Bad Show


Show Time: The American Political Circus and the Race for the White House, by Roger Simon, New York: Times Books, 356 pages, $25.00

Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine, by Howard Kurtz, New York: The Free Press, 352 pages, $25.00

In his meandering account of the 1996 campaign, syndicated columnist Roger Simon tells how President Clinton joked about a famous Inca mummy: "I don't know if you've seen that mummy. But, you know, if I were a single man, I might ask that mummy out. That's a good-looking mummy."

In Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz's look at White House press operations, we learn the rest of the story. During an "off-the-record" bull session with reporters later that day, White House press secretary Mike McCurry topped Clinton's gag with one of his own: "Probably she does look good compared to the mummy he's been [having sex with]."

These two passages illustrate a difference between the two books. Clinton's mummy line is, as the White House likes to say, "old news." It appeared in dozens of press reports, and Simon's account adds nothing to what we already knew: namely, that even a 500-year-old corpse can get this guy thinking about sex. By contrast, the McCurry jab is fresh information, which itself made news when Spin Cycle came out. What's more important, the story offers insight into McCurry's style: By making a naughty side comment about the Clintons, he sought to charm White House reporters, who might thus become a tad more receptive to his pro-Clinton spin on larger matters. He's so good at his work that publication of the remark did not cost him his job, though it probably did earn him a curse from the First Mummy.

Though the lesser book of the two, Show Time does merit attention. One could easily rework it into a textbook on political writing, whose new title would be Don't Do This. The jacket notes call it a "riveting, rollicking, behind-the-curtains peek at the greatest show on earth: the modern American presidential campaign." It's more like a cheap circus that promises a wild-animal show and produces a wretched pack of mangy dogs. Simon has caged every cliché from the 1996 campaign and billed it as a revelation. Dole was an old man who lacked vision and ran a rotten campaign! Clinton was a slippery politician! Perot was a loony!

One might forgive Simon for his trite themes if he compensated with witty prose. He doesn't. A chapter on Dole's war wound bears the title "Arm and the Man." If that high-culture reference is too sophisticated for you, Simon serves up plenty of pop. "On Bob Dole's bad days, he looked like Grandpa Munster. On his really bad days, he sounded like him." To anybody who remembers Al Lewis's role on The Munsters, Simon is saying that fatigue would cause Dole to grow a huge schnoz and adopt a Brooklyn accent. Either he has an exclusive worthy of Weekly World News or he's proving that writers should give a little thought to their analogies.

Simon is sloppy about his facts. In 1992, he recalls, Governor Clinton permitted an execution, figuring that nobody ever lost votes "by electrocuting a black man." Here, his hard-boiled prose has a small crack: Convicted murderer Ricky Ray Rector died by lethal injection. In 1996, Simon assures us, Clinton did not want to become "the first president in history to be elected twice without a majority of the vote." Actually, he'd be the third, since Cleveland and Wilson had both scored that dubious achievement long before. Simon claims Republicans have an edge in the electoral college, but in both 1992 and 1996, Clinton won more than two-thirds of the electoral vote while winning less than half of the popular vote.

Where Show Time is not wrong, it's usually derivative. Its observations about Dole's mannerisms–especially his habit of punctuating sentences with a grunt that sounded like "arghh"–owe much to Richard Ben Cramer's masterful story of the 1988 campaign, What It Takes. Even the publisher's flacks cannot find new material here. In 1992, according to a passage featured in the press release, a female flight attendant on Clinton's campaign plane received instructions not to appear on the tarmac with him when photographers were present and to decline his invitations to work out with him at the Little Rock YMCA. So does Simon have a scoop? Hardly. All of this information first appeared in a July 7, 1994, Washington Post story by Sharon LaFraniere.

A couple of times, Simon does start to handle something potentially important–and then drops it. In describing Dole's first swing through California, Simon mentions the state's ballot initiative to ban racial preferences. His sketch of the issue raises the faint hope that he will chuck the trivia and analyze the role of a substantive issue in the 1996 campaign. No such luck. In Simon's telling, Dole cut short his planned endorsement of the proposition simply because bad advance work had botched the arrangements for the speech. Simon misses the opportunity to discuss racial politics and the GOP's continuing inability to articulate the principle of equal opportunity.

Simon devotes several pages to the policy concessions and ego strokes that Clinton employed to keep Jesse Jackson out of the 1996 Democratic primaries. A key gesture involved campaign help for Jackson's son, who was running for the U.S. House. Simon quotes presidential aide Harold Ickes: "Certain Democratic fund-raisers close to the president gave money to the Jackson for Congress campaign." Simon then mentions that these fund-raisers included the notorious Lippo Group and a mysterious Indonesian landscaper whose huge contributions would later embarrass the Democratic National Committee. So how exactly did Clinton's foreign-money laundromat relate to his effort to appease Jackson? Simon doesn't say; he just moves on to other things.

In his epilogue, Simon recounts an interview with Mike McCurry. Simon asks him about the president's state of mind: "And why is he so at peace, why is he so spiritual?" McCurry takes the question seriously, talking about the Clinton legacy, even though the president's "spirituality" really consists of offerings at the temple of Aphrodite. McCurry also explains why Clinton thinks people will remember his accomplishments instead of his scandals: "He is confident because he has done nothing to besmirch his office in a major way." Ponder those last four words: the Clinton codicil to every ethical standard, including each of the Ten Commandments. (Thou shalt not commit adultery …in a major way.)

According to Howard Kurtz, McCurry is "the master of spin." He makes such an effective spokesman for the president because he understands a few basic lessons about the press. First, reporters compete among themselves. They will not necessarily aid a colleague in distress, as McCurry demonstrated when he rudely cut off New York Post correspondent Deborah Orin at a press conference, and no one stood up for her. Competition allows McCurry to play reporters against one another: He leaks a breaking development to one, forcing the rest to play catch-up, thereby keeping a story alive through several news cycles.

The second lesson is that a press secretary can avoid outright lying if he avoids learning the truth. To protect his integrity when discussing scandal, Kurtz says, McCurry follows a path of "willful ignorance," repeating only what the lawyers tell him and not quizzing Clinton directly if he can help it.

The third lesson is that reporters, like other human beings, enjoy flattery and dislike criticism. Courting the press does not guarantee favorable coverage, but failure to do so will guarantee bad coverage. Although President Clinton is very good at it when he wants to be, his own hypersensitivity sometimes causes him to lash out against reporters, usually with unhappy results.

Spin Cycle does a fine job of explaining how McCurry and other Clintonistas apply these lessons. Unlike Show Time, it depends mainly on original reporting instead of Nexis searches. Kurtz is especially perceptive in laying out the elaborate effort to defend Al "No Controlling Legal Authority" Gore against accusations of illegal fund raising. Among other things, Kurtz says, the battle involved the generation of sympathetic op-ed pieces. Good point: One of the open secrets of journalism is that many (perhaps most) op-eds and letters to the editor result from professional public relations campaigns.

In spite of the book's virtues, its own "spin cycle" will be brief. Kurtz focuses mainly on White House response to scandal news in 1996 and 1997, and he does not purport to cover most other aspects of the relationship between the president and the press. And within the narrow scope of his research, he had only fragmentary access to important information. For legal and political reasons, White House aides were probably not inclined to volunteer the whole truth. What's more, the story is still unfolding: Just before the book went to press, Kurtz had to add a sketchy epilogue on the Monica Lewinsky affair.

For people interested in how Clinton has spun the news, many questions remain open. Here are a few.

Why have the media overlooked so many harsh personal attacks on conservatives and free market advocates? When Hillary Clinton testified at a 1993 congressional hearing on health care, Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.) said he would like to make the debate as exciting as possible. She answered: "I'm sure you will do that, you and Dr. Kevorkian." In most contexts, such a remark would merely be snide, but in this case it was cruel: As White House opposition researchers undoubtedly told her, Dick Armey's father committed suicide. Newspaper stories reported Armey's flustered reaction, but none explained the reason.

How has President Clinton gotten away with gaffes that would have sunk other politicians? On August 6, 1994, he said in Detroit: "The interests–the violent, extremist interests in this country that are trying to keep health care out of the reach of ordinary American working people–are a disgrace to the American Dream." Three days later, a few reporters asked press secretary Dee Dee Myers if she could name any health care groups that were committing violent acts. When they scoffed at her initial answer–that he must have been talking about anti-abortion protesters–she said: "I don't have any better explanation for you." Yet apart from stories in the Boston Herald and a handful of other outlets, Clinton's bizarre outburst got very little ink.

How did the president and his allies manage to put Republicans on the defensive on affirmative action? In 1996, liberal leaders such as Jesse Jackson hinted at a "cultural conspiracy" linking church burnings with efforts to roll back racial preferences. Fearful that some would brand them "racist," Republicans began backing away from the issue, thereby yielding a point that was both principled and popular. Did the White House coordinate the attack?

A final question arises from the opening line of one of Kurtz's chapters: "The White House war against Kenneth Starr was a curious and covert operation." So what are the elements of this "covert operation"? The answer to that question might come out only in court, if it comes out at all.

As of early 1998, Clinton's spin wars were still succeeding brilliantly. One could sum up his performance in six simple words: He lies. He cheats. He wins.

Contributing Editor John J. Pitney Jr. (jpitney@mckenna.edu) is an associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.