When the Flytrap scandal broke in January, I joined the media herd in calling it fatal. The chance that Bill Clinton would serve out his term, I estimated early on, was only 25 percent. This laughably inaccurate prognostication reflected the hysteria of the moment and has illustrated for me the foolishness of making predictions, especially ones that can be proved wrong and used to shame you in social settings. I also learned something else: why the press is so eager for Clinton’s downfall. If a doctor tells a patient he has six weeks to live and the patient survives for many years, it’s humiliating for the doctor.
There are other reasons–conscious, unconscious, and semiconscious–why journalists would like to see Clinton kaput. On the high-status but low-interest White House beat, there is no story as exciting as that of the fall of a president. You can’t get around the fact that bad news for him is good news for us. An even more powerful reason flows from the groupthink that afflicts the White House press corps. The general consensus is that, since 1992, Clinton has got away with murder–on draft dodging, Gennifer Flowers, Whitewater, Travelgate, Paula Jones, etc., etc. From the day the Lewinsky scandal broke, many journalists determined this could not and should not happen again. The feeling that the Slick One must not be allowed to elude capture once more is palpable in the daily White House briefings, in the hostile questioning by David Bloom of NBC or Deborah Orin of the New York Post, and in the massive play the scandal continues to receive everywhere.
Clinton’s unanticipated resilience leaves reporters in an awkward position. Journalists are most comfortable following public opinion, not leading it. Now they must explain to themselves and to their audiences how it is that the public has not come to share their low opinion of the president. One obvious explanation is the strength of the economy. Another is that moral strictures have loosened, at least when it comes to political leaders. But faced with the reality that the president has actually become more popular since the scandal broke, journalists have ventured a third explanation of late: Clinton has survived thanks to diabolically effective “spin.”
This theory is now treated as acknowledged fact. “Given the White House’s state-of-the-art public relations machine, it is not a surprise that the President has appeared to enjoy the upper hand,” wrote Don Van Natta Jr. in one recent New York Times story. The Chicago Tribune refers casually to the president’s “obsessive and adroit image machine.” That the White House is wickedly good at PR is the premise of Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine, a new book by Howard Kurtz, the WashingtonPost’s media reporter. Kurtz points to the skill of White House Press Secretary Michael McCurry. Writing of Clinton’s 60 percent approval rating before the scandal, he notes, “McCurry and his colleagues had mastered the art of manipulating the press and were reaping the dividends.” Elsewhere Kurtz comments, “It was a carefully honed media strategy–alternately seducing, misleading, and sometimes intimidating the press–that maintained [Clinton’s] aura of success.”
I s it not possible that the aura of success is generated by real success? Might Clinton have become a popular president not by brainwashing the nation but by legitimately winning the public’s support? In fact, there’s no real way to judge the effectiveness of media relations except results–and the results depend far more on the underlying reality than on the spin. But “spin control” remains a useful explanation for reporters who can’t understand how the public can like this guy. In fact, it’s not the first time they’ve trotted it out. The current round of barbed paeans to the White House PR machine echoes press grousing during the Reagan years, when reporters sought to explain why the public supported a president they believed was ineffective and incompetent. Since journalists knew they weren’t wrong, Reagan’s popularity had to be a tribute to his team of Hollywood image makers. Michael Deaver did it with smoke and mirrors.
That reporters now think of the Clintonites as master spinmeisters is especially ironic in light of what they said about the White House spin machine a few years ago. Back then, the common wisdom was that the administration was breathtakingly inept at communications. Officials assigned to deal with the press were arrogant and hostile. The result was an administration that was regularly embarrassed by PR “fiascoes.” Officials naively thought they could bypass the press and speak directly to the public. In 1994, Kurtz himself wrote, “By initially trying to circumvent the White House press corps, the president and his aides clearly underestimated the degree to which negative news reports could cause them political trouble.”
Administration officials sort of liked this line, because it exonerated them at a substantive level. They had failed only at communicating their agenda. The inverse of the proposition–that they have great form but lousy content–pleases the same officials far less. In reality, very little has changed. It is true, as Kurtz writes, that McCurry is an especially smooth and capable spokesman. But the reason he is so well liked is that he is generally straightforward and truthful; he does not go in for heavy spin. Judged as a whole, the Clinton media-wrangling team is not obviously more skillful than others past. Few reporters think Ann Lewis is a more competent communications director than her predecessor Don Baer. I would venture that none thinks Sidney Blumenthal is more effective as a press tactician than his first-term counterpart, David Gergen.
When journalists explain Clinton’s popularity as the result of brilliant spin, what are they saying? “Spin” means the administration using the media to mislead the public. So they are, in effect, praising the White House for lying to them–and getting away with it. What does that say about the journalists themselves?
Reporters, whose job is depicting reality, profess to despise spin. In fact, they like getting spun. It makes them part of the great Washington game, and it gives them something to act cynical and world-weary about. If politicians took to telling the truth, journalists would lose their role as interpreters. But to say that the White House spin is working amounts to saying that you, the journalist, are failing in your job of blocking it. It’s a startling admission–all the more shocking because it isn’t true.