintons, or that the individuals who hired Hubbell (or helped arrange the retainers) did so in order to keep him quiet.
In the first few months of 1997, virtually every major investigative journalist on the scandal watch was chasing leads to locate any new example of someone close to the Clintons hiring or trying to help Webb Hubbell. In early March, I heard from two of the best of them: Jeff Gerth of the New York Times, who had broken the Whitewater story five years earlier, and Glenn Simpson of the Wall Street Journal, who (along with Alan Miller of the Los Angeles Times) had broken the first Democratic campaign-finance stories in September and October 1996. First Gerth called and said he had information that Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, when he had been head of the Small Business Administration in 1994, had made a couple of phone calls to try to get work for Webb Hubbell but that it hadn't amounted to anything. I argued strenuously to Gerth that there was no news in that and that this frenzy to write about people who helped Hubbell out of friendship was nuts. I made a note to follow up on Gerth's request, but perhaps because I gave so little credence to the seriousness of the story I put the request aside, knowing that Gerth was about to go on vacation.
Then Glenn Simpson of the Wall Street Journal called to say that he had heard that Mack McLarty had also made a few calls to help Hubbell during the same time period, and that McLarty had briefly told the first lady of his efforts to help Hubbell. Simpson was pretty close to writing, so this time I had to respond immediately. In the past several weeks other reporters from the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post had also asked more general questions about who else at the White House might have helped Hubbell, and I had never responded.
At a senior staff meeting to decide what to do, McCurry and I argued strenuously that we needed to get this Hubbell story behind us and that Gerth's and Simpson's inquires gave us an opportunity to put it all out at once: that McLarty and Bowles had both acted out of friendship, innocently. We also learned that former U.S. trade representative and commerce secretary Mickey Kantor, a close friend of Hubbell's, had also helped him get some legal contracts. That did it. Now we could put out all three helpers in the same story and get it over with. And that was the decision. While one of my colleagues prepared the background "fact sheets" about the circumstances of each man's help to Hubbell, I repaired to McCurry's office to sort out the proprietary-work-product dilemma.
If we did a general release to all reporters, then the investigative work of Gerth and Simpson which had triggered our decision to put out the story would be busted. And that seemed wrong. Gerth had asked us about Bowles, not McLarty; Simpson had asked us about McLarty, not Bowles. If we gave Simpson the piece about Bowles, that would be unfair to Gerth; if we gave Gerth the piece about McLarty, that would be unfair to Simpson. Meanwhile, if we gave anything out to Gerth or Simpson that the other did not have, to some extent we would be unfair to the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, which had been asking for some time about other White House officials helping Hubbell. What to do? To make matters even more difficult, Gerth was out of the office on personal matters and would not be returning until the following day.
I proposed a solution to McCurry, and he agreed: We do an on-the-record selective placement with the four news organizations that had invested the most in this particular story the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. And we wait a day for Gerth to return. Waiting a day would be dangerous, McCurry warned; the story could bust by then, especially now that it had been the subject of a formal meeting. But I said it seemed unfair to Jeff Gerth, who was first to call, if he were to end up losing out on any participation in the story.
As it turned out, McCurry was right about the danger of waiting a day. The next afternoon, with Gerth back, we held a conference call in the late afternoon for just the four news organizations and gave them all the information we had about Hubbell. We finished the call about 5:00 P.M. At 5:30, I received a phone call from Pete Yost of the Associated Press. Yost had some of the best sources on the various scandal stories on the beat, including good sources in the newsrooms as to what other people were working on. "We're about to put a story over the wire about McLarty, Bowles, and Kantor helping Hubbell," he said. I was sure, knowing Yost, that he was enjoying the vision of the look of horror that had just taken over my face. "Does the White House have any comment?" he asked.
I knew that once the story hit the AP wire, everyone including the TV networks would be calling. Our efforts to protect the proprietary investments of the four news organizations in the Hubbell story had just gone up in smoke and we were going to catch hell from everyone else for not including them. I had no choice but to respond to Yost's question with the various statements and background information that we had just shared selectively on the conference call. I called McCurry to be sure he agreed, and he did. We called all four reporters to forewarn them that their exclusive was no more. Glenn Simpson had more reason than anyone to be upset that I had waited the additional day for Gerth's return, since he had uncovered more specific information than anyone else, and he reminded me of that, but he was gracious about conceding that we had no choice but to respond to the AP. I also called each of the network reporters to let them know in time to permit them to prepare a story by air time (fulfilling my earlier commitment to Rita Braver of CBS). As for those reporters who complained about not being included in the original conference call, I reminded them that if it had been their proprietary work product, I would have protected them as well.
I sensed, once again, that it was important for me to justify myself and my ability to be fair and to be trusted among these reporters. It was not about trying to please them, or even trying to look good in their eyes. It was about my effectiveness in doing my job. If they didn't trust me, they wouldn't confide in me and let me help them write their stories accurately and completely. If I couldn't do that, then my client's interests would be injured and, most assuredly, my viewpoint on behalf of my client would not always be prominently mentioned in the stories they wrote. Of course, for the same reasons, they needed my trust in them to be fair and balanced in their reporting if I was going to help them get the information and sources they needed to do their jobs.
There were two major techniques that we used to implement McCurry's strategy of getting all the bad news out early and helping reporters write bad stories.
The first was overt and fully approved within the White House chain of command, at least in the first few months of 1997: Documents would be released to the press at the same time as they were handed over to the Congress. Over time the press came to call these episodes "document dumps." The second method was covert, both to the outside world and within the "official" channels of the White House the selective placement of certain stories and hot documents with a particular news organization, on "deep background," in a manner designed to minimize damage.
The trumping argument used by McCurry and me for doing these document dumps was directly out of the rules: that the hot documents were going to be leaked anyway, or, worse, they would not be leaked, but would be released for the first time during nationally televised Senate and House campaign-finance hearings. Better that we put the story out ourselves, with plenty of opportunity to answer questions and to characterize the documents favorably, or at least accurately.
We first used this technique in late January 1997 when we released, all at once, thousands of pages of documents from the political files of former Deputy Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes, who had served as the president's de facto campaign manager during the 1996 selection campaign. And when we made these and subsequent "dumps" of large volumes of documents and materials all at once, we also decided, contrary to conventional wisdom and recent White House practices, to make it easy, not hard, for the reporters to write their story. We made multiple copies, gave them plenty of time to review them before deadlines, and stayed nearby to answer all their questions and give them on-the-record comments whenever possible. We did this not to be nice guys to the press, but in our own self-interest. By making it easier, we would maximize the chance that the stories would be written comprehensively, accurately, and with our viewpoint expressed.
The experience of standing in front of the room and trying to respond to questions from fifty to seventy-five reporters poring through thousands of pages of documents, each person focusing on different documents or different angles, is not easy to describe. I felt as if I were being cross-examined on the witness stand during a trial, except that rather than having one lawyer working on one case trying to trip me up, there were seventy-five lawyers working on multiple cases. And talk about pressure: If I made a mistake or used the wrong word or phrase, my mistake would instantaneously be made public and conceivably could do grievous harm to the political standing of the president and his administration.
My young colleague and deputy, Adam Goldberg, was my secret weapon. He prepped me, gave me talking points, cross-examined me and challenged me, so that by the time I stood in front of the assembled press corps there was little I could be asked that I wasn't prepared for. I was also blessed by the arrival of Rochester "Ches" Johnson, who served as press and communications assistant. Johnson had been part of the original Ickes-Sherburne damage-control team in the early days of Whitewater and the ensuing investigations. He knew where all the paper, facts, documents, and files were in the White House better than almost anyone and there was simply no one better at searching LEXIS-NEXIS or making a quick phone call or a trip to the WAVES records room to obtain information or to confirm facts quickly and reliably.
Even though we were successful in getting many stories written immediately after each dump, in January and February 1997 Goldberg, Johnson, and I experienced an exponential explosion of follow-up questions, and new lines and subjects of inquiry. These included requests for particular documents that led to other documents that led to other areas of possible campaign-finance abuses. We were receiving as many as fifteen to twenty-five requests for new information every day concerning Democratic donors: WAVES records, correspondence, attendance at political and fundraising events, interactions with the president. But we were still required to rely on a small crew of White House attorneys to get us answers. And they were spread very, very thin, trying to keep up with the slew of subpoenas from congressional committees and the Justice Department. We also ran into some resistance to out counterintuitive notion that we should help reporters write bad stories. We struggled under a daily, growing backlog of unanswered inquiries from the press, usually averaging over fifty, and faced increasing frustration and unhappiness from the press corps with our nonresponsiveness. And so in spite of our efforts at openness, in these early months stories were nonetheless starting to appear about White House "stonewalling," as if we had something to hide.
But we kept trying. In addition to the document dumps, our second device for getting bad stories written early and accurately was the so-called "deep-background private placement." This device had to be used covertly, hidden not only from the outside world but even within the official White House chain of command, since there were at times reasons why as a matter of policy, the White House would not release a document for example, if it had not yet been turned over to a congressional investigating committee that had requested it and there was a concern that Republican committee chairs would be offended by the premature leak. We did this rarely; this method was almost always limited to a potentially very damaging story that was complicated, and therefore needed a baseline or "predicate" story to frame the issue. I never did a deep-background private placement without at least someone at a high level of the White House chain of command at least generally aware of what I was doing.
The advantages of the predicate story as a critical tool of damage control cannot be overstated. For damaging stories that have complicated facts, particularly ones mixing facts and legal issues as was almost always the case in the campaign-finance stories for which I was responsible the predicate story is simply mandatory. If it is complete and accurate, it will likely kill or at least diminish follow-up stories, since there won't be much more to report. If it is incomplete and wrong, then the LEXIS-NEXIS database will cause it to repeat and grow, like a virus, more and more difficult to catch up with, correct, and cure.
By its very nature, a predicate story takes time to investigate and time to write, and thus does not lend itself to the competitive pressures and imminent deadlines that are inevitable when there is a general release to all news organizations. That is why it was necessary to select a single reporter or news organization to help generate such a story. This offered us the luxury of being able to take as much time as necessary to work with the reporter, give him or her all the facts and documents, get all the questions answered, and engage in an ongoing back-and-forth dialogue to sort out the facts and legal issues accurately. Finally, this procedure offered us the maximum chance to get into the story our interpretation or characterization of the facts most favorable (or least damaging) to the president.
Of course the main disadvantage of the deep-background private placement was that it pissed off the other reporters who were not the recipients of the exclusive. Under McCurry's guidance, when possible, I tried to rotate these placements so that all felt they were being treated equally. However, in certain instances, when we were trying to kill the impact of a story, we used certain news organizations for this purpose. And we chose certain time periods or days of the week to place these stories with the same purpose in mind. Usually our first choice was the Associated Press. Not only was the AP's team of investigative reporters first-rate and notoriously fact-oriented and fair, but we found that when an AP story went out on the overnight wires the major daily national newspapers, such as the Washington Post or the New York Times, would not be inclined to give it front-page play. If they printed it at all, it was often buried on an inside page. More important, if an AP story was comprehensive and accurate meaning, if it was an effective predicate story it was less likely that the major dailies would have much left to report the following day.
Two other news organizations of choice for placement of our deep-background predicate stories were the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. It might seem odd that the Journal was one of our favorites, given the ideological hostility towards Clinton and his administration regularly reflected on its editorial page. But the Journal had some of the best reporters in the city led by Glenn Simpson and Phil Kuntz covering these scandal stories. And the Journal almost never put current political news on the front page; it usually got placed on the back page of the front section, which often diminished the impact of the story. We liked the Los Angeles Times for similar reasons. The Times also had three reporters who were very highly regarded for their fairness and balanced reporting: Alan Miller, Glenn Bunting, and David Willman. And for reasons that again seemed to us based more on institutional pride than anything else, the major national daily newspapers resisted repeating stories broken by an "out-of-town" newspaper such as the Los Angeles Times.
A good example of such a private placement is the way we handled documents suggesting that President Clinton had made fundraising calls from the White House residence. It appeared, according to the call sheets and surrounding information we had about those calls, that the president's purposes and words during the phone calls had been ambiguous. He had not clearly asked for money, but in his usual elliptical fashion had thanked people for their "support." The fact that in some cases donations had followed the call clearly implied that the president would be suspected of having solicited campaign contributions. The call sheets also suggested, but did not definitively prove, that the president's phone calls took place on phones in the White House residence. If so, this would have made them legal even if they were direct solicitations. The Justice Department had long ago held that the residential part of the White House was not a "federal building," and thus not intended to be covered by the federal restrictions against making political solicitations on federal property.
The call sheets had been uncovered in May or early June 19997 and would have to be turned over to congressional committees. Clearly, this would make a very big story one that, if not reported accurately and comprehensively, could damage the president and perhaps even lead to the appointment of an independent counsel.
So we decided to call John Solomon at the AP and invited him to come over to the White House to look over the call sheets and to answer any other questions he might have. My colleagues and I had come to regard Solomon as a factually-oriented and fair journalist. He would kill us with stories, for sure; but he usually went the extra mile to be fair and complete in his reporting. Several members of the White House counsel's office were present to help me walk Solomon through all the documents, explain the underlying laws and rulings, and respond to his questions. One other tactical decision needs mentioning: We called Solomon on Thursday, July 3 so that the story would go out over the wires just in time for the newspapers on Friday, July 4.
Solomon wrote the story as comprehensively and completely as we had hoped and included comments from me that the calls would have been legal even if there had been a direct solicitation. By the time the Fourth of July's fireworks and picnics and celebrations were completed, we hoped, there would be little interest among journalists and less among nonjournalists in whether the president had made a few ambiguous and completely legal phone calls. Maybe there might be a follow-up story in Saturday's or Sunday's papers, but since Solomon's story was so complete, there really wouldn't be much to report. By Monday, we hoped, the story would have died down almost completely. As it turned out, we were right. Manipulative and strategic in the choice and timing of the publication of this story? I guess. But though we were obligated to be honest with reporters, we were not required to be suicidal.
This is a perfect example of good spinning: the facts got out, in context, and we helped diminish the impact of the story not by deceiving but by ensuring a comprehensive and accurate treatment of those facts.
One delicious aspect of the deep-background private placement is the awkward position in which it puts rival news organizations, who might otherwise bitterly complain about not being the recipient of the placement. "Why did you give Solomon that story?" one reporter asked me on July 5. "It's not fair to favor the AP over the rest of us."
I waited, sensing what was coming next. I was not disappointed.
"You should have placed that story with me."
Copyright © 1999 by Lanny J. Davis