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Sunday, October 12, 2014

A 1994 White House Memo: A Great Handbook of Scandal Spin

Dan Berman writes at Politico:
Congressional hearings can be deadly boring, whether the topic is fisheries legislation or a sexy presidential scandal.
Lawmakers (if they show up) ramble on and ask embarrassing questions. Witnesses are coached not to make news. And anything exciting is leaked beforehand to manipulate coverage.

All of which makes for the perfect playbook if you’re an administration under fire, like the Clinton White House in summer 1994, facing House and Senate hearings on the Whitewater affair and the death of White House deputy counsel Vince Foster.
In fact, they helpfully wrote out some suggestions.
“We want to discourage coverage; and so, boring is better,” White House communications adviser David Dreyer wrote in a memo on the upcoming hearings to Lloyd Cutler, special counsel to the president, in June 1994.
The memo was released Friday as part of a cache of nearly 10,000 pages of documents from the Clinton Presidential Library
From the document [links and boldface added]
To: Lloyd Cutler,-Special counsel to the President
Fr: 'David Dreyer
Re: Whitewater Communications
Da: June 25, 1994
Overview 
This is going to be a bad story. The hearings are a forum for our opponents. We should anticipate bad network television set-up pieces, and expect print press stories that go beyond the narrow scope of the hearings timed as curtain raisers for the main event. If there is new information about our handling of the Whitewater, its release will create huge headlines, and reopen questions about our honesty in handling this matter.
Depending upon what happens with crime and health reform, these hearings could define the President's year as we approach the Fall elections. Even if we get a clean bill of health from Special Counsel Fiske, our self-inflicted injuries have not healed, and testimony in the Hearing Room won't make them sound much better. Neither your testimony nor Secretary Bentsen's will satisfy the hungry dogs. This is not about the law, the details, or neutral fact-finding, but about politics and destroying the President's character in the minds of the American people.
For us, the hearings are a character test, and we will be judged by our effectiveness in preparing, our candor in testifying, our consistency in responding to questions about these matters. Our witnesses should be cooperative, but also confident -- they did nothing wrong. As the hearings unfold, the President should be hard at work on things the public cares about. We must counterpose our opponents' efforts to exploit Whitewater with the President working on health care and crime. 
From a communications standpoint, we have two objectives: Making a plausible, vigorous outside case about the political motives of our opponents, while we wage an effective effort to manage the stories inside the hearing room during each news cycle. Working with legal counsel, congressional and research, these two approaches will be followed during the weeks and events leading up to the hearings in the Senate and House: 
  •  Release of the Fiske Report, week of July 27
  • Congressional Recess
  • Pre-hearings run-up, weeks of July 11 and July 18
  • Hearings
Republican Message:

"The constellation of-issues known as Whitewater -- the abuses of power, the conflicts of interest, the insider's access, the obstruction of justice -- are about more than criminal
wrongdoing, as bad as that is. These issues speak to the larger flaws in the President's character which render him unfit for office. He will stop at nothing to block exposure of these·flaws. But our dedication to country and to the people's interests will prevail over his efforts to cling to power."

White House Message:

"The Fiske Report proved that the actions by White House aides surrounding Vince Foster's death and contacts with the Treasury  were completely legal. But the controversy surrounding them,  created by Administration opponents, never had anything to do with the law, but had everything to do with negative politics and obstructing the President's program. Whitewater is about character of the President's foes -- lacking a positive program of their own, they simply engage in attack politics. Meanwhile, the President .is determined to fix the economy and health care, and attack crime -- to do the work the people elected him to do."

Allies and Supporters Message:

"We didn't object to the Special Counsel. we don't object to the hearings. We do object to a witchhunt that takes reasonable actions done by dedicated staff that tries to turn these acts into a scandal -- which Mr. Fiske says did not happen. It is unspeakable that they will stop· at nothing, including torment the family of Vince Foster, to advance their narrow political interests, to stop -progress on health care, or to hurt the -President and Mrs. Clinton.
"Hypocritical Republicans, displaying overweening, unconvincing concern for the management of S+Ls and for the ethics of business deals, are Johnny-come-lately's to questions of corporate mismanagement and misdeeds of the 1980s.
"For Republicans, Whitewater ·is a character issue. They lack a core. They are terribly divided -- panicked over the religious right. They cover up their emptiness and division with the one thing. they can agree on -- attacking the President. Why do they oppose positive change? Because they have no positive program.· They are just a combination of-Oliver Stone and Oliver North-conspiracy theories and right wing agendas."

Fiske Report
The Week of June 27th
Objective(s). Depends upon what happens -- what Fiske reports and how he reports it. Minimally, we want to underscore that Fiske found no wrongdoing, and therefore we
don't expect much to come from the hearings. We want to repudiate the people who politicized the death of Vince Foster. We can take the occasion to demonstrate the breadth of our cooperation, and remind people of quotes by leading Republicans who approved of Fiske's appointment. Finally, we should work to make the Fiske Report or findings-as definitive as possible and deflate interest, if we can, in the corning hearings.
There will be a rush  to interpret -the Fiske report or findings upon their issuance. The opposition will use the report to repeat their allegations of 'whitewash,' discount the importance of the Washington phase of Fiske's inquiry, and direct people more aggressively toward the Arkansas issues.
Proposed actions:
o Book Lloyd Cutler, and other White House spokespeople, for media interviews to react positively to Fiske's findings as exculpatory (as possible) and conclusive at this stage;
o we should ask our friends in the legal community, such as Bob Bennett, to recruit other legal talking heads to do our message in reply to the Fiske Report, e.g .. Sam Dash, Arthur Liman, Bob Bennett, Jill Wine Banks, Richard ben-Veniste, Susan Estrich, Laurie Levenson (Loyola Law School);
o We should ask our friends to call aggressively their contacts in the press, e.g. Jody Powell, Paul Costello, Bob Beckel, Bob Squier, Ann Lewis, Leslie Dach, Tony Podesta, Bob Shrum, Mike Berman, and Frank Greer;
o Redistribute to·the press the corrective measures taken by the White House to guard against improper contacts, and restate how extensive was our cooperation with Fiske (e.g., number of documents provided, no privileges claimed, number of interviews);
o Provide to the press positive comments by Republicans about Fiske's appointment (see last page), e.g. -- D'Amato: "Bob Fiske is uniquely qualified for this position. He is a man of uncompromising integrity. He will unearth the truth for the American people." {Newsday, 1/21/94};
o Recruit Members of Congress for one-minute speeches saying nothing happened, the Republican Special Prosecutor has given the White House a clean bill of health, this is political, let's go back to health care;
o Place in the Washington Post and the New York Times op-ed pieces shaming Republicans for politicizing Vince Foster's death (Note. Dreyer has pieces by William Styron and Dr. Herbert Pardes of Columbia University underway. Neil will supplement with more politically-directed piece.)
Prehearings ·
Post July 4th
We must orchestrate reaction to July 4th recess. Members who can confirm our instinct that there is no public interest in Whitewater should do so with reporters.
The Week of July .11 and July 18th
Objectives:
o If there is more information that is new, get it out  the door before the hearings begin. We do not want new revelations at the hearings. The hearings must rehash old news. Will there be a pre-hearing report by Mr. Cutler?
o We need to be on our guard for press stories that exceed the scope of the hearings timed to break at the beginning of the hearings. If I were the press, I would use the onset of the Congressional inquiry as a trigger for raising.issues, new or old. Rapid response is crucial here.
o Go on the offensive with regard to RTC contacts. During the campaign, Gore made a score with a speech on Iraq-gate; someone should 'give a speech regarding Whitewater, politics, and the shifting morality as regards Agency-White House contacts -- reminding people of the history on S+Ls, HUD, ·etc. We could use a scene-setter for this subject before the hearings focus on the RTC.
o We must brief reporters and begin setting a storyline out in the week before the hearings (before the Sunday show and news magazine deadlines of COB, July 22·, 1994). This operation can be aided by the Anne Lewis group, especially with regard to distribution of the Whitewater Viewers guide.
o We need to be out aggressively with the Members' profiles in their local print and broadcast outlets to try and buy some humility on their part.
o Can we float some political analysis about the Republicans having as much to lose as the Democrats? We  should be raising the heat on D'Amato, '96 Republican Presidential politics, and negative campaigning.
Hearings
"A basic tension exists in American politics between the activities of searching for the truth and trying to win elections. Our system was founded on the conviction that the former will be successful only if the latter is done fairly." James A. Leach, February 5, 1992.
Presentation. Quite apart from whatever evidence is released and testimony is taken, the hearings will capture a collective impression of the Administration for the public and,
more important, press and Washington elites. We have an opportunity to tell a positive story about our approach toward the constellation of.issues now called "Whitewater."
This is about the Administration's character. Preparation of witnesses and testimony should revolve around the idea of communicating candor, guts, a commitment to the public interest,a willingness to learn from our mistakes. Unlike the RTC oversight hearing with the Treasury in February, there can and must be no surprises. Anything new should go out the door before then.
Hearing strategy. we need a bifurcated strategy for the hearings. We want to discourage coverage; and so, boring is better. We encourage detailed opening statements by every Democrat on both Banking panels. We want detailed statements by our opening witnesses. We advocate starting the hearings on Thursday, so that the weekend forces a premature media judgement on whether the hearings are worth watching. An early technical or procedural battle over, for example, scope would also suit our objectives.

We should make the hearings expensive and inconvenient for the networks to cover; boring and inconclusive for the press to follow. The hearings should start late, never on time. We should encourage votes on both the House and Senate floors. The Committees should adjourn to vote, never have a relay of committee members to keep the hearings going.
So, we bore if we can. Yet, coverage will occur, everyday. Twice-a-day, print and electronic media will be determining "what is the story?"
It is in our interest to dominate the news, and that will require a strong overall message and an even stronger tactical approach. Though their numbers may dwindle, reporters will be in those hearing rooms gavel-to-gavel. We need a two-cycle spin operation in the hearing rooms interpreting events for the reporters as they decide what is news.
Republican message. The game for Republicans is to use the material and witnesses before the Committee to move the game from the Fiske Washington investigation into Arkansas and Whitewater Development. Their intent is to further erode public confidence in the character of the Clintons and the Administration's capacity to govern the country. They will accuse the Administration of using every effort to block and conceal efforts to review Whitewater from the very beginning. That's why the Clinton's [sic]  never wanted a Special Counsel. That's why the hearings are narrow in scope. That's why White House officials were in Vince Foster's office. That's  why Administration officials tried to interfere with the RTC. They used government.power to protect their personal privilege.
Democratic Message. The White House must look cooperative, not combative. Nothing will substitute for strong preparation of witnesses and cooperative Democratic Members with the facts. It is allied Members of Congress who must serve as our channel to
confront the Republicans, and we must also use them to control the pace and tempo of the hearings. But I. think we have to have strong message presentations in the following areas:
.o This isn't about the obstruction of justice, its about the obstruction of progress·. There is nothing here, and there never was. The White House may have made mistakes in
execution,. but this is a personal, political attack against people trying to bring change to this country -- let's face it.

[Some Democratic Member who speaks should flash a Health Security card, raise his voice, and say the Republican Party is scared to death the people of this country will go to the polls with one of these cards in their pockets, and they will give the President credit for it. That's why they'll stop at nothing to bring this President down. They are just
a combination of Oliver Stone and Oliver North conspiracy theories and right wing agendas.
[Nothing could help this strategy more than having health care on the Floor on this time!]
[Daily Banking Committee Speech on health care, e.g. "Mr. Chairman. x,ooo people lost their health insurance today, and we are talking about this nonsense.]
o · For Republicans, Whitewater is a character issue. They lack a core. They don't know what they believe or think. They lack principles. They lack direction. They lack limits.
They have no sense of propriety; no sense. of right or wrong. They were willing to take a family tragedy, the suicide of White House counsel Vince Foster and exploit their grief
for political ends.
o Why do Republicans seek to reach beyond the scope of the hearings? The Republicans are bypassing the agreed upon scope of the hearings because there is nothing here and
there never was. If they want to do Arkansas too; that's fine. We'll get there in due time.
[Recirculate list of discredited charges.]
o Republicans are hypocrites on the issue of RTC contacts. Let's never forget Silverado, the 1992 referral, and all of the other instances when Republicans in control of the
Executive Branch did precisely the same thing. 
Outside the hearing room. Anything we can do to move the focus from the issues inside the hearing  room will be worthwhile.
The President should be scheduled in ways that show him to·be engaged in his serious work. He needs to be confident and self-assured in public appearances.

Members of Congress should be programmed to do one-minute speeches and addresses in morning business talking about the political choice made by the two parties between health care and ·Whitewater. DNC and White House press operations should circulate overnight Arbitron ratings for the daily hearings. "This is a bore, let's get back to the people's business."

We will have a daily operation using a Committee Member, the political committees, or the White House (as appropriate) to get information back to .the local districts on what their Members are up to. Eller has already done State/District Media profiles for each Banking Committee Member. Steve Hilton, Office of Public Liaison, is presently working on a supporter/eminent" persons list for each Congressional district. 
Our strategy at home should be to raise the cost of participation in the hearings among the Republicans on the Committees. The message we need delivered at home is obvious and clear:
o Enough is· enough. Get back to basics. Deal with health care, welfare and serious issues. Stop playing politics.
Unanswered questions.
o Can we organize with Democrats on the two Committees. a spin operation for the morning and afternoon sessions of the hearings? How will we coordinate message? What
is our ready response capacity? we need a nightly org pre-hearing strategy meeting.
o Will we aggressively sell our explanation of these .incidents during the hearing? Do we plan props or exhibits for the hearing? Who are our witnesses?

GOP on Special Counsel Robert Fiske
D'Amato: "Bob Fiske is uniquely qualified for this position. He is a man of uncompromising integrity. He will unearth the truth for the American people." {Newsday, 1/21/94}
D'Amato: Praised Fiske as "most honorable, most skilled" lawyers he knew. "I will tell you this about the integrity of Bob Fiske·: It is second to none. I would have every confidence in any investigation undertaken by Bob Fiske." {NYT, 1/20/94}
D'Amato: "Fiske is a man of unflinching and uncompromising integrity .. I think he's the kind of-person who·will bring out the truth for the American people so there will be no question as to 'the thoroughness and objectivity of this investigation." {AP, 1/20/94}
Dole: "People who know him think he is extremely well-qualified, is independent." {Dallas Morning News, 1/21/94}
.Dole: "I've said as far as I know Robert Fiske is a man of integrity and he's had a lot of experience .... Let's let Mr. Fiske get on with his work, 'and I think he'll do a thorough job." {Inside Politics, 1/25/94}
Leach: Called Fiske, ·"a quality appointment, an individual of appropriate background and integrity." {WSJ, 1/21/94}
Barbour: Said he was willing to "give him the benefit of a doubt." {USA Today, 1/21/94}