Clinton Dusts Off His 'Spin Machine'

Current campaign-finance hearings take the art of 'crafted talk' to a new level

Each day of the congressional hearings into campaign-finance irregularities, the White House dispatches four men down Pennsylvania Avenue to Senate chambers near the proceedings. In borrowed offices of fellow Democrats, the four watch the testimony on in-house TV, furiously scribbling notes and punching buttons on their cell phones.

They are President Clinton's rapid-response team, and it is their job to corral reporters during breaks to interpret, "correct," and otherwise impart information about the White House view of the hearings.

"Spin doctoring" is a tactic used by Democrats and Republicans alike, but the current White House campaign is taking the practice to new levels of sophistication and, some would say, absurdity.

"We monitor the hearings and provide background clips and background materials [to the media] on all the issues being discussed," says White House special counsel Lanny Davis, the administration's point man with the media on some of its most vexing issues, including Whitewater campaign-finance issues.

It's not us, it's the system

But as hearings resume today, the goal of Democrats in general - and the rapid-response team in particular - is to dilute Republican claims that the White House and Democrats raised campaign funds illegally and show that it's the system, not Democratic Party ethics, that needs fixing, according to one Democratic strategist.

Being close at hand not only allows the team to provide input for the hour-to-hour news cycle, but it also has another advantage.

"It takes the backdrop of the White House out of the picture," says Martha Kumar, a political scientist at Towson University in Maryland.

"Rapid response is primarily ... not allowing cheap shots or inaccuracies to go uncorrected," says Donald Goldberg, special assistant to the president for legislative affairs, who serves on the behind-the-scenes effort. "The reason the speed is important is you have to do it in the same news cycle or it doesn't get reported."

So far, Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee, who is chairing the hearings, and fellow Republicans were frustrated by their first witness, Richard Sullivan. Mr. Sullivan, formerly the Democratic National Committee's finance director, disclosed little that the White House had not already revealed.

In the eye of the camera

Still, the hearings have all the trappings of an old-fashioned summertime Washington scandal: imposing Senate chambers, stern-faced senators, and defensive witnesses and their lawyers cooking in camera lights.

Less obvious than the rapid-response team, but just as important in the effort to sway public opinion, is the subtext of speeches and questioning.

The use of language evolved by increasingly sophisticated polling techniques, called "crafted-talk" by University of Minnesota political scientist Lawrence Jacobs, is a technique that seeks to maximize the impact of the words politicians use.

"The language the Clinton administration is using in trying to handle these hearings, and the language used by Republicans, is not innocent," says Mr. Jacobs. "It is artfully crafted, designed and based on public-opinion research in order to score with Americans, to politically hurt the president."

Employed across the political spectrum, crafted talk uses public-opinion research to identify arguments, language, and symbols most people relate to and, theoretically, are willing to accept.

In this case, Democrats are using it to fend off GOP attacks on their fund-raising practices.

Committee co-chair John Glenn (D) of Ohio, for example, delivered an opening statement in which he suggested the hearings are not fair or bipartisan, because the investigation focuses on the White House, Jacobs says. While the use of rhetoric is an age-old game, he believes it has reached another level.

"A lot of people use the expression 'spin.' All I want is for our facts to get out," says an unabashed Mr. Davis.

According to one White House strategist, "There will be issues we are trumped on.... But the real question will be, was policy [on political contributions] ever changed? And the answer is no."

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