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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Dog-Waggers Offer Spectrum of Spins for Clinton

January 29, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SAN FRANCISCO — Why does a dog wag its tail? Because a dog is smarter than its tail. If the tail were smarter, the tail would wag the dog.

--Intro to the movie "Wag the Dog."

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This is what the dog-waggers have to say about how President Clinton can spin out of his sex scandal: Stonewall it. Better yet, attack the attacker. No, 'fess up.

Then there's the obvious: "I'd start a war," deadpanned Democratic consultant Mitchell Englander of Los Angeles, playing off the movie "Wag the Dog," in which a campaign strategist and a movie producer stage a phony war against tiny Albania in order to divert public attention from the president's sexual tryst with a teenage girl.

There was a lot of joking, wincing and shaking of heads this week at a national convention of spin doctors--the American Assn. of Political Consultants. Rumors were traded. Gags exchanged. Wisdom offered.

Privately, most consultants I talked to--dozens of them--assumed that Clinton had sex with the former intern, Monica Lewinsky. "I don't believe a thing he says," one Beltway Democrat told me. "And, as my wife says, oral sex is not a 'vast right-wing conspiracy.' "

Ironically, more Republicans were withholding judgment. "Everybody ought to take a step back," said conservative consultant Wayne Johnson of Sacramento, adding: "We Republicans are embarrassed. We're puritanical. I don't want my kids reading about our president's definition of adultery."

Puritanism, of course, is not the sole possession of any political party. Remember former Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.)? The late Nelson Rockefeller?

If one Republican spinmeister was embarrassed, most were savoring Clinton's predicament. Commented Harvey Harlowe Hukari of San Francisco: "When you're president, I thought you got hotter babes."

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There was a very odd scene Tuesday night on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. Two long bars were set up with premium liquor and wines. Free drink tickets were given to roughly 300 political hacks and some reporters. Three large tables were stacked with fine food. But the bars and the tables were virtually deserted--definitely an aberration for this crowd.

The junkies were sitting in front of two giant TV screens, eyes glued on every gesture, ears tuned to each word--alert for any possible mention of the intern during Clinton's State of the Union address.

They seemed to agree on one thing: The president's speech again was way too long (72 minutes).

But there was no consensus on the address' impact on Clinton's threatened presidency--just as there wasn't agreement on his best possible spin.

"He looked beaten like a rented mule," observed Hukari, the Republican.

Baggy eyes aside, however, most agreed it was a vintage Clinton performance.

"He did what he should have done--give the same speech he would have given two weeks ago," said Democrat Richard Schlackman, who works out of San Francisco and Washington and bears a strong resemblance to the Robert De Niro consultant character in "Wag the Dog." "Ignore the scandal, play to your strengths."

Democrat Gary Nordlinger of Washington concurred: "The State of the Union is not a place for repentance." Besides, he added, "Bill Clinton having an affair is a 'dog bites man' story. If that's all there is, he's home free."

But Republican Thomas Shepard of San Diego put it this way: "It was a good speech, a really good speech. But if he lied, he's still going down."

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Democrat Raymond Strother of Washington was an advisor on four Clinton gubernatorial campaigns and Gary Hart's brief 1988 presidential race. (Remember Monkey Business with Donna Rice?) "Clinton's got to stonewall it," Strother asserted. "Hold firm. If this gets into being a 'He said, she said' thing, he can win that argument.

"He's also got to force it to a head with [independent counsel Kenneth] Starr very, very quickly. He's got to make Starr the devil."

But Republican Ray McNally of Sacramento, echoing others, said: "I'd do a full confession. Just do a Jimmy Swaggart. Let the tears come. The American people tend to be fairly forgiving."

I agree. I've got this old-fashioned belief in the truth. It's going to come out anyway. And America does have a great capacity to forgive repenters. This is Clinton's best chance if all he's guilty of is having "improper" sex and lying about it.

If he's innocent, he should quickly hold a news conference and answer all the questions. He already knows the answers. On this one, the president can wag his tail.

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