Tell-All Books Create a Novel PR Problem for White House
WASHINGTON — When President Clinton took office, he addressed his staff with a solemn edict: Don't talk to the press. Designated spokesmen will handle that job.
Three-and-a-half years later, it's safe to say many in the White House didn't listen. Bookstore shelves are filling up with purported tell-all volumes on life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, some authoritative, some scurrilous. In fact, say specialists on the press and the presidency, never before has an administration been the subject of so many books before it has finished even one term.
The reasons behind this phenomenon are both economic and historical, say observers, including some of the authors themselves. The impact of all this scrutiny is harder to judge.
For example, was Elizabeth Drew's 1994 book, "On the Edge" - a portrayal of Clinton's original White House team as a cast of not-ready-for-prime-time players - instrumental in the staff shakeups that brought experienced Washington hands like Leon Panetta into the administration? White House officials are loath to comment.
At the least, the flood of recent books has added to the workload of the White House's spin doctors, who are already working overtime on the FBI files flap and Whitewater.
Books like the one written by former FBI agent Gary Aldrich, who claims to expose alleged outrageous behavior in the Clinton White House during his assignment there, in a way belong in a separate category. Some of the wildest reports have already been exposed as mere rumors, with Mr. Aldrich himself downgrading them to "possibilities."
But like the Gennifer Flowers flap four years ago, which seeped into the mainstream media after first appearing in tabloids, the Aldrich book is raising questions about how the so-called responsible media handle published information that they would never have originated themselves, for lack of solid substantiation.
By inviting Aldrich to appear on his respected Sunday television show, newsman David Brinkley signaled to the "information elite" that the book merited serious consideration - even if the net effect of Aldrich's appearance was to puncture the veracity of some of the author's information.
The bottom line for all these works is that, as published books, they appear authoritative. Books are reviewed in the press; authors are interviewed on television and radio. And the potential exists to make a lot of money.
"It's not the actual sales of the book that matter; a successful book is one that sells 25,000 copies," says Richard Parker, a media specialist at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center. "What counts is the coverage of the books. A writer can go out and get a $100,000 advance from a publisher, write the book, get media exposure, then collect nice fees from speeches and articles."
For publishers, says Mr. Parker, there's always a chance a book will be big. "They're worried they might miss the next 'All the President's Men,' " he says, referring to the 1970s bestseller co-written by Bob Woodward, whose latest investigative book, "The Choice," revealed Hillary Clinton's sessions with self-help guru Jean Houston.
Another factor, Parker says, is that there are just more investigative reporters these days. Whereas each major paper used to have one or two, now many have teams.
Ms. Drew sees the book potential in the Clinton White House in more historical terms. "I can only answer to why I wrote what I did, but after the '92 election, or even before, it was clear that if Clinton won it would represent a change of party, a change of generation, and a cultural change in the White House," she says. "Because 1993 was such a turbulent year, it was a more interesting story than I could have anticipated."
When the political commentator conceptualized her new book, "The Showdown," which chronicles the battle royal between the new Republican majority in Congress and the White House after the 1994 elections, Drew again saw the potential for history. "I knew it would be a big debate on the role of government," she says.
While Drew does not traffic in bombshell revelations, some of her journalistic colleagues do. It is the treatment in the media of those claims that has some press observers worrying that the public is being ill-served.
"In so many ways, the media act as a megaphone," says Tom Patterson, a specialist on the media and politics at Syracuse University and a guest at one of Clinton's sessions with top thinkers before this year's State of the Union speech. "In general, the media do quite a poor job of sifting through all these claims. They treat them like stories, almost regardless of their validity."
For most newspapers, the question seems to be how, not whether, to cover bombshell books. A decision to ignore a book like Aldrich's may be perceived as an effort to protect Clinton. The president might get a good laugh out of such a claim: Studies show coverage of presidents has gone from largely positive in the 1960s to largely negative.