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THE DEFENDERS

Being a Hired Hand in the White House Means Serving as a Body Blocker, Containing the Damage and, Sometimes, Fudging the Truth.
But What Do You Do When You Find Out the President Has Lied to You?

photo
Clinton aides, clockwise from top: Paul Begala, Mike McCurry, George Stephanopoulos and Rahm Emannuel. (Photo illustration by Nola Lopez)

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1; Page W10

Paul Begala felt he owed everything to Bill Clinton. A fast-talking, red-bearded political operative from Sugarland, Tex., Begala got his big break when he joined Clinton's first presidential campaign at the age of 30. He spent long days and nights with the candidate, and after Clinton's victory he became a top strategist on the Democratic National Committee payroll. True, Begala fell out of favor after the Democrats lost Congress, packed up his family and started consulting for corporations back in Texas. But after Clinton won reelection and asked him to join the White House staff, Begala couldn't resist. His wife was pregnant and they had two preschool boys, but it was hard to turn down the president of the United States.

A major chunk of Begala's job was to be a television warrior for the boss, particularly as the wave of scandals – Whitewater, Paula Jones, campaign finance abuses – gathered force. He spent much of the day spinning the working-stiff reporters, but when the White House wanted to "put someone out" – administration lingo for dispatching an official to the talk shows – it was Begala who often matched wits with Ted Koppel or Tim Russert or Sam and Cokie.

He lost none of his competitive fire when the Monica Lewinsky story broke last January. The president had told him the allegations were untrue – he did not have sexual relations with that intern – and that was enough for Paul Begala. He berated reporters for rushing to judgment and feasting on improper leaks from prosecutors. And he made clear that he was not simply spouting the party line. He believed the president.

When Clinton admitted the sexual relationship before Ken Starr's grand jury on August 17, Begala was crushed. It fell to him to write a draft for the president's four-minute television speech that evening, a far more contrite version than Clinton would ultimately deliver. It was Begala who walked Clinton into the Map Room for his brief address and adjusted the microphone on Clinton's tie when a technician said it was too low. He was, in short, a trouper. And when it was over, Begala put on his trademark cowboy boots and took his family on a trout fishing trip.

While vacationing in Utah, Begala told friends he had decided to submit a resignation letter. He had had it with Clinton. "He looked me in the eye and lied to me," Begala told one friend. Then he talked it over with his wife, Diane, and decided this was not quite the same as secretly selling weapons to Ayatollah Khomeini.

In the end, he returned to the White House. "I knew him before he was president," Begala says. "He was a good guy then, he's a good guy now. I like him. He did a terrible thing. But it's bad conduct, not impeachable."

But Begala registered a protest of sorts, relinquishing his role as Clinton's television warrior. For one of the president's staunchest defenders on the airwaves, that spoke volumes.

"I'm not making any bones about the fact that I was angry and disappointed," Begala says. "I temper that, however, with some perspective that this was about an intensely personal act of wrongdoing that no one would want to admit to. I think it's understandable he didn't want to tell me. It's human . . .

"I was very angry. I was very disappointed. I didn't want to have to say that on television. But I didn't want to lie. So you bite your tongue.

"I didn't want to go back out because I didn't want to be discussing my feelings," he says, putting a New Age emphasis on the word. "The first question would be, okay, you lied before, how do we know you're not lying now? I didn't want to go on TV and say I was angry with the president. He's my boss. So I decided to say nothing."

Eventually, though, Begala realized "that my not saying anything was being interpreted as a vote of no confidence in the president." On September 21, the day that Clinton's videotaped testimony would be played for the country, the New York Times reported that Begala had decided never to defend Clinton on television again. The gauntlet had been thrown down. Begala, who had shaved his beard – perhaps hoping that no one would remember his earlier incarnation – agreed to appear that night on "Larry King Live" and "Nightline."

Koppel's first question: "Since you were sent out on a number of occasions to lie in the president's behalf for much of the spring and summer, what guarantee do I have, what guarantee do our viewers have, that you aren't being sent out to do the same thing now?"

Begala deftly turned the question back to Clinton's testimony. He didn't want to talk about his feelings.

In the cloistered, pressurized world of the political staffer, loyalty is the ultimate virtue. It is primal, instinctive, unspoken; politicians demand it and subordinates automatically provide it. To do otherwise is to devalue your net worth in the political marketplace.

Loyalty by definition means backing the boss during the roughest news cycles. The candidate or officeholder inevitably screws up; the staffer is expected to pick up the pieces, contain the damage, serve as a body blocker against the opposition. Curiously, this notion of fierce loyalty is not seen as a mutual proposition; if the staffer makes a hash of things, he is quickly shown the door.

The staff member is expendable, replaceable; the principal must be protected at all costs. After all, the staffer owes his very political existence to his commanding officer. Without the imprimatur of the pol, he is nobody, a garden-variety hack. But once he is welcomed into the bosom of the organization, he is transformed. He struts with an air of authority. His phone calls are returned. Reporters take him to lunch. He is assumed to speak for the candidate, the senator, the governor, the president. He is someone.

He must either remain anonymous, a faceless "aide" feeding his best lines to the boss, or publicly parrot the boss's views as his own. His preferred profile is a low profile. He offers advice behind the scenes, but is never permitted to publicly disagree. He quietly handles the most sensitive tasks, giving the boss deniability if the situation blows up. The staffer makes the trains run on time, the pol merely shows up before departure, waving to the crowds. The staffer accepts his lot in life, grumbling occasionally to other staffers but buying into the essential bargain, wielding power on someone else's behalf and settling for reflected glory. He has signed the unwritten contract of loyal serfdom, and he cannot dissolve that contract without sacrificing the very source of his power.

But there is a kind of duality in becoming a political appointee on the payroll of the United States government. While the staffer literally serves at the pleasure of his principal and can be fired without cause, he also owes a measure of loyalty to the taxpayers who pay his salary. He is not supposed to lie or deceive or engage in illegal or unconstitutional behavior.

As a practical matter, the staffer often finds himself trapped in a gray zone, skating close to the ethical line, ordered to destroy the memo or fudge the truth or fall on his sword so the boss may remain unbloodied. It is here that loyalty undergoes its greatest test. Every staffer, perhaps unconsciously, has a personal tipping point, beyond which he will not endanger himself or fatally compromise his credibility. But in the flexible universe occupied by the staff person, that tipping point is usually set quite high. For most, it is never reached, enabling the aide to muddle through the ethical crisis of the moment.

On rare occasions, the staffer comes to the disheartening realization that he has been betrayed, misled, even lied to by his principal. He must reach a decision based not on the usual calculation of the boss's welfare but on what is best for himself, even if that means abandoning the position and perquisites that feed his ego. After in effect swearing a blood oath to the politician who gave him power, he must consider a wrenching act of disloyalty.

That is the situation in which Bill Clinton's closest aides found themselves after his August 17 confession. They were hurt, angry and demoralized by their witting or unwitting part in deceiving the country about the president and the intern. Yet not one of them walked away from the man who had lied to them, used them, allowed them to stake their personal reputations on a fabricated denial. Some agonized, some wavered, but all continued to defend the admitted liar in the Oval Office. For reasons ranging from personal affection to political dedication to muddled compromise, they remained true to the code of the staffer.

(continued in Part Two)


Part One   |   Two   |   Three   |   Four   | Five   |   Full Text


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