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Spin Cycle is the first behind-the-scenes account of the White House political operation as it packages and shapes the news by manipulating, misleading, and in some cases, intimidating the press. It is also the tale of how some of the nation's top journalists buy into these efforts and, often, put their own spin on the news.
Compelling, infuriating, often devastatingly funny, this is the story you should read before you pick up the newspaper tomorrow morning.
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Read an Excerpt
From the Introduction
On the afternoon of January 21, 1998, a year and a day after Bill Clinton's second inauguration, a grim-faced Mike McCurry walked in
The news, McCurry knew, was bad, so undeniably awful that any attempt at spin would be ludicrous. The canny press secretary had bobbed and weaved and jabbed and scolded his way through all manner of Clinton scandals, from the arcane Whitewater land dealings to the crass campaign fundraising excesses to the tawdry tale of Paula Jones. But this one was different. The banner headline in that morning's Washington Post made clear that this was a crisis that could spell the end of the Clinton presidency. The Big Guy, as the staffers called him, had been accused of having sex with a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, in the executive mansion for more than a year, from the time that she was twenty-one years old. Even worse, Clinton was being accused of lying under oath about the affaircommitting perjuryand urging the young woman to lie as well.
The reporters, McCurry believed, would be poised to pummel him. That was his job, of course, to stand at the podium and take whatever abuse the fourth estate wanted to dish out, hoping to score a few points in the process and convey what he could of the president's agenda. But the White House correspondents had been supremely frustrated for the past year as Clinton kept slip-sliding his way through the scandalous muck. The president had maintained his extraordinary popularity despite their dogged efforts to hold him accountable for what they saw as the misconduct and the evasions that marked his administration. He had connected with the American public, and they had largely failed. Clinton, in their view, had gotten away with it. Until now.
That morning, the president and three of his lawyershis outside attorneys, Robert Bennett and David Kendall, and Charles Ruff, the White House counselhad hammered out a carefully worded statement in which Clinton denied any "improper relationship" with Monica Lewinsky. McCurry had checked the final version with the boss"Fine," Clinton saidand then read the statement to the press. McCurry had not asked the president himself if he had been banging the intern. That was not his role; he was not a reporter or an investigator. His job was to repeat whatever facts or assertions the lawyers had approved for public consumption. He may have been a nationally known spokesman, the chief interpreter of administration policy, but in the end he was a flack protecting his client, no matter how distasteful the task.
As McCurry walked in front of the familiar blue curtain toward the podium and faced the assembled correspondents, the bank of cameras behind the wooden seats made clear that this was no ordinary briefing. Many of these sessions were replayed at a later hour for C-SPAN junkies, and if McCurry delivered any newsworthy phrases, a few seconds might show up on the network news. But this briefing was being carried live by CNN, by MSNBC, by Fox News Channel. The reporters, he knew, would be trying to bait him, to knock him off stride, to trick him into departing from the safety of his script. And he was equally determined to stand his ground.
The shouting began with the network correspondents taking the lead, demanding that McCurry explain what Clinton meant by an "improper" relationship.
"I'm not going to parse the statement," McCurry said.
"Does that mean no sexual relationship?" asked NBC's Claire Shipman.
"Claire, I'm just not going to parse the statement for you, it speaks for itself."
What kind of relationship did Clinton have with Lewinsky?
"I'm not characterizing it beyond what the statement that I've already issued says," McCurry replied.
Shipman's NBC colleague, David Bloom, uncorked a broader question: "Mike, would it be improper for the president of the United States to have had a sexual relationship with this woman?"
"You can stand here and ask a lot of questions over and over again and will elicit the exact same answer."
"So Mike, you're willing to"
"I'm not leaving any impression, David, and don't twist my words," McCurry shot back, jabbing his finger.
John Harris of the Washington Post tried a different tack, invoking McCurry's own reputation for honesty, which the reporters knew he dearly prized. "Would you be up here today if you weren't absolutely confident these are not true?"
"Look, my personal views don't count," McCurry said. "I'm here to represent the thinking, the actions, the decisions of the president. That's what I get paid to do."
McCurry bit his lower lip as Deborah Orin of the New York Post tried next: "What is puzzling to many of us is that we've invited you probably two dozen times today to say there was no sexual relationship with this woman and you have not done so."
"But the president has said he never had any improper relationship with this woman. I think that speaks for itself."
"Why not put the word 'sexual' in?" asked ABCs Sam Donaldson.
"I didn't write the statement," McCurry said.
They went round and round, the reporters demanding answers and McCurry repeating the same unsatisfactory phrases that seemed only to stoke their anger. As the tension level escalated, McCurry tried a bit of humor.
What was the administration's next move?
"My next move is to get off this podium as quick as possible," McCurry said.
Thirty-six minutes and one hundred forty-eight questions later, it was finally over.
Just a week earlier, the start of Clinton's sixth year in office had seemed so promising. The White House spin team had enjoyed extraordinary success in what they called the "rollout" for the following week's State of the Union address, leaking proposals and policy tidbits to selected news organizations to create a sense of momentum for Clinton's lackluster second term. The president's approval rating was hovering at around 60 percent in the polls, and for all the scandalous headlines and political bumps in the road, the country finally seemed to have grown comfortable with him. McCurry and his colleagues had mastered the art of manipulating the press and were reaping the dividends.
And now, just when they thought they had survived the worst of the investigations and the harshest media scrutiny, the latest sex scandal had hit them like a punch in the stomach. They were reeling, depressed, uncertain of the facts but all too certain that Clinton's days might be numbered. The irony was inescapable: The president who worried so openly about his historical legacy, who staunchly insisted that Whitewater was nothing next to Watergate, might make history by following Richard Nixon into oblivion because he could not resist a lowly intern. For now, at least, McCurry and his colleagues could not spin their way out of this one. They did not know whether Bill Clinton was telling the truth about Monica Lewinsky, and some of them suspected he was not.
Copyright © 1998 by Howard Kurtz
What People are Saying About This
"Howard Kurtz is the only newspaepr reporter in America who regularly makes the mightiest network news executive quake in their boots; now it's the Clinton adminitration's turn to sweat. In Spin Cycle, Kurtz unveils a fascinating portrait of a process that politicians and reporters alike would prefer to keep under wraps: how the Clinton White House attempts to influence press coverage of issues large and small -- and how those efforts often succeed. Engrossing in its detail and provocative in its conclusions, Spin Cycle is Washington reporting at its very best."
"Howard Kurtz takes us into the sick little world of obsessed, self-imortant, prosecutorial journalists and their opposing cadre of self-important, image-mongering White House flacks. From his solid reporting, we are reminded again of the way image and process have triumphed over political substance, and why so many millions of Americans have lost all interest in political news. Anybody who cares deeply about the future of this Republic should read this book and tremble."
"Howard Kurtz unlocks all the doors in Spin Cycle. He captures the fears, frustrations, and passions of the daily struggle between President Clinton and the press, with hundreds of moving parts. Presidents have always sought publicity, but the Clinton team has elevated the spin machine to a four-wheel-drive organization. This book lets you see how it all operates, for better or worse."
"I always thought the press had its way with presidents. But Howard Kurtz proves me wrong in his riverting account of how President Clinton and press secretary Mike McCurry make the national media knuckle under. If you want to know how Washington works today, this is the book to read.
"This is the best look I've had of the action on the other side of the door in the White House pressroom. It's great fun to see that they're as bad as journalists are. It also is a smart look at how smart folk define for themselves the critical lines between the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth -- and outright lying."
The White House spin operation had plenty of experience in crisis management. A yearlong investigation into campaign fundraising abuses and influence-peddling charges had built to a dramatic crescendo in the fall of 1997. On the morning of October 3, the Clintonites were once again on the defensive. The Justice Department had just decided to expand its investigation into questionable fundraising calls by Vice President Al Gore and was moving toward a stepped-up probe as well of Bill Clinton's frenetic efforts to raise campaign cash in the 1996 election. The relentless charges that the administration had improperly vacuumed up millions of dollars by crassly selling access to the president was now reaching critical mass. The New York Times, not surprisingly, trumpeted the new developments as its lead story.
But there was another article vying for attention that day at the top of the Times's venerable front page, one that probably resonated with many more readers than were following the twists and turns of the latest Washington scandal. Four days earlier, one of the administration's least favorite investigative reporters, Jeff Gerth, who had long been tormenting Clinton and his wife, Hillary, over the Whitewater affair, had weighed in with a lengthy Times report on how federal inspections of imported food had plummeted just as scientists were finding more outbreaks of food-borne diseases. In fact, Gerth had learned that David Kessler, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration, had failed to persuade Clinton to give his agency the power to bar imported food that did not meet American standards. The story was a major embarrassment, but Clinton had a genius for stealing good ideas from his enemies, even those he most despised in the press. And so the White House promptly staged a ceremony in the picturesque Rose Garden as Clinton proposed giving the FDA new power to ban imported fruit and vegetables, the very power he had refused to grant years earlier. Mike McCurry even credited the Times for its role in spotlighting the problem.
"I've never seen anything like it," Kessler told Gerth. "They're terrified of you." Still, the White House had managed to neutralize the dogged Jeff Gerth, who called McCurry to thank him for the acknowledgment.
The day's dueling headlines revealed a larger truth about the Clinton White House and its turn-on-a-dime ability to reposition its battered leader. The central mystery of Bill Clinton's fifth year in office was how a president so aggressively investigated on so many fronts could remain so popular with the American people. Indeed, his approval rating was nearly as lofty as that of Ronald Reagan at the peak of his powers, and with the economy humming along at an impressive clip, bad news was failing to make much of a dent in those numbers.
To be sure, Clinton's performance had helped create the sense that the country was doing just fine on his watch. But it was a carefully honed media strategy -- alternately seducing, misleading, and sometimes intimidating the press -- that maintained this aura of success. No day went by without the president and his coterie laboring mightily to generate favorable headlines and deflect damaging ones, to project their preferred image on the vast screen of the media establishment.
For much of Clinton's first term, these efforts to control the message were clumsy at best. The core of the original Clinton team -- chief of staff Thomas "Mack" McLarty, longtime confidant Bruce Lindsey, senior adviser George Stephanopoulos, counselor David Gergen, press secretary Dee Dee Myers -- had trouble fashioning a consistent media message, and Clinton himself was unfocused and error-prone. His casual response, at his first postelection news conference in 1992, about his plans to change the Pentagon's policy toward gays in the military plunged his administration into a long and bruising battle that pushed other issues off the radar screen. Clinton would often stop to talk to reporters after his morning jog, the sweat dripping down his face in decidedly unpresidential fashion. He seemed unable to leave any question unanswered, even one on MTV about his underwear.
In the second half of the term, the president's new chief of staff, Leon Panetta, imposed some much-needed order on the operation; McCurry smoothed relations with the press; communications director Don Baer brought some coherence to long-range planning; deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes rode herd on the political operation; special counsel Mark Fabiani deflected the endless scandal stories; secretive consultant Dick Morris steered Clinton toward the political center, and the president himself was more disciplined in his dealings with reporters. He carefully measured his words about the Oklahoma City bombing and the two government shutdowns. Whatever the question, he would stick to the script, repeat his campaign priorities about protecting Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment, brush off scandal questions with the briefest of replies, and hold his famous temper in check.
The second-term lineup was more seasoned but less adventurous. Senior adviser Rahm Emanuel assumed Stephanopoulos's role of behind-the-scenes press handler. Special counsel Lanny Davis became the chief spinmeister on the burgeoning fundraising scandal, an effort crisply supervised by deputy chief of staff John Podesta. Communications director Ann Lewis handled the substantive planning. Chief of staff Erskine Bowles presided over the entire operation like the corporate executive he was. Counselor Doug Sosnik served up political advice, joined over the summer by colorful strategist Paul Begala and former journalist Sidney Blumenthal. McCurry stayed on for a final mission, determined to broker a cease-fire between the president and a hostile press corps. He and his colleagues were engaged in a daily struggle to control the agenda, to seize the public's attention, however fleetingly, for Clinton's wide-ranging initiatives. They had to manage the news, to package the presidency in a way that people would buy the product.
The small group of journalists who shouted questions at the press secretary each day in the White House Briefing Room had a very different agenda. They were focused, almost fixated, on scandal, on the malfeasance and misfeasance and plain old embarrassments that had seemed to envelop this administration from the very start. They were interested in conflict, in drama, in behind-the-scenes maneuvering, in pulling back the curtain and exposing the Oz-like manipulations of the Clinton crowd. It was their job to report what the president said, but increasingly they saw it as their mission to explain why he said it and what seedy political purpose he was trying to accomplish along the way.
When the reporters had the upper hand, the headlines were filled with scandal news, a cascade of Watergate-style charges that drowned out nearly everything else. Indeed, they had plenty of material to work with. The Whitewater investigation, which had dragged on throughout the first term, involved the Clintons' role in a complicated Arkansas land deal, their partnership with a crooked couple, and allegations of a subsequent cover-up. The Travelgate probe involved charges that the first lady had orchestrated the ouster of seven employees of the White House travel office so the work could be given to friends of the Clintons. The Filegate inquiry involved charges that White House aides had deliberately obtained the sensitive FBI files of prominent Republicans. The Paula Jones lawsuit turned on allegations by a former Arkansas state employee that Clinton, while governor, had asked for sex in a Little Rock hotel room. And the campaign finance scandal, in its broadest form, involved an alleged conspiracy by Clinton and Gore to use the perks of high office to solicit cash from foreign operatives, Asian American donors, and garden-variety fat cats, perhaps in exchange for political favors.
Against this dark backdrop, what the White House press operatives did was to launder the news -- to scrub it of dark scandal stains, remove unsightly splotches of controversy, erase greasy dabs of contradictions, and present it to the country crisp and sparkling white. The underlying garment was the same, but it was often unrecognizable.
A larger challenge loomed as well -- simply put, to change the subject, and to do so without the benefit of dramatic presidential action like fighting a war or battling a recession or tackling some grave national crisis. When the White House team broke through, they secured precious column inches and airtime for Clinton's proposals on national education standards or seat-belt enforcement or funding for mammograms, efforts that the president's people felt resonated far more broadly than the inside-the-Beltway obsessions of the media. At stake in this competing cacophony, they felt, was nothing less than the success of the second term, since history had demonstrated that a reelected president was at the peak of his power in the first year after his victory, when the echoes of his mandate were loudest and his impending lame-duck status least apparent.
History held other lessons for the Clintonites when it came to co-opting the press. Franklin D. Roosevelt told reporters at his first news conference in 1933 that he did not want to be quoted directly but would provide "background" and "off-the-record" information. It was a remarkable innovation: the president as chief source, setting strict ground rules that enabled him to shape the news agenda. The assembled reporters gave Roosevelt a standing ovation, and for the twelve and a half years of his presidency he was treated with deference and affection by the correspondents, none of whom dreamt of telling the public that Roosevelt was confined to a wheelchair.
John Kennedy was the first president to hold live televised press conferences, an innovation that permanently altered the nature of White House communications by staging a regular drama, with the reporters as extras, that reached every American living room. He also personally befriended reporters (notably Newsweek's Ben Bradlee), marketed his wife, Jacqueline, as a cultural phenomenon, and drew stunningly positive coverage by today's standards. But even JFK could be stung by journalistic criticism, and he once canceled his subscription to the New York Herald Tribune for its "biased" coverage.
Lyndon Johnson made prodigious efforts to wheedle and cajole the press, dispatching military aircraft to pick up the likes of anchor David Brinkley and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and fly them to his Texas ranch for private meetings and intimate dinners.
But Johnson's mounting deceptions over Vietnam produced disillusionment among the press corps and the public, saddling the White House with the dreaded phrase "credibility gap."
Richard Nixon conducted a virtual war against the press. He ordered wiretaps and tax audits of selected journalists, had CBS's Daniel Schorr investigated by the FBI, demanded an immigration probe of household help employed by Los Angeles Times publisher Otis Chandler, and moved to revoke television licenses held by the Washington Post Company, even as he railed about "outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting" during Watergate. It fell to Nixon's press secretary, Ron Ziegler, to dismiss the Watergate break-in as a "third-rate burglary," to feed the press corps the administration's lies about the scandal, and to attack reporters for unfairly maligning all the president's men. Ziegler used a kind of corporate-speak in his briefings, offering "operative" statements that appeared to be true "at this point in time" but were later declared "inoperative" as more evidence of wrongdoing emerged.
Ziegler was hardly the first White House spokesman to engage in deception. When Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke in 1919 that paralyzed the left side of his body, reporters were told that he had had a nervous breakdown and would be back at work soon, and the truth did not emerge for four months. When Dwight Eisenhower had a serious heart attack in 1955, the press was initially told that he had suffered a digestive upset. Jimmy Carter's press secretary, Jody Powell, told the Los Angeles Times in 1980 that a rescue mission to free the American hostages in Iran would make no sense, two days before the mission that ended in disaster. Reagan's spokesman, Larry Speakes, declared in 1983 that an American invasion of Grenada would be "preposterous"; the marines landed the next day.
Some presidents have deliberately kept their spokesmen in the dark as a way of concealing the truth. Kennedy's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, complained that he had not been told about the 1961 invasion of Cuba and thereby misled the press about the impending Bay of Pigs disaster. Gerald Ford's first spokesman, Jerald terHorst, resigned in protest after Ford's staff lied to him by denying that the president was considering a pardon for Nixon.
In recent years the modern practice of spin has come to occupy a sort of gray zone between candor and outright falsehood. Larry Speakes kept a sign on his desk: "You don't tell us how to stage the news and we don't tell you how to cover it." It was a revealing motto, for the Reagan administration revolutionized the staging of news, devoting enormous energy to selecting a story of the day and providing television with the pictures to illustrate it. The classic example was when Reagan stood proudly in front of a senior citizen housing project built under a program he had tried to abolish; while reporters duly noted the contradiction, the White House was happy with the pictures on the evening news. Speakes had chilly relations with reporters and sometimes declared an offending correspondent "out of business," refusing to have any more dealings with him. And Speakes was not above twisting the truth. After Reagan's 1985 summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva, Speakes quoted the president's private remarks to the Soviet leader -- which he later admitted he had simply made up. Marlin Fitzwater, a career bureaucrat who succeeded Speakes and stayed on as George Bush's spokesman, restored amicable relations with the press. But it was a mark of Bush's frustration with the fourth estate that his favorite 1992 bumper sticker read "Annoy the Media -- Re-Elect Bush."
Clinton's first press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, the first woman to hold the job, was a popular figure with reporters, but she was widely viewed as ineffective and out of the policy loop. One Saturday in 1993, Myers infuriated the press corps by announcing a "lid" -- meaning no more news was to be made that day and the captive reporters were free to leave -- hours before Clinton launched a missile attack on Iraq. Much of the Washington bureau of The New York Times headed off on an outing to Baltimore to attend a Yankees-Orioles game, and they were not pleased about having to rush home to cover the story. Myers sheepishly admitted afterward that she had known the attack was imminent but didn't want to "tip anything off" by delaying the Saturday news lid. Her credibility was never quite the same.
By the time Mike McCurry inherited the podium, the press operation had become increasingly crucial to the success or failure of any administration. On one level the growing bureaucracy was needed to deal with an expanding media universe, from all-news cable networks to online magazines to weekend chat shows to more than 1,200 talk-radio stations, all clamoring for interviews and attention. But it was also a natural outgrowth of television's need to dramatize stories, to focus the camera's eye on a single leader doing battle against the forces of politics and nature. Congress, with its 535 wrangling lawmakers and endless speechifying and molasses-like deliberations, made for terrible television. Executive departments, from HUD to Agriculture, were too widely dispersed to cover efficiently. It was so much easier to have your star reporter standing on the White House lawn, the North Portico over one shoulder, framing each government controversy as a victory or setback for the newsmaker-in-chief. There was a natural story line: president under fire, president traveling abroad, president at war, president on vacation. The constant tensions of the Cold War had injected an undercurrent of drama, for Kennedy or Nixon or Reagan might at any moment have to stand up to the Soviets or one of their allies, prompting the networks to go live. Superpower summits became an exercise in spin control. The White House press corps swelled to 2,000 accredited correspondents, all of whom had to be serviced by the press staff, and the most important among them had to be personally massaged by the press secretary, who, as much as any underling, personified the administration.
By the 1990s all manner of partisan magazines and radio talk shows and television shoutfests and Internet chat groups were filling the air with raw opinion and sheer attitude, making it harder for the president to connect with the public. The irony was unmistakable: Bill Clinton had all the accoutrements of high office, but he no longer commanded the public stage. McCurry and his colleagues spent endless hours honing the Clinton message, trying to hype each modest proposal into another news cycle, as if the president were some freshman congressman desperate for a flicker of recognition from the media machine. The competition was intense, for Bill Clinton dwelt in the same murky precincts of celebrity as Dennis Rodman, Courtney Love, and David Letterman. In a hundred-channel world the president had become just another piece of programming to be marketed, and high ratings were hardly guaranteed.
From a distance, in the headlines and on the evening news, most Americans saw Bill Clinton as a singular figure, holding forth, posing with foreign leaders, making newsworthy pronouncements. But much of what they saw was stagecraft orchestrated by the likes of McCurry, Davis, Emanuel, Podesta, Baer, and Lewis, a small collection of loyalists who worked relentlessly at presenting the boss in a favorable light and deflecting the scandal questions that seemed constantly to nip at his heels. The mundane reality of White House life was that the top players spent perhaps half their time either talking to the press, plotting press strategy, or reviewing how their latest efforts had played in the press. They did not let Clinton have the briefest exposure to journalists without rehearsing what he would say to this or that question, lest he serve up an unscripted sound bite that would mar the day's story line. The modern presidency was, above all, a media presidency. Inside accounts tended to focus on who had Clinton's ear and who was feuding with whom, but the plain truth was that everyone was playing to the cameras, dishing "on background," trying to placate the journalists or find a way around their carping commentary. The daily coverage was a way of keeping score, of measuring the administration's progress in the messy and frustrating task of governing.
There was a time when a commander-in-chief was graded on the traditional measures of his relations with Congress, his dealings with foreign leaders, his ability to keep the economy moving and the nation at peace. Now the increasingly opinionated mass media had somehow become the arbiter of political success and the distiller of conventional wisdom. A president's words were endlessly sliced and diced by the self-appointed pundits, his every move filtered through someone else's ideological lens.
It was Clinton's misfortune to be the nation's most visible politician at a time when many people had tuned out the political world, disgusted with the endless machinations that seemed irrelevant to their lives. The political conventions and presidential debates of 1996 had drawn the smallest audiences of the television era. Most Americans had long since grown resigned to Clinton's seemingly inevitable victory over Bob Dole, but a majority still did not trust him. And as McCurry and his compatriots were acutely aware, a significant minority detested Clinton, viewing him as a lying, scheming, pot-smoking crook. There was no shortage of conservative media outlets that were all too happy to stoke these fires of resentment, publishing a never-ending cascade of allegations about Clinton's personal life, a litany of overlapping scandals and the work of four special prosecutors. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose disdain for the press was even greater than her husband's, was an equally frequent target of the right-wing hit squads.
The president bore much of the responsibility for the palpable media distrust that greeted his every utterance. He made clear in the early days of the 1992 campaign that his memory was awfully selective, from his first, less than candid explanations of how he had avoided the Vietnam draft, how he had tried marijuana but "didn't inhale," and how he had "problems" in his marriage but did not have a twelve-year affair with Gennifer Flowers. He grew to resent reporters, to vent his anger in public outbursts, and the feeling was mutual. Most reporters were convinced that Clinton had an almost congenital inability to tell the unvarnished truth.
This atmosphere of distrust extended to the reporters' relationship with the men and women who accompanied Bill Clinton into the White House. What made the yawning gap between the Clintonites and the journalists all the more remarkable was that both were products of the baby boom culture and seemed, superficially at least, to share the same values. They all believed in activist government, the politicians because it gave them popular programs to create and the reporters because it gave them juicy stories to cover, a welcome relief from George Bush's in-box presidency. A few romances had even bloomed between journalists and White House operatives, generally unconsummated until the officeholders stepped down. But the generational affinity also bred a certain degree of contempt. Like squabbling lovers, the two sides got off to an acrimonious start even before Clinton's first inauguration, the traditional honeymoon shattered by a series of broken promises and miscalculations on issues from the canceled middle-class tax cut to the abandonment of Haitian refugees. Most of Clinton's aides had worked on Capitol Hill during the Reagan and Bush years, enjoying a warm relationship with reporters who were always looking for fodder to attack the administration. Now they w ere the incumbents, and the coziness had dissolved into mutual recriminations. If the press had a natural bias toward the Democrats, as so many Republicans fervently believed, Bill Clinton and his loyalists saw no evidence of it. They viewed the journalists as another special interest group -- the Press Party -- to be stroked and cajoled.
For all the animosity, the White House spinners and their cynical chroniclers were ultimately joined at the hip in a strangely symbiotic relationship. Both thrived on the frenetic pace of life at the center of the political universe, all the while grousing about the impact on their families and fantasizing about quitting. Both reveled in the insider gossip, even as they struggled to stay in touch with the real America. McCurry and company needed the press to peddle their message to the public, and the journalists needed an action-packed presidency on which to build their reputations and name recognition. Yet fireworks were inevitable when the two sides got in each other's way.
The reporters' frustrations began to boil over in the final weeks of the 1996 campaign, when allegations first surfaced that foreign funny money had been funneled to the Clinton camp and the White House seemed unable or unwilling to provide answers. McCurry, who usually insisted on steering such questions to the White House lawyers, reluctantly assumed control of the scandal defense just days before the election. Even as Clinton and his compatriots celebrated his triumphant reelection in Little Rock, McCurry knew that they had kept the lid on a pressure cooker that was ready to blow.
As the fundraising scandal gathered steam, McCurry and his new ally, Lanny Davis, bore the brunt of the hostile media inquiries. Within the White House they battled for disclosure, for getting the bad news behind them. But there were limits to how far McCurry and Davis would go, documents they would not release, questions they would not answer. They insisted day after day that Bill Clinton and Al Gore had done nothing out of the ordinary in dialing for dollars, sipping coffee with shady Chinese operatives, or renting out the Lincoln Bedroom, even when an avalanche of embarrassing documents decimated their denials. A few mistakes, they maintained, but nothing the other side didn't do in spades.
The White House partisans were convinced that the public was tuning it all out, that most Americans viewed this as the typical Beltway follies, but the journalists were filled with moral fervor, determined that readers and viewers should care and that somehow they would make them care. The Clintonites were equally determined to rout the journalistic naysayers and prove that they could govern in this scandal-charged atmosphere. Neutralizing the media had become ground zero in the struggle for supremacy, and the spin would clearly be as important as the substance.