Spun To a Crisp: Everyone's Latest Take on the Scandal
By Howard Kurtz
Never before in American history have a president and first lady put out their own statements about the president's infidelity, then had aides give reporters background guidance about their respective reactions. Never have White House strategists so carefully orchestrated the media buildup for a speech in which the president expresses regret for cheating on his wife (and misleading the country) and then scurried to distance themselves from the resulting mess by blaming the boss.
Journalists, of course, need the whispered comments to piece together a coherent narrative of backstage events. But with so few names attached, it's like watching a play with all the actors offstage. Herewith, a primer:
The pre-speech spin: In a series of leaks before Kenneth Starr's grand jury heard the president last Monday, Clinton advisers say the president will change his story and admit to a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Several sources say he has to prepare his family; indeed, there was talk that the leaks themselves were the mechanism for making sure Hillary Rodham Clinton was informed. Bob Woodward of The Washington Post writes that Clinton advisers are "making an attempt to reach out to Starr." NBC's Tim Russert says, "White House officials tell me . . . there are three goals: candor, contrition and closure." It didn't quite work out that way.
The post-speech spin: White House sources say Paul Begala and other top aides drafted a stronger apology with no slam on Starr. And that they took out language that Clinton wanted attacking Starr, but the boss put it back in. It was a disaster they tried to avert.
The Hillary spin: The first lady authorizes her spokeswoman to say "she was misled" about her husband's infidelity until last weekend. This would help explain why she went on TV to blame the charges on right-wing enemies. "She obviously believed him until she couldn't anymore," an unnamed adviser tells The Post.
The presidential counter-spin: Clinton advisers scoff at the notion that Hillary Clinton was in denial. "That doesn't seem real to me," one aide tells Time.
The aides' spin: They didn't really feel betrayed by having to repeat the boss's lie for seven months at least according to the talking points prepared for the occasion. Nuff said.
The columnists' spin: "Clinton's behavior is truly Nixonian" (David Broder). "It was pathetic. . . . This man will never stop lying" (Michael Kelly). "Mr. Clinton has acted with monstrous selfishness" (Maureen Dowd). "Is there no end to the corruption of this man?" (Charles Krauthammer). "A moral pygmy" (Lars-Erik Nelson).
The Lewinsky spin: The Monica camp lets it be known that Lewinsky was hurt and disappointed by Clinton's failure to acknowledge her pain. "SPITTING MAD," says the New York Post.
The Jesse Jackson spin: Rushing between the White House and CNN, the reverend counsels the first family, then announces that the president is "embarrassed" and his wife has suffered "humiliation" in an apparent effort to generate sympathy.
The Starr spin: Sources leak word that Clinton's testimony differed from Lewinsky's on sexual details and the returning of the president's gifts to her. This fosters the impression that Clinton is in deep trouble.
The Dick Morris spin: The former Clinton adviser becomes the first man ever to testify before a grand jury and immediately tout his account in his very own New York Post column and Fox News commentary slot. (Talk about a one-source story.) Morris, who was toppled by his own sex scandal, says Clinton told him in January he had "slipped up" with Lewinsky, then had him conduct a poll that persuaded the president to keep mum on the affair. Morris dismisses Clinton's speech as "more arrogant than abject."
The public spin: The press dutifully reports that two-thirds of Americans say they want the Lewinsky investigation to end. This, however, will have no effect on the media and political spinners. (See above.)
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company