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New Book Spins White House Spin Machine

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 1999; Page C1

Critics have long complained that the Clinton White House deals with scandal by parsing the truth, holding back critical information and engaging in selective leaking.

Turns out they were right, according to a new book by former White House spinmeister Lanny Davis. He admits that administration officials often withheld damaging information from him so he wouldn't give it to the press.

In "Truth to Tell," out next month, Davis argues for "good," factually based spin over "bad," deceptive spin -- but concedes that some of his spin was "so transparent that it is amazing that we thought we could get away with it."

The "truth" in Davis's title was elusive. He recalls a previously undisclosed conversation he had with President Clinton on Jan. 21, 1998, the day the Monica Lewinsky story broke. Paraphrasing himself, Davis says he told Clinton: "Do what you do best. . . . Take your case to the American people, tell them everything, everything there is to tell." Davis added that Clinton was "presumed guilty" by the press. But the president just nodded and was noncommittal -- and the author never takes him to task.

Davis coins the marvelously bureaucratic phrase "deep-background private placement" to describe negative stories about the White House that he leaked to put the least damaging version in play. Davis's favorite outlet was the Associated Press, not only because it is "notoriously fact-oriented and fair" but because once a story was on the wire, such newspapers as The Washington Post and New York Times "would not be inclined to give it front-page play."

Another White House favorite was the Wall Street Journal, because political news "usually got placed on the back page of the front section, which often diminished the impact of the story." And Davis liked the Los Angeles Times because the "major national daily newspapers resisted repeating stories broken by an 'out-of-town' newspaper."

Thus, Davis called the reporter he deemed most fair, the AP's John Solomon, with documents suggesting that Clinton had made fund-raising calls from the White House residence. The leak occurred on July 3, 1997, so the story would get lost on the Fourth of July holiday.

Davis writes that White House counsel Charles Ruff, while "brilliant," was "very stubborn" in "his reticence to share information with me." In fact, Davis operated under a cloak of deniability -- his supervisor in the counsel's office, Lanny Breuer, insisted that Davis keep him informed in general terms but didn't want to know the gory details of his leaking.

In one case -- involving Democratic donor Roger Tamraz seeking administration help for a pipeline project -- Davis couldn't answer media questions because the White House wouldn't give him the information. So he concluded: "I knew I had to do it on my own. I had to report the story myself."

Davis asked a contact on the National Security Council staff about some handwritten notes the White House had refused to release; the staffer took the notes from a desk drawer and summarized them. Davis called "a close friend in the press" to find out whether Sen. Fred Thompson's investigating committee would be highlighting the Tamraz case. He then called the AP's Solomon with a "private placement," described the notes and was pleased with the resulting story.

In other words, Davis tried to get the story leaked to him so he could leak it to the AP before Thompson's staff leaked it with a more negative spin.

Davis pleads guilty to one instance of lying -- with an explanation. When ABC's Jackie Judd and CBS's Rita Braver asked him if anything was breaking that night, he said no -- even though he was giving two Washington Post reporters access to fund-raiser John Huang's correspondence with the White House. He later told Judd and Braver he would have been dishonest with other reporters if he had been protecting their exclusive.

Davis winds up sounding more comfortable with journalists than White House lawyers, which is perhaps why he's gone on to a highly visible career as a pro-Clinton talking head.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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