Just Say No Comment

JUST SAY NO: More than 150 years ago, Edgar Allan Poe in The Purloined Letter enunciated a basic principle of detective work: If you want to find something, look in the most obvious place. If only Chatterbox had followed Poe’s dictum in his fruitless quest for a grand-jury leak. Instead of vainly searching for a hollowed-out tree trunk on the courthouse grounds in Washington, Chatterbox needed only to call Ken Starr’s office and ask for a handout.

Amid all the hand-wringing, finger-pointing and high-fiving over Starr’s bizarre leaks-are-us confessional to Steve Brill, no one has raised an obvious question. Why on earth did Starr, blessed with an unlimited budget and subpoena power, believe that he had to play the Washington public-relations game? Starr’s public image couldn’t be any worse if he had followed the dictates of a Trappist monastery. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll last week had Starr’s approval rating at just 29 percent, not much higher than Richard Nixon’s numbers on the day he resigned. Has anyone noticed reluctant witnesses from Monica Lewinsky to Vernon Jordan melting from the heat of Starr’s PR offensive? Moreover, House Republicans would sooner relinquish PAC money than have to deal with Starr’s report before the election. Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde has belittled the notion of an interim report, saying that it would be “partially and necessarily incomplete.”

Spin is so embedded in the fabric of Washington life that no one remembers the days when government officials were supposed to retain a “passion for anonymity.” No reporter–other than the fearless, luckless and leakless Chatterbox–would ever counsel Starr on the virtues of “no comment.” So the notoriously thin-skinned Starr got suckered into trying to compete with the White House on its favorite turf, the battle to cloud the minds of the Washington press corps. Even worse, Starr is guilty of the ultimate amateur-hour sin–leaking and telling.

All this ineptitude prompts Chatterbox to spell out the Iron Law of Washington Image Control: If you don’t know how to spin, then don’t twirl the bottle.

–Walter Shapiro