The modern presidency is necessarily an effort at media manipulation: As the newspaper was gradually replaced by the radio – and then by network news, cable news, the 24-hour news cycle, and the Internet – as voters’ primary platform for political news, media fluency became an increasingly important skill in the lives of candidates, presidents, and the dozens of staff tasked with honing their message. Historian David Greenberg examines the evolution of this complex relationship between our politics-driven media and our media-driven politics, in his fascinating new book Republic Of Spin: An Inside History Of The American Presidency. What follows is an exclusive excerpt:
The legendary journalist David Halberstam judged the year 1998 to be “the worst year for American journalism” in at least half a century. The occasion for this stern verdict was the year-long drive, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, and other key figures in the Republican party, to impeach President Bill Clinton.
The Watergate scandal of 1972-74, in which President Richard Nixon had escaped impeachment for his abuses of power and obstructions of justice only by resigning, continues to be memorialized whenever an anniversary rolls around. In marked contrast, the Clinton saga was scarcely mentioned on its tenth or fifteenth anniversaries. Americans simply don’t look back on the episode, as we do with Watergate, as an object lesson in the dangers of an imperial presidency. Clinton’s ordeal ended with not only his acquittal but also his attainment of stratospheric popularity. Today, the affair is generally regarded as a study in partisan overreach—the first major sign that the GOP had jettisoned its longstanding patrician duty to govern responsibly and embraced what Barack Obama would later call the “politics of ‘anything goes.’”
Yet if the Clinton impeachment marks an important chapter in the rightward drift of the Republican party, it also represents an key moment in the history of spin. This was partly a result of historical timing. Any president serving in the 1990s would have had to contend with a new media environment that placed tremendous constraints on governing. As much as the partisanship of his enemies, this was Bill Clinton’s misfortune.
Make no mistake: There was little in the machinery of spin itself that was new in the 1990s. For a century—since at least the days of Theodore Roosevelt—presidents had been developing a vast array of tools and techniques, of institutions and practices to shape their images, their messages, and our thinking. For decades, they had built up large staffs of pollsters, speechwriters, and image-doctors. Despite their reputations as innovators in spin, presidents like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton mostly exploited and refined tools of spin that a long line of predecessors had assiduously developed. What changed in the 1990s, rather, were elements of the media culture itself: the growing appetite for scandal; the faster speed of news; the deepening of political partisanship; and the steep spike in the kind of gossipy, insider commentary that goes by the name of punditry.
Because the Clinton impeachment constitutes a chapter in not just the history of American conservatism but also in the history of the media, it follows that Newt Gingrich and the Republicans were not the only ones to suffer from their defeat. The reputation of the Washington press corps also took a beating from which it has never fully recovered. Here, too, Watergate served as an apt point of comparison. In the 1970s, because of the part that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post and a handful of other reporters played in exposing Nixon’s abuses of power, liberals felt confirmed in siding with the press against the politicians who attacked them. After Watergate, New York magazine wrote, the investigative reporter emerged as “a new American folk hero”—seen as a fearless truth-seeker. Nixon’s rhetorical assaults on the press struck most liberals (and many Americans) as little more than sour grapes about the tough scrutiny that the president and others in authority were now properly facing.
By 1998, however, many who normally sympathized with the press felt their former admiration turning into contempt. Americans watched in horror as even respected journalists got caught up in the mania surrounding Clinton’s impeachment. Some writers, hungry for scoops, credulously relayed leaks from prosecutor Ken Starr’s office, echoing their sources’ spin. Others hysterically predicted or called for the president’s resignation. Still others simply promoted the story with flood-the-zone coverage, even when there was little news to report. For reflexive defenders of the Fourth Estate, the sordid interlude was a rude awakening. It suggested that the right’s old complaints about the media’s prosecutorial tendencies and herd instinct were, on some occasions at least, justified. Once seen as proxies or spokesmen for the general public, the Washington correspondents had now revealed themselves to be an institution unto themselves—a set of political actors with their own interests, culture, concerns, and prerogatives, any of which could be, at any given moment, quite detached from the public interest.
The most obvious change in the media culture that had emerged by the 1990s was the incessant coverage of scandals, whether real or trumped up. What Carl Bernstein termed an “orgy of self-congratulation” overcame the Washington media after Watergate. “It was the press, and essentially the press alone,” asserted the National Press Club’s 1973 report, “that unearthed the most scandalous misuse of the powers of government in this century.” This audacious claim not only slighted the roles of Congress and the courts in exposing Watergate; it also ignored the fact that those reporters who did the unearthing were few, and unlikely to be found conducting studies of presidential-press relations.
Indeed, in the later stages of Watergate, a feeding frenzy took hold: in the last year and half of Nixon’s presidency Newsweek ran 35 covers on Watergate; Time ran more than 30. Reporters, swept up in the chase, made mistakes that they failed to correct—as Walter Cronkite, Sam Donaldson, and the Associated Press, among others, mistakenly reported bogus scoops, while New York Times, like other outlets, egregiously overhyped small stories. Still other journalists, instead of doing investigative reporting, struck a snide or pugnacious tone in their writing or commentary. Even some leading journalists saw fit to reproach their colleagues. Daniel Schorr of CBS said that in 1973, “a new kind of journalism developed,” in which, during the absence of disclosures, “the press began to try men in the most effective court in the country … the media.” ABC’s Harry Reasoner singled out Time and Newsweek for “pejorative pamphleteering [rather] than objective journalism.” John Osborne of The New Republic described his peers as “dogs who have scented blood and are running the fox right down to his death.”
In the following years, working reporters reflexively adopted an adversarial posture. Any act of news management could be the tip of an iceberg of concealment; any hint of deceit could justify an investigation. After Watergate, the columnist Joseph Kraft wrote in 1979, “there has been no holding us. The more august the person, the hotter the chase.” By 1996 the pundit James Fallows could write, “The working assumption for most reporters is that most politicians and handlers will mislead them most of the time.”
This zeal for exposure was a mixed blessing. When channeled into hard reporting it provided an indispensable check on official dishonesty, a proper function of the government’s fourth branch. And there were, of course, real scandals after Nixon that required illumination. But too often post-Watergate journalists set themselves up as the nation’s guardians of political morality and joined in what came to be called “feeding frenzies.” In learning from Watergate, they too often emulated not the trailblazers whose skepticism had produced fruitful investigations but the latecomers who jumped on Watergate only as it was becoming a media spectacle. When distrust of authority spurred investigation, it remained a cherished trait; but when cynicism fed easy opinion-mongering and bandwagon journalism, it was bound to be superficial and fickle.
For many in Washington, the goal was no longer to be an ace reporter, aggressively investigating stories, tracking down sources, digging up information, but dispense opinions in a column or, better yet, on TV: to be a pundit. That Indian word had been in circulation as a name for an informed Washington wise man since the 1920s, when it was affixed to opinion-shaping newspaper columnists like Walter Lippmann, David Lawrence, and Frank Kent. In 1960, punditry made the leap to television, when Lippmann—who as much as anyone had earned the right to stroke his chin and opine—sat for an interview with Howard K. Smith of CBS. By the Nixon years, Vice President Spiro Agnew was fulminating against the “instant analysis” that was spreading across the tube. The 1970s saw a boom in TV punditry, with the long-running Sunday shows like Meet the Press and a growing roster of roundtable shows like Washington Week in Review and Agronsky & Company.
In the 1980s these pundit shows veered away from sober analysis informed by expertise. They now favored cursory judgments about political performances and hotly issued partisan claims. The same sort of idle chatter and spin that was pervading post-presidential debate coverage was infecting everyday news. The term “the media” came to connote not the workaday reportage conveyed by that older term “the press,” but a mix of opinion and attitude that flowed from the television so many hours of the day.
Here a third change in journalism influenced political coverage. As punditry became more speculative and hollow, it also grew more partisan and contentious. In the 1980s and 1990s a raft of former campaign and government officials—many lacking journalistic experience but accustomed to spinning without remorse—joined the pundits’ ranks. TV viewers became familiar with professional opinion-mongers such as Chris Matthews (a Jimmy Carter speechwriter), David Gergen (a veteran of three White Houses), John Sununu (the elder George Bush’s chief of staff), William Kristol (Dan Quayle’s chief of staff), Tim Russert (an aide to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan), and scores of other onetime operatives.
The taste for partisan argument made some talking-head shows especially popular. In the 1980s the paradigmatic show was The McLaughlin Group, where former Nixon press aide John McLaughlin presided over a gaggle of shouting columnists, growing so popular that Ronald Reagan came to the show’s birthday party one year. On CNN’s Crossfire, another old Nixon aide, Pat Buchanan (in time succeeded by Robert Novak, a real journalist), and the liberal columnist Tom Braden (succeeded by Michael Kinsley, also a real journalist) would, in Kinsley’s words, “snarl and scream inhospitably at bewildered ‘guests’ and each other for half an hour.” Even the sedate discussion shows degenerated. NBC’s Meet the Press had once been hosted by cerebral newsmen like Roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, and Garrick Utley. In the 1990s the moderator was Tim Russert, and it rapidly devolved into a forum for theatrical antagonism and self-regarding “gotcha” interrogations. The newfound popularity of the show and the high esteem in which some of Russert’s colleagues held him suggested the magnitude of Washington’s blind spot.
Also feeding the partisanship was the rise of right-wing radio. Though conservative broadcasters like Paul Harvey had sustained robust followings for decades, their opinions had scarcely registered in Washington. In 1988, however, Rush Limbaugh, a former rock deejay and sports broadcaster, launched a nationally syndicated show on ABC radio and quickly became a Republican kingmaker. In 1992, the Republican political consultant Roger Ailes—who had entered politics with the 1968 Nixon campaign and was the driving force behind George Bush’s 1988 presidential bid—created a TV show for Limbaugh (it ran until 1996) and introduced the broadcaster to President Bush. Bush hosted the two men for a night in the White House. (Bush carried Limbaugh’s bags upstairs—a gesture whose symbolism produced much ridicule.) Extreme in their politics, aggrieved in their tone, inflammatory in their language, and deeply beloved by their listeners, Limbaugh and a raft of imitators around the dial pushed Republican candidates and officials to adopt maximalist positions while forcing establishment journalists to admit arguments from the far right into mainstream political debates.
Though its full impact wouldn’t be felt for several years, the most crucial addition to the array of right-wing media outlets was the Fox News Channel, founded in 1996. Owned by the Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and run by Ailes, Fox billed itself as “Fair & Balanced.” Such pretensions to objectivity were hard to square with Ailes’s long service to the GOP, or the network’s unabashedly conservative content. But Ailes, like many conservatives, believed that mainstream news sources were irredeemably biased and in need of correction. His programming echoed these claims—notably the channel’s hit show, The O’Reilly Factor, which featured a “No-Spin Zone” purporting to deliver pure, untainted news. Although Fox began with a small fraction of CNN’s cable subscribers and remained a relatively minor player for some years to come, it steadily built a hardcore audience throughout Clinton’s second term, in part by hyping a range of assorted pseudo-scandals to its staunchly conservative viewers.
Fox’s significance lay not just in providing a national platform for conservative spin but in accelerating a fourth trend in political news: the emergence of a news environment of almost incessant argument and chatter. Thanks to Fox, CNN, MSNBC, and CNBC (which covered politics before turning mainly to business news), as well as to the late-1990s boom in Internet usage, partisan punditry by the end of Clinton’s presidency had more outlets than ever. According to a study by journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, a typical weekday on Washington cable TV in 1998 featured 146 hours of “news,” most of it pure talk. The Internet also provided infinitely more sources of news and information, many of them highly partisan or ideological or amateurish, often tended without the professional scruples expected of established journalists. This eclipse of the traditional gatekeepers, along with the faster speed of news, meant that rumors, misinformation, and conspiracy theories could now make their way more easily into general discourse.
All of these factors conspired in early 1998 to create the media farce that was the Clinton impeachment saga. The fuse had been lit the year before, when Kenneth Starr, the former Bush administration official appointed to investigate Whitewater—a questionable real-estate investment Clinton made in his gubernatorial days—tried to revive his faltering probe by digging into Clinton’s sex life. The new lease on life was afforded by a group of conservative activists, who had joined the legal team of an Arkansas woman named Paula Jones, who had decided to sue the president for sexual harassment based on an incident in his pre-presidential years. Unknown to the public, and unmentioned for months by the news media, Jones’s team opened up a back channel of communication with Starr’s aides to share potentially damning rumors or information about the president.
Among the participants in these discussions were several journalists, including Matt Drudge, a young fedora-wearing amateur whose website, The Drudge Report, had improbably become a sort of morning tip sheet for segments of the Washington press corps. Tipped off about a story killed by Newsweek, Drudge showed no restraint in publishing the whispers about an affair between the president and Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern. Now Starr’s prosecution team believed it had hit pay dirt. The next day, conservative pundit Bill Kristol gleefully retailed the Drudge story on ABC’s Sunday morning roundtable show, “This Week.” By Tuesday the Washington Post, happily joining in the scandal-mongering, confirmed that Starr was looking into Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky and whether laws were broken in covering it up. Such alleged lawbreaking was the pretext Starr needed to expand the Whitewater probe into what had been considered unrelated terrain.
What followed was, along with the legal and political jockeying, a year of spin. With the precise details of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair known only to a few people, the ratio of conjecture to reporting in the media skyrocketed. The scandal vaulted a new crop of pundits to prominence. Some were destined to remain famous (such Ann Coulter, who worked with Paula Jones’s legal team), while others fated to return to obscurity (Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University). Daily shows devoted to “all Monica, all the time” began running on Fox, MSNBC, and CNBC. The coverage was characteristic of what the New York Times columnist Frank Rich dubbed a “mediathon,” a new, cable TV–driven “hybrid of media circus, soap opera, and tabloid journalism.” Mediathons, Rich noted, could yield ratings bonanzas for the cable networks. But they also alienated much of the public, and during the Lewinsky saga, unhappiness with the news media boomed.
Though Clinton felt besieged, he had many tools with which to fight back. Cable and the Internet created new forums for scandal-mongering and adversarial punditry, but they also shattered the dominance of the old media titans—allowing Clinton to select the most hospitable venues for delivering his own spin. For much of his presidency, in the face of the often-hostile press corps regulars, Clinton had deftly used niche forums such as local TV, urban radio, “Larry King Live,” and even weather forecasters (to promote action on climate change) to reach his desired audiences. At many points, he seemed to delight in his ability to circumvent the scandal-centered questioning of Washington reporters and answer questions on a wider range of issues from other sources.
Clinton also built his own highly proficient spin team. In 1994, to stabilize his administration after a rocky start, he hired David Gergen, the consummate White House communications maven. Since then he had employed a series of scandal sharpshooters, such as Mark Fabiani and Lanny Davis—lawyers skilled at heading off the onslaught of negative stories. And by 1998 he had found in Mike McCurry a tremendously effective press secretary, genial in disposition but steely in his resolve; postponing plans to step down, McCurry stayed on board through the worst of the Lewinsky crisis. Not least, Clinton’s string of pollsters—Stan Greenberg, Dick Morris, Doug Schoen, Mark Penn—had over the years tested possible responses to every imaginable issue, helping him to choose priorities, craft rhetoric, and launch policy initiatives with media blitzes and presidential tours.
When the Lewinsky story broke, Clinton sought out Morris. Morris had worked for Clinton in his gubernatorial days and began assisting him again in 1995, when he was on the defensive after the Democrats’ losses in the 1994 midterm elections. Among Morris’s achievements were campaign-style TV ads designed to promote the president’s policies and to counter the sort of attack ads that had helped sink Clinton’s health care plan in 1994. But Morris, in the middle of the 1996 reelection campaign, was caught frequenting prostitutes, and summarily resigned. He hadn’t spoken to the president since.
In January 1998 Morris was riding the subway when saw the president’s number appear on his pager. At first he wondered if the gadget was busted, because he hadn’t heard from Clinton in so long. He quickly realized that the president must have been phoning about the breaking scandal and he hurried to a private place to return the call. “I just screwed up with this girl,” Clinton said, in Morris’s account. “I didn’t do what they said, but I did do something. And I think I may have done so much that I can’t prove my innocence.” Morris took a poll on how the public would react if Clinton confirmed the rumors—and if he denied them. The results persuaded him that the president would need, in Morris’s words, to “gradually sensitize the public to the truth.”
Clinton heeded the advice. His initial statements were ones he could defend as literally true but nonetheless implied behavior much milder than the months-long intimate relationship that he and Lewinsky had actually had. “There is not a sexual relationship,” he told newscaster Jim Lehrer—with his use of the present tense suggesting that there perhaps had been an affair but it was now over. When that statement failed to satisfy anyone, Clinton declared, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” This formulation, too, was technically true—if by “sexual relations” he meant sexual intercourse.
To aides and friends, Clinton seemed to have lied more plainly, and he relied on them to spread disinformation around Washington. But soon he saw the wisdom in not talking about the scandal at all, and he thereafter left statements to his lawyers and flacks. The silence strategy made sense. In neither his 1998 State of the Union address, delivered just as the Lewinsky story was breaking, nor his 1999 address, given amid his Senate impeachment trial, did Clinton mention the scandal, and both were resounding successes (much to the frustration of the pundits, who speculated about whether he would discuss the scandal in those important policy addresses). Throughout 1998, while Clinton kept mum, aides reinforced the White House line that the president, supremely capable of compartmentalizing his tasks, was diligently tending to the people’s business—as indeed he was.
Clinton’s stonewalling worked—sort of. A few weeks after the initial turmoil, most people acclimated themselves to the likelihood that the president had indeed carried on some kind of affair in the White House, with a woman barely out of college. As this reality settled in, Clinton’s approval ratings rebounded, eventually topping 70 percent. Yet Starr’s investigation proceeded full throttle, as if the initial outrage could magically be regenerated. The Republicans continued to hype the story, and pundits filled the airtime with more argument and salacious speculation. Starr and his aides kept the affair in the news with leaks about grand jury testimony, despite reprimands from Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, who oversaw the case. Their leaks framed the unfolding narrative in ways favorable to the prosecution.
By the time Clinton went before Starr’s grand jury, in August 1998, most Americans wanted to see the matter end. After testifying, the president spoke to the nation, admitting at last to a relationship with Lewinsky that was “not appropriate” and apologizing for misleading the public, while righteously calling on Starr to terminate his investigation. Most of the public accepted the apology, according to the polls, and agreed with Clinton’s argument that Starr should close up shop. But the pundits frowned, and bafflingly described the speech as a failure. “The speech was dreadful,” Joe Klein piously pronounced in the New Yorker, in direct contradiction of the opinion polls. “It was, without question, Bill Clinton’s least effective public moment in the White House.” Republicans also bucked public opinion and pressed ahead.
Three days later, Clinton ordered air strikes against the Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda for its recent deadly bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa. Some of the president’s critics charged that the assault was a ploy to win public support—an echo of the recent Hollywood film, Wag the Dog, about a political consultant who engineers a war for election-year purposes. In recent decades, it had been liberals in the main who bemoaned the public’s susceptibility to spin, whether by Ronald Reagan’s image managers or George Bush’s campaign gurus. But now it was conservatives such as Bill Kristol and William Bennett (another former official who’d ascended to pundithood) who deemed the masses deluded—gulled by Clinton’s rhetoric.
The hoopla around Lewinsky spiked again in September when Starr issued his report. Published in thick mass-market quickie books, downloaded from the Internet until computers crashed, it humiliated Clinton with its graphic sexual detail. But it failed to persuade many people to support the president’s removal from office. Yet once again Starr and the Republicans barreled ahead. In the November midterm elections, the public rendered its verdict on impeachment by trimming the GOP’s House majority by five seats—a historically rare victory for the president’s party during off-year elections. Yet once again Gingrich and Starr refused to relent. For the next three months, as impeachment proceeded like a runaway train, both sides rehashed the same arguments they had been making for a year, until finally a divided Senate acquitted the president in February 1999. The fusillade of arguments on both sides had changed barely a single mind.
There was no way to avoid the conclusion that for the greater part of a year Washington pundits had been out of step with public opinion. Regarded during Watergate as an indispensable watchdog, as trusted experts who could see past cynical White House messaging, members of the news media had managed to portray themselves, in the eyes of many, as out-of-touch bloviators, creatures of an elite Washington world disconnected from the general populace. The unrelenting negativity of their reporting and opining about Clinton had backfired, boosting his popularity and hurting their own standing, along with that of Starr and the Republicans. Writing after the November elections, but offering words that could easily have been offered after the whole ordeal ended, the political scientist Samuel Popkin, a scholar of media and public opinion, explained that despite “ten months of the incessant sensation-mongering of the Monica Lewinsky scandal” the public showed that it could in fact “decline to be spun.”
Excerpted from Republic Of Spin: An Inside History Of The American Presidency by David Greenberg. Copyright © 2016 by David Greenberg. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.