The collapse of Enron is the biggest scandal since President Bush took office. Given the connections between Enron and Bush—money, friendship, Texas, energy—you’d think reporters would be roasting Bush à la Clinton by now. But they’ve been thwarted, in part by facts and in part by spin. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer has managed the spin duties expertly. Here’s how he does it.
1. Feed the beast. Nobody can stop a story as big as Enron. There are long press conferences in which Fleischer gets nothing but Enron questions. He can’t deny that Enron is a scandal, merits an investigation, or requires a policy response. So he offers reporters an alternative Enron scandal, investigation, and policy response. The scandal is how Enron executives looted their company and ripped off their employee-shareholders. The investigation of that scandal is being undertaken by the U.S. Department of Justice. And the policy response, assigned to the U.S. Department of Labor, is to protect employee-shareholders of other companies from being ripped off in the same way. The media get its scandal, and the White House press corps gets to write about the Bush administration’s role in it, but only as part of the solution.
2. Question the question. When reporters gang up on a politician, they have two unfair advantages. First, they control the questions, and no matter how slickly the politician answers them, the questions control the conversation. Fleischer starts out the briefing by summarizing non-Enron news and then is forced to spend the whole Q and A talking about Enron. Second, since reporters control the scrutiny, the answers get scrutinized, but the questions don’t, even when they’re loaded with spin. If anybody’s going to question the questions, the politician has to do it. Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld is the administration’s most adept practitioner of this art, but Fleischer is pretty good.
The game plan of White House reporters is to make Fleischer give them more and more information about Enron-related contacts or discussions among administration officials, until they can juxtapose some of those contacts or discussions in suspicious ways. If Fleischer draws a line on how much information he’ll get for them, they accuse him of covering up. If he doesn’t, they demand more. It’s a no-win proposition. His only recourse is to challenge the game. He does this by accusing reporters of a “fishing expedition.” He refuses to get information for them about Enron-related deliberations until they specify an alleged misdeed, which he can then refute. Essentially, his policy is that producing damning evidence is their job, and he won’t do it for them.
Fleischer is right about the fishing expedition. But he’s playing the same no-win game in reverse. No matter how far reporters narrow their questions, Fleischer demands more specificity. That process reached its absurd conclusion on Jan. 16, when a reporter asked, “Is the White House determining whether or not administration officials or White House aides have received any calls from Enron since the summer of 2001?” Fleischer replied, “Describe the calls.” Of course, the reporter couldn’t. Reporters ask for information so that they can describe it. By demanding descriptions up front, Fleischer gives himself license to reveal nothing.
3. Moralize your stonewalling. Rejecting questions, by itself, looks defensive. So Fleischer dresses up this gamesmanship as “principle.” On Jan. 17, he was asked why the White House wouldn’t give the General Accounting Office information about the roles played by energy companies, including Enron, in Vice President Cheney’s energy task force. Fleischer replied that if the government were required to expose “any contact” by private parties to media scrutiny, “the right of people in our country to petition their government, to talk to their government” would be imperiled. This is the kind of slippery-slope argument that makes every stonewall—for example, refusing to divulge whether high-dollar donors asked the president for policy favors at White House coffees—”principled.” By emphasizing the principle of drawing a line somewhere, Fleischer deflects attention from the self-interest of where he’s drawing the line.
4. Generalize. Nothing kills a story like abstraction. When reporters ask about things the White House did for Enron, Fleischer replies that everybody else did the same things for Enron or that the White House did the same things for everybody else. Republicans got Enron money? So did Democrats. Cheney helped Enron fight for a lucrative project in India? So did Clinton’s Commerce secretaries. Enron benefited from Cheney’s energy plan? So did other companies. Bush pal and Enron CEO Ken Lay asked Bush officials to help Enron? So did former Clinton Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin. Anyway, says Fleischer, “communication is routine between this country and the people in government.” Nothing unusual here, folks. Move along.
To the extent that equal treatment disproves bias, Fleischer has a point. But he’s also playing a couple of tricks. One is his implication that if both parties do something, it’s OK. That’s a political threat (If you criticize us, we’ll criticize you for the same thing) disguised as a moral argument. The other is his description of Enron-specific acts in general terms. On Jan. 18, he was asked about a review conducted by Bush officials last fall to assess the economic consequences of Enron’s collapse if the company weren’t bailed out. “The review had nothing to do with Enron specifics,” said Fleischer. “It was a review about markets and how markets would be impacted.” By that logic, if Bush had bailed out Enron to protect the markets, the bailout wouldn’t have been Enron-specific.
5. Find other beneficiaries. On Jan. 18, Fleischer was asked about Bush and Cheney lobbying foreign governments on Enron’s behalf. “The president doesn’t look at it as if he is expressing a corporate interest overseas,” said Fleischer. “When the president does this, what he has in mind are the workers. … [He] believes when [American] corporations do well, their workers do well.” If that premise isn’t false in Enron’s case, it’s unfalsifiable—and it justifies any favor the president chooses to do for any company.
6. Defer to the process. This is Fleischer’s specialty. Ask a factual question, and he’ll refer you to a process. What role did Enron play in the energy task force? “The Department of Justice is investigating” Enron, says Fleischer, so if there were any shenanigans in the task force, DOJ will find it. But can Attorney General Ashcroft credibly lead that investigation after his Senate PAC received $25,000 from Enron? “The Department of Justice has conflict of interest rules, and if there is anything that the attorney general was aware of that would trigger it, the president knows he will take appropriate action,” says Fleischer. This chain of evasions can go on forever. There’s always another process to resolve the reliability of the process you’re questioning. In the meantime, it’s unnecessary and inappropriate for Fleischer to comment.
7. Call it nothing. Making something look like nothing is easier than it sounds. All you have to do is phrase it in the negative. When asked to explain why Bush officials decided not to bail out Enron, Fleischer says there’s no action to explain, because “they took no action.” When asked why Bush didn’t bring up Enron’s India project with India’s prime minister in a meeting after Enron’s woes became public (whereas Cheney had pressed the point with India beforehand), Fleischer shrugs that the issue “didn’t make it to the president.” Fleischer doesn’t have to tell you why it happened, since it didn’t happen.
8. Offer candor, not truth. Fleischer never promises the whole truth. He only promises to say what he knows. That way, the White House can withhold the truth by limiting what Fleischer knows. On Jan. 10, he announced that two Cabinet secretaries had recently discussed Enron’s financial situation with Enron executives. When reporters asked why he was just now admitting this after they had inquired “for weeks about contacts between the company and the president and the administration,” Fleischer explained that he had just found out and that “every question you’ve asked me before … was about the president. I speak for the president.” A reporter then asked whether Cheney had talked to Enron executives. “Nothing that was brought to my attention or that I’m aware of,” said Fleischer. So if it turns out that Cheney had such conversations, reporters can’t accuse Fleischer of lying. He’s blameless. The fact that he’s also useless is their problem, not his.