“Frame Game” is an occasional Slate department based on the premise that who wins in Washington is often determined by how the issue is framed. The author neither endorses nor condemns any of the views expressed, however laudatory or repellent.
At 4:15 p.m. ET on April 1, CNN reported that Judge Susan Webber Wright was granting President Clinton’s motion to dismiss the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. Within minutes, Clinton’s allies waded into the media to frame the decision. In one scene, replayed on television throughout the evening, a reporter asked Monica Lewinsky’s attorney William Ginsburg what the ruling meant. “It means that there never was a Paula Jones case,” said Ginsburg. “I trust you’ll put the proper spin on that.”
Actually, reporters didn’t have to spin Ginsburg’s remark or any other line put out by the Clinton camp. The Clintonites gave them the spin prepackaged: Clinton was “vindicated,” Wright was the country’s most honest Republican, and Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr had lost the legal excuse for his vendetta against the president. The most breathtaking spin of the evening–that “there never was a Paula Jones case”–was swallowed whole. The war of words between Clinton and his enemies looked, as it so often does, like the ground war between the United States and Iraq: one side advancing with remorseless efficiency, the other side fleeing in disarray.
1 “No Merit.” Reporters like to show off their savvy by picking out the most obvious spin they’ve been fed and exposing it as such. In this case, the buzzword put out by former White House Counsel Lanny Davis and other Clinton flacks was “vindication.” Journalists were so fixated on maintaining a skeptical distance from the V-word that they neglected to screen out subtler phrases through which Clinton’s surrogates equated his legal escape with moral exoneration. On ABC’s Nightline, George Stephanopoulos proclaimed, “This wipes away any question of guilt.” Seizing on Wright’s conclusion that Jones’ legal case was “without merit,” the Clintonites constantly repeated this phrase to imply that Wright had dismissed Jones’ whole story. By the end of ABC’s World NewsTonight, Peter Jennings was telling viewers that according to the judge, “the charges against the president had no merit.”
The advantage of the “no merit” line over the “vindication” line was that it enabled Clinton’s supporters to maintain their delicate policy of defending him without having to vouch explicitly–and perhaps falsely–for his innocence. “I’ve never believed [Jones’] story,” proclaimed Democratic consultant Mandy Grunwald on CNN’s Crossfire. On CNN’s Larry King Live, Davis offered a magnificently hollow testimonial: “I believe the president’s denial.”
Jones’ lawyers disputed the “vindication” spin but failed to organize an effective message of their own. The most promising line, auditioned by Pat Buchanan on Crossfire, was that Clinton’s alleged behavior, even if legal, was offensive. But Jones’ lead attorney, John Whitehead, lacked Buchanan’s delicacy in making the point. Wright had ruled that if Jones’ allegations were true, they still didn’t amount to a breach of law. Whitehead simply removed the hypothetical. “She presumed, basically, what Paula Jones testified, did happen,” Whitehead declared on Larry King Live. “The judge says very clearly that the attitude of the president was boorish.” At every opportunity, Whitehead graphically told viewers that Clinton had fondled Jones’ crotch, exposed his genitals, and asked her for oral sex. News anchors responded to these clumsy tactics by turning to other guests and changing the subject.
2 Judging the judge. When a federal judge acts against you, you can’t just profess shock and outrage, as Jones’ attorneys did after Wright’s decision. The judge starts with a presumption of fairness, and you have to tear that presumption down. The Clinton team’s assault on Starr is a textbook example. There were obvious avenues for a similar attack on Wright: her student-teacher relationship with Clinton in law school and her previous ruling–subsequently overturned–that Clinton couldn’t be sued until he left office. But Jones’ advisers failed to organize a concerted attack on these points. In one breath, they doubted her integrity; in the next, they affirmed it.
The Jones camp also tried to take the focus off Wright and put it back on what happened between Clinton and Jones in the hotel room. If the case was bogus, asked Buchanan, why did Clinton’s lawyer Bob Bennett offer $700,000 and an apology to make it go away? Ordinarily, this is a good strategy. But in this case, the story line of the hour–“Judge dismisses Jones case”–was too strong to evade. On television, as in court, you need an alternative theory (e.g., that Mark Fuhrman planted the evidence) to lend coherence and persuasiveness to the various holes in the prosecution (e.g., that the gloves don’t fit). Jones’ advisers failed to put out an alternative story line explaining not just how Wright had ruled incorrectly, but why.
Consequently and disastrously, the Jones team’s expressions of shock played into the Clinton team’s spin: that the surprise in Wright’s decision lay in her defiance not of the facts of the case, but of the politics. Clinton’s surrogates advertised Wright as a Republican appointee, and numerous media outlets, including NBC, CBS, and NPR, highlighted that point. By saying nothing about Wright’s student-teacher relationship with Clinton, the Jones camp allowed the Clintonites to define it as adversarial. Wright’s successful petition to Clinton for a better grade became, in Dan Rather’s words, an illustration of her “long, often unfriendly, history with Bill Clinton.”
One of the Clinton team’s most impressive feats was to sell the idea that throwing out the case was courageous. Beginning with Bennett’s afternoon press conference–“Judge Wright should be complimented on her courage to make the right decision, notwithstanding all of the political atmosphere surrounding the case”–the Clintonites incessantly lauded Wright’s bravery. Network legal analysts and reporters followed suit, marveling at Wright’s “guts” and “gumption,” even as their own instant polls showed the public favored the ruling. The media’s willingness to buy this line was a result, in part, of the White House’s ongoing campaign to depict Clinton as the victim of an inexorable right-wing machine.
3 Clinton vs. whom? Jones vs. Clinton may be the case’s official title, but it isn’t the matchup the White House wants. To begin with, it threatens to pit the world’s most powerful man against working women in general, a theme assiduously promoted by Whitehead. And since Jones is widely regarded as poor and stupid, the very idea of a contest between them makes Clinton the bad guy. For both of these reasons, victory over Jones, regarded as such, would actually be a defeat for Clinton. Hence Whitehead’s argument, repeated in several venues, that the ruling would discourage sexual harassment victims from coming forward. As Buchanan put it, “the boys in the War Room” had “won a little victory today over this little girl who is going to be denied justice.”
Recognizing this trap, Clinton instructed his aides not to gloat. Even his pit bulls restrained themselves. Bennett told reporters that the decision spoke for itself, and James Carville brushed aside Jones as a pawn of larger, darker forces. The Clintonites had a worthier foe in mind. Crossfire co-host Bill Press summed up their story line: “Big victory for Clinton, big loss for Ken Starr.” Starr fought off the linkage, telling reporters that his criminal investigation was “independent of the civil litigation.” But the Clinton camp’s message was less nuanced and therefore more effective. On every network, reporters and anchors talked about Starr’s expensive and fruitless investigation and about his obligation to “put up or shut up,” as Rather expressed it. CNN’s Bob Franken declared that Starr and the Jones team were “joined at the hip.”
The Clintonites owed this portion of their victory in part to shrewd preparation: For weeks, they had argued that Starr was in “collusion” with Jones’ lawyers. Meanwhile, Jones’ lawyers foolishly cooperated by grumbling that Starr was “shadowing” them and hijacking their investigation of Lewinsky. The Clinton surrogates also held the high ground in the context war. Starr’s investigation of whether Clinton covered up an affair with Lewinsky arose in the context of the depositions both gave in the Jones case. No matter how carefully Starr’s sympathizers explained the distinction between the two cases–and even the superior gravity of the criminal case over the civil case–journalists fell back on the Clintonite spin that, as Tom Brokaw put it, Starr’s probe “grew out of the Paula Jones case” and had therefore lost its viability.
To this end, Clinton’s allies weren’t content to pronounce the Jones case dead. They proposed to erase it from history, as though Clinton’s and Lewinsky’s depositions had never happened. Ginsburg’s assertion that “there never was a Paula Jones case” echoed a Democratic refrain, first delivered by Sen. Bob Torricelli, D-N.J., that the Jones case–and hence the foundation of Starr’s investigation–“no longer exists.” Bill Press, CNN political analyst Bill Schneider, and the Washington Post soon adopted the “no longer exists” formulation. The New York Times opened its front page analysis by saying, “it is now politically inconceivable that Congress will consider impeachment for President Clinton’s alleged lies and obstruction in a case that no longer exists.” The Starr camp’s plea that cover-ups should be judged by their significance at the time they were committed, not by their significance today, was washed out in a tide of Orwellian revision.
Not everyone in the Clinton camp wants Jones erased. Carville, who has always been a step ahead of his colleagues in framing Clinton’s fights (remember when he declared war on Starr?), sees Jones’ suit as a weapon that can be turned against its makers. He wants her captured alive. “Paula Jones is but one part of a larger mosaic,” Carville charged on Larry King Live, weaving together reports that Jones, Arkansas troopers, and other Clinton accusers had received right-wing money. “I don’t want this to end anything. I want this to go on. Because I want this to be the linchpin of an investigation of who got paid, how much, by whom, and to say what.” The Orwellians, it turns out, were too modest.