When Monica Lewinsky became a household name and news organizations started to serve up the drip-drip-drip of allegations involving the president, it was hard to imagine that a book would emerge anytime soon to offer a longer view of the crisis. It turned out, though, that one book nearing publication would be even fresher and more timely because of the newly charged atmosphere at the White House.
Howard Kurtz's "Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine," a close-up account of how the White House has worked to spin favorable news coverage amid a continual series of crises, became an all but instant bestseller after the Free Press shipped the book Feb. 24. Updated by Kurtz to include the Lewinsky matter, and published two months ahead of schedule, "Spin Cycle" will bow at No. 2 Sunday on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list and No. 13 on the New York Times' list.
Pre-Lewinsky plans to distribute 20,000 copies were insufficient to meet demand that was fanned before publication by radio host Don Imus, who was impressed by a galley copy of the book, and by Kurtz's many talk-show appearances. Subsequent printings have raised the number of copies in print to 155,000--and counting.
"I would love to say that it was a brilliant, Machiavellian plan on my part," said Kurtz, the respected media columnist of the Washington Post. "But we got kind of lucky. It seems to be the right book at the right time in a scandal-charged atmosphere that has made people a lot more interested in the secret mechanism of President Clinton's damage control."
After Clinton's reelection, Kurtz persuaded senior administration officials, including press secretary Mike McCurry, to let him peek behind the curtain separating White House operations from the reporters who cover the president.
Filling notebooks during what turned out to be some of the most serious crises in Clinton's political career, including the campaign fund-raising scandal and his deposition in Paula Corbin Jones' sexual-harassment suit, Kurtz compiled a vivid chronicle of the struggle between White House and press. On this side of the curtain, Clinton's aides and advisors appear to spend so much time wrestling with reporters, leaking information selectively and defending against negative stories, that a troubling question is how the president's staff can salvage enough hours to address the important affairs of state.
"Even I, the veteran cynical reporter, was stunned by the sheer amount of emotional energy that the White House crowd puts into playing the media game," Kurtz said. "There is no unscripted syllable in this White House. But they would argue that they are forced into this defensive posture by the media's own spin game. . . . They have convinced themselves that spin and substance are inseparable."
President Reagan's White House set the previous "gold standard for controlling media image," Kurtz said. But the growing number of controversies besetting the Clinton White House, coupled with the addition of news outlets on cable and online, has made the spin challenge a lot harder.
On the news side of the curtain, reporters come across in "Spin Cycle" as scandal-obsessed souls who compete so ferociously with one another for scoops that they have little patience for loftier government issues. "The White House press is an incredibly self-absorbed group of people who live in this hermetically sealed bubble, where a lot of what they do is about showing their journalistic manhood," Kurtz said. "They've lost sight of those who care about other things, so that the White House, for all its evasiveness and stonewalling, has a better sense of what people are interested in. Which is why Clinton wins when it comes to his high approval ratings in the polls. . . ."
Kurtz relates in his book that USA Today often enjoys a kind of favored-nation status, receiving early information on Clinton initiatives so that it might generate upfront coverage. Kurtz also describes the efforts of McCurry and his associates to soften Clinton's deep-rooted distrust of the press by presenting him to small groups of reporters.
Punishment sometimes is meted out in the form of limited access, as NBC reporter David Bloom learned last summer. During a meeting of NATO allies in Madrid, Bloom dared to approach Clinton with a question about the Senate's campaign fund-raising hearings. McCurry "saw Bloom as showy and aggressive, a Generation X version of Sam Donaldson," Kurtz writes. As a result, Clinton purposely avoided calling on Bloom during a subsequent press conference.
* Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His column is published Thursdays.