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'Spin Cycle: Inside The Clinton Propaganda Machine' by Howard Kurtz
The Spin On Presidential Politics
Sunday, April 12, 1998
By Jim Strader
Washington reporters thrive on scandal, controversy and other misdeeds and misfortune that occur inside the Beltway.
Much of that appears in newspapers, magazines and on television and radio. What is often missing in those reports is what goes on behind the scenes - both in the White House, on the campaign trail and within the ranks of the national media.
Two new books offer a look at the rest of the story.
"Spin Cycle," a tantalizing look inside the press operations at the White House, is a detailed examination of the way both reporters and administration officials work to present events to the American public. As the media critic for The Washington Post, Howard Kurtz watches this interplay constantly and his insights make it a fascinating book for anyone interested in the motives, bias and backbiting that goes into the process.
"Show Time" details the last presidential campaign from the perspective of Roger Simon, a nationally syndicated columnist who has covered every race for the White House since 1976.
The most striking aspect of "Spin Cycle" is the degree of access Kurtz had
to the players in the daily drama. As a reporter, he was privy to a constant diet of news in the capital, and he no doubt knows many of the White House correspondents. But he also clearly had help from the White House staff, who gave him a look at the other side of the equation.
Kurtz shows how Bill Clinton, his staff and advisers work to put the best face on events of the day - and how they try to downplay, discourage or otherwise kill unfavorable stories. The press staff at the White House seems constantly to be in meetings, on the phone or e-mailing one another to shape and package governmental doings for public consumption. Their participation in
Kurtz's book amounts to a furtherance of spin control.
"Spin Cycle" was timed well, though keeping up with recent events certainly seemed to present Kurtz with a challenge.
The book appears to have been writ ten initially to focus on the campaign-finance scandal that hit Clinton just before the 1996 election and carried over through the following year. Kurtz also touches on the Whitewater investigation, a four-year probe of an Arkansas land deal Clinton was involved in before becoming president.
But early this year, when Independent Prosecutor Kenneth Starr expanded his investigation of the president to his sex life and allegations of perjury, the probe overtook those events on newspaper front pages, in the public mind and in Kurtz's book.
The shift in focus prompted a well-received joke from White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles at this year's Gridiron Dinner, an annual event at which political and media bigwigs let their hair down. Bowles noted that his to-do list included deflecting attention from the fund-raising scandal.
One of the more up-to-date books on current events published in recent years, "Spin Cycle" hit bookstores on March 1 and includes information as recent as early February.
While Kurtz's book looks broadly at the machinations of spin, Simon's account of the 1996 presidential race examines how that spin is used to win votes and further careers, both in politics and the media.
Clinton held such a wide lead over Republican nominee Bob Dole that their race often seemed to be no contest. But to both campaigns, every event was an opportunity - in Clinton's case, to extend his lead and, for Dole, to make up ground.
Much went into the planning of campaign appearances. Locations, audiences, issues and supporting players all were selected with an eye toward how it would look to the voters.
Simon recounts one Clinton appearance, fittingly on a Hollywood set, where the president used the location to highlight a theme of his campaign - a bridge to the next century.
The place to talk about moving ahead? The set for the movie "Back to the Future." And Clinton was joined by actor Michael Douglas, who at the time had just starred as "The American President."
Dole, meanwhile, is shown in this book as a candidate struggling all the way, even when making campaign small talk.
Because most voters follow campaigns on television and campaign handlers obsess about it, Simon examines the role of TV through interviewer Larry King.
The 1996 race gave King an opportunity to enlarge the role he had four years earlier, when hopefuls nearly begged for airtime and Ross Perot practically moved into the studio.
The King that Simon saw during the campaign was eager to be the ringmaster of the political circus. But King's ego-centered approach to covering the race, as Simon relates it, makes clear that he was the star of the campaign, not anyone who wanted so modest a goal as to end up in the White House.
Jim Strader is a wire-service reporter in Harrisburg.
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