Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine
By Howard Kurtz
Free Press 324pp $25
From the moment Bill Clinton emerged as a Presidential front-runner in late 1991, his relationship with the national media has been frosty. Clinton views the press corps as obsessed with stories he considers unimportant (his personal life, family financial dealings, his draft history) and insufficiently interested in issues he considers important (his economic plans, his attempts to reshape the Democratic Party into his moderate New Democrat image). From the 1992 Gennifer Flowers media frenzy to Kathleen Willey's Mar. 15 appearance on 60 Minutes, Team Clinton has made a career out of defusing political dynamite.
The Clintons' disdain for the media was well-known when I took over the White House beat for BUSINESS WEEK in early 1997. But I was surprised at the press corps' hostility toward the President and his staff. Weren't these scribes the "liberal media elite" that my friends in the "vast right-wing conspiracy" like to carp about?
Howard Kurtz's Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine goes a long way toward explaining the enmity. The longtime Washington Post reporter paints a disturbing, enlightening, yet ultimately flawed picture of a pair of dysfunctional families: the White House staffers who work to "manage" the media and the diverse collection of ultracompetitive reporters whose job it is to transcend The Spin to find The Truth.
Kurtz portrays Clinton as a politician deeply suspicious of the news Establishment. "They like to destroy people," the President is quoted as telling adviser Dick Morris. "That's how they get their rocks off." The press, meanwhile, is frustrated that most Americans seem to be buying the Administration's view of what's important and what's not.
Kurtz, one of the country's most respected media critics, does a comprehensive job of reporting a year in the life of the White House spin machine. For those of us privy to the briefing-room jousting between Press Secretary Michael D. McCurry and press corps agents provocateurs, it is fascinating to discover the maneuvers behind McCurry's carefully scripted word choices--and the battles he often wages to win permission to pass along shreds of information. Relying on anecdotes related by White House spinners and reporters alike, Kurtz describes the White House's favorite tactics: deny the accusations, release as little information as possible, attack the accuser's motives, focus on any inconsistencies, describe the allegations as part of a right-wing conspiracy, and--most of all--change the subject to the economy or some Administration initiative.
Kurtz reveals the lengths to which White House aides will go to attack and discredit Clinton-bashing reporters. Sometimes, this means a personal Presidential rebuke of offending reporters. But in the case of Washington Post Whitewater reporter Susan Schmidt, it meant a "frontal attack" on her credibility ordered by Hillary Clinton, according to Kurtz. Although staffers bad-mouthed the reporter, the idea of an official White House report publicly critiquing Schmidt's stories was finally squelched by McCurry, who feared a media backlash.
While McCurry and other White House spinners such as Lanny Davis and Rahm Emanuel are generally given high marks for effectiveness, the President and First Lady are depicted as somewhat naive about the way the game is played. One example: Mrs. Clinton thought a private meeting with Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie could temper the negative tone of that paper's Whitewater coverage. But, says Kurtz, the session was "a disaster." Her personal touch wasn't enough--Downie kept pressing for documents that could prove her assertions of innocence. "That was the day she knew she was screwed with the Post, she told a colleague afterward."
Kurtz's reporting is incredibly detailed, but his analysis is debatable. He devotes too much space to the scandal coverage of the Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Those papers set the tone for much of the White House press corps coverage, but their scoops failed to make much of an impression on Middle America. Kurtz vastly underemphasizes outlets used by the White House to refocus attention away from scandal, including USA Today, wire services, and regional newspapers. And Kurtz does not devote sufficient space to TV.
Kurtz's book undoubtedly will prove valuable to academics who in future years will put the Clinton Presidency into historical perspective. And it provides a useful service to contemporaries who want to plumb the depths of the spinmeisters' minds. But it seems a bit out-of-date in this tabloidish moment of Monica Mania. The problem: Kurtz's book focuses on 1997 and White House attempts to minimize campaign fund-raising and Whitewater allegations. Kathleen Willey, who now claims she was groped by the President outside the Oval Office, makes only a cameo appearance. Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp are mentioned only in a hastily added introduction and epilogue. Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr is only one of many supporting players in the drama. Spin Cycle provides some valuable lessons that will help a reader understand the story behind today's headlines. But if anyone picks it up to get the inside skinny on late-breaking developments, that person is bound to be disappointed.