Frame Game

Clinton’s Apprentice

On Jan. 17, 1998, President Clinton denied in a deposition that he had engaged in sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. Days later, as evidence to the contrary surfaced, Clinton launched a campaign to spin his way around the question of whether he had lied. Two years later, George W. Bush is running for president to restore “integrity” and offer “a fresh start after a season of cynicism.” But in the final days of Bush’s campaign, evidence has surfaced that he, too, falsely denied a shameful episode in his past. And far from cleansing the presidency of Clinton’s evasive tactics, Bush has adopted them.

Here are the key facts. In 1998, Wayne Slater, the Dallas Morning News Austin bureau chief, asked Bush whether he had been arrested after 1968. This was a logical question because the National Guard application Bush filed in 1968 was the last form on which he was known to have disclosed his previous arrests. A November 1999 New Republic profile of Bush communications director Karen Hughes described Slater’s account of the 1998 interview this way:

Slater pressed Bush about whether he had ever been arrested. “He said, ‘After 1968? No.’ I said, ‘What about before 1968?’ He said, ‘Well …’ and at that moment Karen stepped in and said, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve not heard this.’ She clearly wasn’t prepared for whatever it was he was about to say, and he shut up.” Slater argued that it was better for the governor to deal with any revelations sooner rather than later, and Bush agreed to get back to him on the matter. “To this day I have no idea what he was going to say,” says Slater. “After she got to him, he shut up.”

Last week, Fox News obtained, with the help of a Democratic activist, a police report showing that in 1976, when he was 30 years old, Bush had been arrested for driving while intoxicated and had pleaded guilty. Confronted with this evidence Thursday, Bush admitted to the arrest. That night, Slater filed a story noting the contradiction between the new disclosure and Bush’s 1998 denial. As Slater recalled that denial, “Asked whether he had been arrested on anything ‘after 1968,’ the governor replied, ‘No.’ ” In a follow-up article, Slater modified his account: “Asked specifically whether he had been arrested by police since 1968, Mr. Bush said, ‘No.’ He then hesitated, saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, let’s talk about this,’ when Ms. Hughes stepped in and stopped the interview.”

According to Saturday’s Washington Post, in a breakfast conversation with other reporters Friday, Slater “said Bush’s ‘No’ was clear.” Nevertheless, after the interview, Slater “was left with the impression that Bush had something further to say. Slater said he asked Hughes about it twice more. He said that at first, she said to wait until after Bush was reelected governor in 1998. He said that after his second inquiry, it was clear that Bush would not go beyond his stock statement that he had made mistakes in the past.”

Furthermore, according to the Post, Bush “was asked on at least one other occasion about whether he’d been arrested, when he was sent his 1996 jury questionnaire [in a drunken-driving case]. It contained 38 questions. Eleven were left blank, including one that asked: ‘Have you ever been an accused or a complainant or a witness in a criminal case?’ ” According to the New York Times, “There was a space next to the word ‘accused’ that was to be checked if the answer was ‘yes.’ ” According to the News, “Mr. Bush’s attorney, Al Gonzales, who Mr. Bush subsequently appointed to the Texas Supreme Court,” arranged to get Bush “dismissed from the panel before the potential jury members were questioned about their histories of drinking and driving. [The county attorney] said that if Mr. Bush had not been excused from jury service in the drunken-driving case, he most certainly would have been asked about his own history.”

That, in sum, is the evidence that Bush evaded and gave misleading answers to questions about his arrest record. And how has Bush responded this week to questions about that evidence? By evading them and giving misleading answers, just as Clinton did.

1. Deny what can’t be proved. In his August 1998 grand jury testimony, Clinton denied anything that couldn’t be deduced from Lewinsky’s semen-stained dress. He was asked, for example, “If Monica Lewinsky says that while you were in the Oval Office area you touched her breast, would she be lying?” He replied, “That is not my recollection.”

Last Friday, when asked about Slater’s report of Bush’s 1998 denial, Hughes told the press, “The governor disputes that. We do not believe that is accurate.” The Post noted that “Slater said his notes back him up,” but Hughes dismissed Slater’s account on the grounds that it “was not reported.” When a journalist asked why Hughes hadn’t challenged Slater’s quotation of Bush’s comments in the New Republic, Hughes brushed it off, saying of the article—which was a profile of her—”I don’t remember seeing that in print.”

2. Concoct alternate meanings. Clinton told the grand jury that his “encounters” with Lewinsky “did not constitute sexual relations as I understood that term to be defined, at my Jan. 17th, 1998 deposition.” When asked why he hadn’t corrected his lawyer’s claim that “there is no sex of any kind” between Clinton and Lewinsky, Clinton explained, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

Bush says he knows what the meaning of “is” is. Evidently, however, he’s unclear about the meaning of “no.” When asked by reporters Friday whether Bush’s answer to Slater’s question “was no,” Hughes replied that Slater “later told me that he was left with the impression that the governor in fact had been involved in some sort of incident involving alcohol. And therefore I think there’s some illogic in that assertion.” On the basis of this impression, according to the Times, Hughes “said she thought [Slater] had not been misled.” In other words, Bush hadn’t misled Slater because Slater correctly surmised that Bush’s answer was false. “No” meant “yes.”

3. Divert attention to the lies you didn’t tell. When pressed about his deceptive denials of “sexual relations” with Lewinsky, Clinton reminded the grand jury that he had admitted in his deposition to having sex with Gennifer Flowers. “I was embarrassed, but I [admitted] it,” he boasted. “I would rather have taken a whipping than done that.”

Likewise, Bush distracted attention from his false 1998 statement by emphasizing instead his vague, routine admission of a past problem with alcohol. “I have been straightforward with the people, saying that I used to drink too much,” Bush told reporters Thursday. “The only thing I can tell you is that I told the people in my state I used to drink.”

The next morning, Hughes repeatedly steered journalists’ questions away from Slater’s interview and toward a different incident: “The only time Governor Bush has ever been previously asked whether he had ever been arrested for drinking, he responded, quote, ‘I do not have a perfect record as a youth.’ That was his response in October of 1996 when he was directly asked this question.” Hughes also stressed that last Thursday, “the first time we’ve ever been asked directly about this incident, we immediately acknowledged that [Bush] had been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol.” Hughes was bragging that Bush, when presented with indisputable evidence of an arrest he had previously denied, had finally admitted to it.

4. Lower the standard of truthfulness. Testifying before the grand jury, Clinton argued that his sole obligation at the deposition was to refrain from lying. When a prosecutor reminded him, “It was your responsibility to answer those questions truthfully,” Clinton replied, “It was. But it was not my responsibility … to volunteer a lot of information.” Clinton mocked the lawyers at his deposition for failing to pin him down. “What they should have done is to ask me specific questions,” he told the prosecutor. “You seem to be criticizing me because they didn’t ask better questions.”

Bush adopted a similarly minimal standard: His “straightforwardness” about the DWI incident consisted of his vague admission that he “used to drink too much.” Like Clinton, Hughes held the questioners responsible for failing to be sufficiently precise. She implied that Slater hadn’t “directly asked” whether Bush had been “arrested for drinking.” (Never mind that Bush, in response to Slater’s question, had denied having been arrested at all.) According to the News, “Hughes denied that Mr. Bush said he had not been arrested since [1968] before she stopped the interview.” In other words, either Bush hadn’t lied yet, or he was about to tell the truth, and Hughes stopped him and stonewalled Slater. Either way, her version inspires little confidence in the candor of a Bush White House.

Bush’s answer to the direct question he was asked in 1996 about drinking and driving, which Hughes touted as truthful—”I do not have a perfect record as a youth”—conceded nothing. Indeed, that answer was as artfully misleading as any line Clinton got away with in his deposition. Bush was not a youth at the time of his 1976 arrest. But by implying, rather than stating, that any drunken driving in his life was confined to his “youth,” Bush avoided being caught in a lie.

5. Retain plausible deniability. Clinton refused to be held accountable for failing, during the deposition, to correct the assertion by his lawyer, Bob Bennett, that Clinton and Lewinsky had “no sex of any kind.” “I was not paying a great deal of attention to this exchange,” Clinton told the grand jury. “I don’t really believe, therefore, that I can say Mr. Bennett’s testimony or statement is testimony that’s imputable to me.”

Similarly, the Bush campaign blamed Bush’s personal assistant, Israel Hernandez, for neglecting to check the space on Bush’s 1996 jury questionnaire where he was supposed to acknowledge having been “accused” in a criminal case. “The governor didn’t focus on this document because he never even went into the courthouse in front of a judge,” campaign spokesman Dan Bartlett told the Los Angeles Times. According to the New York Times, Bartlett said Hernandez “filled out” the questionnaire and “handed the form to the governor shortly before he arrived for jury duty.”

6. Invoke your family. In a televised speech after his grand jury appearance, Clinton said of his misleading deposition testimony, “I can only tell you I was motivated by many factors. First, by a desire to protect myself from the embarrassment of my own conduct. I was also very concerned about protecting my family.” Likewise, in his press conference last Thursday, Bush said he had chosen not to disclose his arrest because “I made the decision that as a dad, I didn’t want my girls doing the kinds of things I did. … I didn’t wanted to talk about this in front” of them. Hughes said Bush had kept mum because he “had made a decision as a father that he did not want to set that bad example for his daughters or for any other children.”

7. Accuse the accuser. Clinton diverted attention from his false denials by arguing that the lawyers investigating him were “funded by my political opponents” and had set up the Lewinsky deposition as “a ‘gotcha’ game.” Hughes diverted attention from Bush’s false denial by arguing that “the American people are tired of this kind of ‘gotcha’ politics. They’re tired of this kind of last-minute dirty tricks. And I think the Democrats owe the American people an explanation.” At his Thursday press conference, Bush tried five times to change the subject to who had leaked the damning police record and why. In an interview on Fox News Channel, he called the disclosure “dirty politics” perpetrated by “a Democrat and partisan.”

None of this proves Bush is unfit for the presidency. So what if he lied and fudged and rationalized his lies and ducked responsibility for them? Maybe what matters isn’t the lie itself, but what it’s about. Maybe when a politician covers up a personal mistake, he shouldn’t be investigated, vilified, and hounded off the national stage as though he had covered up an abuse of the public trust. Maybe that’s a good reason not to vote against Bush on Tuesday. Then again, maybe it’s a good reason not to vote for him.