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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine

By Howard Kurtz
The Free Press, 324 pp, 1998

It’s 1998. The Thompson Committee, holding hearings about the fundraising abusing of the Clinton/Gore campaign in 1996, has released a memo written by Harold Ickes for Clinton and Gore, explaining the differences between hard money and soft money, and how much of each amount could be used for commercials. Both Clinton and Gore had read it.

This was a major problem, because Gore had denied knowing that he was raising hard money. This memo proved him a liar. Time for the masters of spin to swing into action.

Lanny Davis, adviser to the president and one of the chief spin masters, ran to the Hart Building, where an AP reporter was writing the first dispatch about the memo. Davis peered over his shoulder and started suggesting alternate phrases for the story. He ran away again to check the current spin with his boss, then returned and read the story again. And suggested another word change.

“We’re not going to edit your statements on the wire, Lanny,” another AP reporter said. Davis denied he was doing this, but the reporter didn’t believe him. After the story was done, Davis told him that the official comment from the administration was too low in the story. The AP reporter brushed him off again.

In other words, a member of the federal government was trying to dictate to a member of the press how he should write his story, to make it more favorable to the administration. That’s pretty brazen.

Howard Kurtz, author of the Media Notes section in the Washington Post, chronicles this and other adventures of the Clinton spin team in 1997. These people – Lanny Davis, John Podesta, Mike McCurry, and others – were obsessed with controlling the message, the flow, the tone, and even the content of all stories written about them. They sweet-talked reporters, bugged them, screamed at them, whatever it took. They leaked damaging stories to control the damage. They withheld information before leaking it at what they calculated to be a politically opportune time. They cooperated with reporters when it suited their purposes and stonewalled when it didn’t. They considered all these shenanigans a war for the hearts, minds, and favorable polling of the American people. They were battling against the evil, scandal-obsessed press, who ignored all the wonderful things Clinton and Gore were doing and instead reported the lying, dissembling, perjuring, and law-breaking Clinton and Gore were doing. All of this, of course, with the full blessing and encouragement of Clinton and Gore. With such so much time devoted to spin, when did they have time to get any real work done?

Kurtz knows his stuff and has talked to all the principals involved. One has to wonder, though, if he hasn’t been “spun” himself. If you’re Lanny Davis, and Howard Kurtz interviews you for his book, aren’t you going to give him the spin like you would any other reporter?

The main fault of the book is the timing, which, of course, is hardly Kurtz’s fault. Since he covers only 1997, and just the first part of 1998, he can only touch on the mother of all scandals: the Monica Lewinsky affair. I would have loved to have read how the spin masters handled that little episode, which nearly (and should have) brought down the Clinton presidency.

Hopefully, Kurtz is working on that book right now.

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