Secrets of the Clinton Spectacle

A five-step program for surviving endless scandal.


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.

Step 2. You Don't Feed a Bad Story

The foremost piece of scandal wisdom in Washington, at least since Watergate, has been to "get it behind you." That is, you must forestall a long and damaging series of negative stories that will distract and weaken you. To do so, you must concede that damaging reports about your administration's actions may contain at least some truth, and that your associates or appointees may have behaved improperly in some matter (though without your knowledge, and no doubt for mitigating reasons). Rather than attempt a futile cover-up, you must move quickly to make available whatever pertinent documents you have collected and announce an internal investigation. Eventually you fire somebody, though with regret at having to lose a dedicated public servant, and announce that the matter is closed. Then, you "move on."

The Clinton strategy has been exactly the opposite of this. You "move on" first and disclose later (and only then if you have to as a point of law). Clinton has stonewalled everything. He has admitted nothing (except in the most dire extremes), released no information in a timely manner, and investigated nothing. The case of the FBI files remains a classic example.

At least 900 raw FBI files containing personal information managed to find their way into the White House during the first Clinton term, in contravention of privacy law and basic decency. How did this happen? Clinton's prevailing and entirely useless statement on the matter is that it was a "bureaucratic snafu." Who was responsible for it, and why? The White House has shown no interest in answering that question, though it did suggest, without offering any evidence, that it was the fault of the Secret Service. One Secret Service employee has termed that an impossibility, and there the matter rests.

In the meantime, Craig Livingston, a former bar bouncer who sometimes harassed George Bush on the campaign trail by dressing up in a chicken suit, disappeared from his job handling White House security. Who hired him and to whom did he answer? Who knows? What was the sequence of events that brought hundreds of raw FBI files into the White House? Who knows? To what use were they put? Who knows?

The Clinton calculation has been that it is better to have many unresolved and unproven suspicions hanging over the White House than to admit to a single impropriety. His taped remarks to Gennifer Flowers, made when he was Arkansas governor, "If they haven't got pictures, they can't prove anything," are a reasonable abstract of his governing philosophy.

Among the most tantalizing mysteries of the Clinton years is the lengths to which the president may have gone in order to shut a story down. What was the nature of the lucrative "consulting" contracts awarded to Webster Hubbell by the Lippo Group and others? If this was more than hush money, then what kind of consulting work did Hubbell do? Kenneth Starr was reportedly investigating these contracts, but we still don't know anything about them. And what about the appalling suggestions that a private-eye "goon squad" was actively intimidating women who may have had damaging information about Clinton? Kathleen Willey, for example, reported numerous incidents of intimidation, some since confirmed. If such a goon squad was indeed actively threatening women, then Clinton's presidency will have missed "greatness" by a considerable distance.

At any rate, Clinton has admitted to nothing (except, in the case of Hubbell's Lippo contracts, reading about them in the press). Admission would validate discovery, potentially leading to more troublesome stories. Clinton would risk losing control. Leave a story unresolved, refuse to feed it, and the chances are pretty good that it will become yesterday's news, especially if you are the president, and have the power to shape front pages by creating counter-news of your own.

Clinton certainly didn't win every such bet. He lost control of the Paula Jones story, which led eventually to the Lewinsky scandal, which wasted his second term and the whole country's and the whole world's time. Clinton did eventually gain control of the impeachment melodrama that emerged from his Jones/Lewinsky problems, and since the whole point of his presidency had by then become survival, he won that bet, too.

Step 3. Stories Are About People

Until Clinton, major White House scandals were usually about process. News coverage of the Iran-Contra and Watergate scandals focused on alleged violations of the law. Only eventually did the characters and motives of participants–especially White House participants–become part of the larger narrative. For example, the detail that John Erlichmann was a mean son of a bitch emerged relatively late in the Watergate story, once the story was already full-blown. What mattered as the scandals took their original shape were not the characters of Erlichmann or John Dean or Oliver North; it was what they did.

That has hardly been the case under Clinton. This White House has responded to every major problem by introducing the character of its critics or opponents–and even its own victims–at the first opportunity, impugning those characters, and questioning motives. To the degree that it could, using allies in Congress and the press or acting directly, it has turned scandal narratives into character melodramas.

The major example of this reflex was the regular slandering of Kenneth Starr as a sex-obsessed maniac. But Starr had plenty of company; Clinton and his allies have tried to smear everybody whom they perceive as a threat. Gennifer Flowers was characterized as a gold-digging slut. Monica Lewinsky was characterized as a nutty stalker. Billy Dale of the White House Travel Office was falsely characterized as personally dishonest. Linda Tripp, thanks to a New Yorker story, was falsely characterized as a felon. Kathleen Willey was characterized as a delusional liar. Paula Jones was infamously characterized as trailer-park trash. UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who questioned the administration's resolve to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, was characterized as a petty man jealous of his superiors' limousine perks. House Republicans were characterized as sexual McCarthyites attempting a political coup. Of course, the entire community of Clinton critics was notoriously characterized by Hillary Rodham Clinton herself as "a vast right-wing conspiracy."

This is actually the centerpiece of the Clinton strategy of clogging Washington's scandal machinery: Blunt every threatening story by infusing it with self-serving elements that subsequent press coverage will necessarily include. Hillary's accusation of conspiracy, made in the course of an NBC "interview" conducted by a supine Matt Lauer, was both desperate and ludicrous, and it is likely that almost everyone in the press (and in the White House, too) saw it in just those terms. Yet in the wake of Hillary's NBC appearance, most news-related talk shows devoted at least some time to absurd exchanges around the topic, "Is there a vast right-wing conspiracy?" At a minimum, Hillary's statement bought time; at best, it introduced an explanation for her husband's problems, one consistent with the rest of the Clinton scandal narrative: That he is the innocent victim, year in and year out, of dreadful people with evil motives and low characters.

Step 4. War Is the Biggest Story

Twice in 1998, Bill Clinton deployed the military force of the United States at moments when the scandal stories threatening him were reaching their most dangerous stages. The evening before Monica Lewinsky was to appear before the grand jury, Clinton struck at targets in Sudan and Afghanistan in purported revenge for the bombing of American embassies earlier that summer. In December, on the evening before the House vote on impeachment, Clinton suddenly launched an attack on Iraq, claiming the necessity of acting in advance of a fast-approaching Ramadan.

Only Clinton's core cultists still believe that either of these acts were anything but distractions from the scandals then dominating the news. It quickly became apparent that the target in Sudan was nothing more than a pharmaceuticals factory. Indeed, the administration has made no credible effort to persuade anyone of its original claims that the factory was secretly engaged in the production of terrorist weaponry. As for the claims that Clinton's hand was forced in Iraq by his tender concerns for Muslim religious sensibilities, it is doubtful that anyone ever bought into such a transparently nonsensical story. Clinton's bombing raids actually continued into Ramadan.

In any case, Clinton got what he seems to have wanted from launching these strikes: the interruption of a bad story at a crucial moment, a change of subject, even, in the case of the Iraq strike, throwing the House Republicans on the defensive. House Democrats, suddenly suffused with jingoistic fervor, were able to pummel them for pursuing a political agenda while American soldiers were in harm's way.

The use of the military for personal reasons would appear to be an extremely dangerous gambit. Richard Nixon flirted with it during Watergate, and it only made matters worse for him. When Nixon suddenly placed the military on alert in 1974, his action was immediately recognized for what it was: an attempt to distract attention from the riveting televised hearings by cooking up a military crisis. The alert was soon cancelled, but Nixon's willingness to employ the military as a political dodge was perceived as a sign of the depths to which he was willing to sink in his desperation.

The lesson of the Clinton example is that Nixon should have bombed somebody. While it probably wouldn't have saved his presidency, it would have bought him some time. Military actions have such a powerful dynamic of their own that they can overwhelm their political context. Coverage of ongoing military action has tended to be highly sympathetic to the Pentagon, and thus to the White House, especially since the military learned its Vietnam lesson and started shaping coverage (most spectacularly in the case of the Gulf War).

Anyway, Clinton had nothing to lose by attacking pariah targets like Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Domestic criticism was hardly an issue, since Clinton's presidency itself was already at stake. And as for a full investigation of the circumstances of the attacks, that wasn't going to happen no matter how things turned out. If Clinton was forced from office, Congress would give President Gore a honeymoon. If Clinton beat the rap, Congress would slink away. Of course, what happened is that battered Republicans emerged from the impeachment struggle anxious to talk about their "positive agenda," not about Sudan.

That was not the end of Clinton's war narratives. After enacting a public spectacle of contrition for his "one mistake" of lying about Lewinsky, Clinton went on to lead a NATO war over Kosovo, a war justified by suggestions of Serbian genocide against Muslim Kosovars. In its wake, Clinton enunciated a "Clinton Doctrine": the use of the military to save innocent persons from slaughter. Yet, when winter came to the Balkans last year, the search for the victims of genocide in Kosovo had turned up far fewer victims than have died as a result of the administration's sanctions policy against Iraq. Defenders of the Clinton Doctrine claim that many more Kosovar bodies await discovery. We're waiting for the Balkan thaw.

Step 5. The Presidency Is a Counter-story

Presidents command so much attention that they can make news anytime they want. A scandal-savvy president can employ this power to affect the context in which negative stories are taking shape. He can create counter-stories virtually at will, including major stories that can drive negative scandal coverage below the front-page fold, at least temporarily. He can also use the news-making power of his office to reposition himself advantageously in relation to threatening scandal stories.

Bill Clinton has chosen to make news of some sort almost every day. If he is not announcing initiatives on children's car seats or teenage smoking or some similar subject that other presidents have left to their under-assistant undersecretaries, then he is announcing the sudden deployment of the military. The little daily feel-good initiatives have served him well during his ceaseless hours of scandal, since they have provided him at least some positive coverage even on many of his worst days. As we have seen, the occasional and timely assumption of the mighty role of commander-in-chief has been his ace in the hole.

Bill Clinton's presidency is actually the sum of these counter-stories. It has been a success, in the public-relations terms that are vital to him, when it has been a reactive presidency. That is, to enjoy popularity and the impression of success, Clinton has required a foil, which is a more direct way of characterizing the notorious strategy of "triangulation" (or multiple foils) that his one-time adviser Dick Morris devised.

In his early years in the White House, Clinton lacked such a foil, and his administration floundered. He was widely mocked in the pundit press as not "grown up," and capital satirists joked about a minor-league presidency that needed to be sent down to Albuquerque for seasoning. His policy initiatives failed, his double-dealing on legislation alienated even Hill Democrats, his attempts at "nation-building" in Somalia were a complete disaster, his White House was characterized as a frat house in chaos, he was seen as having neither knowledge of nor interest in foreign affairs. In his second State of the Union message, his staff managed to load the wrong speech on the TelePrompTer. Nothing went right. Indeed, he bored people. When he appeared on TV for some presidential purpose, people in public places–airports, for example–were reported to ignore him entirely.

In the wake of the 1994 midterm elections, in which Republicans gained full control of Congress, Clinton was described not as a politician of splendid natural talents but as "irrelevant." In fact, it was the beginning of Clinton's golden age. He had gotten his foil: Newt Gingrich and the Republican majority. The presidential character he was to assemble from that point forward was both opportunistic and, to a degree unique among the nation's chief executives, oppositional.

Clinton's assumed public role as the enemy of the Republican Congress was to give him access to a well of moral authority that he did not previously enjoy. Before 1994, it is doubtful that any of Clinton's constituencies trusted him, and for good reason: He had, at various times, ambushed most of them. He quickly caved on his original position regarding gays in the military, instead opting for a "don't ask, don't tell" policy. He had abruptly dropped his nomination of Lani Guinier to handle civil rights in the Justice Department. He had invited himself to a Jesse Jackson rally for the sole purpose of attacking rap singer Sister Souljah and ingratiating himself with white voters. He had dismissed the organized women's lobby as "bean counters."

After 1994, Clinton repositioned himself as the ultimate protector of the interests of these groups. (He has always been the president of the Republic of Children.) The result was that the leaders of such groups, especially the women's lobby, were to risk–if not squander–their moral authority by lending it to Clinton (and his wife). Feminist groups have been far more interested in whether the Vienna Philharmonic has enough female violinists than in whether Bill Clinton may have systematically intimidated women, much less raped anyone.

Having co-opted such moral authority (while simultaneously allying himself with the likes of pornographer Larry Flynt), Clinton was able to turn his most threatening scandal into a confrontation with a Congress that he positioned as morally hypocritical. Because Clinton's presidential persona emerges from a strategy of opposition, he actually thrived on those scandals that he was unable to shut down.

The Method President

It's one thing to treat the presidency and the challenges to it as if they were competing story lines. It is another to create a convincing presidential counter-story. But it is particularly remarkable to be able to create the necessary and, in Clinton's case, conflicting illusions of character involved, and to sustain them over a period of years. In fact, it is more than remarkable; it is disquieting.

Clinton's central performance technique involves the creation of audience empathy. He tries to make you feel his pain. He has frequently succeeded by casting himself as the victim of others, as well as by translating his presidential decisions into emotional terms. Even his version of the bombing of the Sudanese factory, which is centered on his desire to spare the night watchman, is empathetic.

That he has engaged in non-stop performance is manifest from his occasional stumbles. The notorious imaginary tear at Ron Brown's funeral is one such case. Another is his podium-pounding denial of any sexual relationship with Lewinsky. A particularly interesting example occurred early in the Lewinsky scandal, when he was asked by Wolf Blitzer of CNN during a rare press conference if he didn't have some message to send to Monica Lewinsky. It was probably the most artful question Clinton has ever been asked. Clinton was at that time denying that there had ever been an "improper" relationship; indeed, there were suggestions in the press that she might be crazy. But he also needed to leave the nature of their claimed relationship ambiguous, so that he could react to whatever information eventually became public. Blitzer, by asking him to apostrophize to Lewinsky in front of everyone, was asking him to commit to some version of their relationship. Clinton's response was extraordinary. "That's good," he said with a smile, acknowledging both the nature of the game that he was playing with the press and the public, and that, for the moment, he had been trapped. He refused to comment further.

Clinton's most successful performance of victimhood draped in the rhetoric of empathy saved his presidency. The opportunity was handed to him by House Republicans with a far less sophisticated sense of public spectacle than Clinton's. Indeed, Clinton appears to have recognized the chance for the turning point that it would become. It was the televising of his four-hour appearance before the grand jury.

In the days before his deposition was made public, Clinton's presidency was disintegrating. Many people thought that the grand jury tape, which reportedly displayed the president enraged and out of control, might finish him. Clinton, however, made no protest about showing the tape. He quietly acknowledged that he had no say in its disposition. He and his attack-dog aides seemed resigned to his apparent and imminent destruction. Whether or not his aides spread false stories about the tape's content to influence audience reaction is not known, though the reports of the tape's content were in fact misleading. Far from displaying the president out of control, the tape is Clinton's performance masterpiece, his "Checkers" speech. It embodies his entire performance strategy of victimhood, invited empathy, and the enactment of sincerity.

Clinton knew going into the deposition that it would be taped; he had reason to expect that the tape might well be made public. Although Clinton says outrageous things during the interrogation–his infamous definition of "is," for example–it is the performance that mattered.

For hours, he is grilled by a series of off-camera prosecutors who delve ever deeper into his sexual intimacies. Clinton, meanwhile, bears it all with the demeanor of a calm, patient Everyman. Though the judicial intent of the questioning was to demonstrate that Clinton had lied under oath, the dramatic effect was one of violation. Many viewers identified with Clinton and recoiled. The post-tape onus was on Clinton's inquisitors. Though the House was to impeach Clinton anyway, the growing mantra from that point forward was "move on."

And move on the president has, in a neverending search for his place in History. Somebody should tell him that a special place has been reserved just for him.