A few days before Bill Clinton delivered his final, rhetorically triumphant State of the Union message in the very same chamber where, a year earlier, he had become the first elected president ever to be impeached, The New York Times editorially stroked its beard in contemplation of the country’s seven fat Clinton years. Among other things, it noted sagely that, "Historians are beginning to categorize Mr. Clinton as a politician of splendid natural talent and some significant accomplishments, who nonetheless missed the greatness that once seemed within his grasp."
"Missed Greatness" may not quite catch the spirit of this fading administration; perhaps a category like "Unrelenting Mendacity" will prove a better historical fit. But historians will do their Clinton-sifting on their own deliberate clock. What interests us now is that, as Clinton swaggers into his homestretch lap, he is standing at all.
How is it, given his record in office, that Clinton is accepted by anyone on his own terms? Clinton has behind him a nearly uninterrupted record of scandal, recklessness, and lies. There remain numerous unresolved issues of profound significance, among them matters of influence peddling, technology transfer affecting national security, and the repeated use of the military as a distraction. He has been caught so often in self-serving falsehood that Clinton-parsing is a familiar capital pastime, and almost nobody takes him at his word without first diagramming his clauses.
Yet, in his final State of the Union, he could still draw an audience of some 35 million viewers, deliver an energetic harangue that made Castro-like rhetorical demands, presume to lay out an agenda that would take another century to complete, and be treated with celebratory regard. Not only were Clinton’s emotic skills praised, but Vice President Al Gore, seated behind the president and just out of the TV camera’s frame, repeatedly leaned over so as to appear in the picture with Clinton, in the apparent belief that the visual association would benefit Gore’s own political ambitions.
One might think that, rather than having his skills applauded and his purported near-miss with greatness lamented, a president with Clinton’s record would be treated with palpable contempt. The most interesting political question at the end of the long Clinton day is, why isn’t he?
A common explanation from many frustrated conservative critics is that Clinton has been let off the hook by a "liberal" Washington press corps. But while one can argue with many aspects of the mainstream media coverage of the Clinton presidency, a demon "liberal press" has hardly let him off easy. Most of the credible damaging information about the Clinton years was developed by mainstream reporters. The reporter whom the Clintons are reputed to "fear" most is Jeff Gerth of The New York Times. The story that did the most damage to the administration–the Lewinsky matter–was developed by Michael Isikoff of Newsweek. The paper that actually broke that scandal, and that put the Broaddrick story on its front page, was The Washington Post. Even the most definitive account of the apparently unjustified (but self-serving) bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceuticals factory appeared in, of all places, The New Yorker, otherwise noted for its bona fide pro-Clinton slant. TV reporters likewise broke many stories damaging to Clinton, and the all-news cable services have been happy to devote their 24—7 schedules to his juicier problems.
Washington reporter Steve Roberts recently asserted that the people in the capital who most distrust the Washington press are probably not the city’s conservatives but rather Bill and Hillary Clinton, and he may be right. Much of the capital’s press corps has been busy these past seven years writing and taping negative accounts of the administration. The gaggle of investigations that have plagued the Clintons all had their origins in mainstream journalism. The Washington press, in fact, came within a hair of driving him from office.
So how did he do it? How did he keep rising from the mat to revel in high public opinion numbers? An explanation offered by all observers is that Clinton greatly benefited from the booming economy, and that seems indisputable. Bad economies have injured many of Clinton’s predecessors. Had he been plagued with high unemployment and inflation, these would have resonated with his other problems.
Yet one can overstate this factor as well. Clinton never actually won a majority of votes in either of his presidential campaigns, despite a roaring economy and an incompetent campaign by Bob Dole in 1996. The majority of voters who opted against Clinton’s reelection weren’t necessarily ready to give him an automatic pass on his problems so as not to rock the financial boat. He had to work hard to survive his various scandals. The question remains: What did Clinton do?
The answer is deceptively simple: Clinton ignored traditional Washington wisdom for dealing with exploding scandal and instead used the capital’s notorious scandal machine against itself. Scandal is unlikely ever to be the same. Bill Clinton’s long-sought Legacy turns out to be a guide on how to rise from the dead. Here are its five essentials:
Step 1. A Scandal Is Just a Story
Scandal has generally been understood in Washington as the discovery of corruption and illegality. However, to buy into this view is to participate in your own political diminution, perhaps even your destruction. By conceding that something bad has been discovered, and by reacting according to time-honored Washington wisdom, you risk putting yourself on the defensive. That cedes the high ground to a frequently voracious press, which will gorge itself on tips from your enemies and even your loose-lipped associates, and force you to deal with an ever-increasing number of embarrassing revelations. Enough such revelations and you will find yourself the target of a "feeding frenzy." Indeed, you may risk finding yourself in Washington’s lowest rung of hell: public opinion "free fall."
Whatever the terms of the Clinton administration’s own view of its scandal strategy, it has taught the rest of us to think about scandal in an entirely novel way: The important thing about a scandal is not that something untoward may have been discovered. It is not the fact of impropriety; it is that a scandal is the telling of a story. The difference is crucial: Stories are subject to control. They can be shut down by starving them of new information. They can be recast by working to change their elements and re-characterize their participants. If all else fails, they can be overshadowed by other stories, especially military ones.
This is not mere spin, though of course under Clinton, the White House has been revolving on its press-office axis at ever-greater RPMs. To spin a story is to attempt to give it the most advantageous interpretation possible, but it is also to acknowledge that story’s essential legitimacy. Such classic administration lines as, "That story came out years ago," or "The American people knew what they were getting when they voted for Bill Clinton," are classic Clintonesque spin.
Clinton’s news-management apparatus has moved beyond spin, into territory first explored by the public-relations-minded Reagan White House: It has subsumed the presidency in a narrative of its own creation and worked diligently to delegitimize any story that has run counter to that narrative.