SOLOMON: News Media Advising Clinton On How To Spin

While preparing for his grand-jury testimony, Bill Clinton got plenty of pointers -- not only from lawyers and White House aides but also from the media. For weeks, news outlets provided a crescendo of advice for the president's day of reckoning.Some of the lead-up coverage was purposely odd, as when Time magazine consulted an astrologer to find out how Aug. 17 looked on Clinton's horoscope. And as a matter of routine, many journalists in Washington -- no longer content to seem politically savvy -- have strained to appear sexually sophisticated.During the first half of August, a lot of reporters and pundits overtly coached Clinton on how to testify -- and how to handle the media. In effect, journalists openly advised Clinton on the smoothest way to manipulate them.This isn't exactly new. Over the past two decades, whenever the man in the Oval Office was riding high, most of the Washington press corps eagerly accommodated his deft manipulation of news media -- and then cited that successful manipulation as further proof of presidential greatness. In contrast, when serious image problems arose, more and more journalists sounded like "armchair presidents."Today, the process is more flagrant and extreme than ever. While hundreds of journalists decry Clinton's evident dishonesty as it catches up with him, a frequent media topic is the question of what he should do to extricate himself from the current crisis. Even when commentators urge him to be utterly truthful (what a concept!), the idea is usually pitched in terms of political shrewdness.Observers have gravely counseled that some form of honesty is Clinton's best chance to finesse the mess created by his prior semi-truths and outright lies. The concerns are largely tactical. By now, the national media discourse has become so debased that honesty is just another arrow in the quiver of propaganda.The media game of pin-the-advice-on-the-leading-donkey has become big enough for many non-journalists to play. The Aug. 17 Newsweek included recommendations from radio host Don Imus (Clinton is "always at his best with preacher's cadences") and a former advertising executive named Jerry Della Femina.The magazine also supplied readers with the wisdom of erstwhile Clinton adviser Dick Morris, who wanted the president to say: "What I did was private and not political." Morris has much in common with Clinton, including boundless opportunism, notable mendacity and a historic role in pushing the 1996 welfare "reform" law that slashed federal support for America's poor children.The New York Times featured an opinion piece by lawyer Nathan Lewin -- who represented Edwin Meese in 1987 and 1988, during an independent counsel probe while Meese was attorney general under President Reagan. Now, Lewin is enthusiastic about a "third option" for Clinton, beyond either "denying that he had sex with Monica Lewinsky or acknowledging that he did."In his Aug. 12 article, Lewin considerately suggested 136 exact words for the president to use when speaking to the grand jury, beginning with: "I respectfully refuse to answer questions you are asking me, or will ask me, about my private sex life. That is none of your business, and none of any prosecutor's or investigator's business..."As it happens, one of Clinton's top lawyers right now, Nicole Seligman, previously worked hard to defend Oliver North. According to Newsweek, "she's said to have the complete confidence of the First Lady." With everyone fixated on career ambitions, hired guns fit snugly into the palms of Washington's elites.Even a broken clock is correct once in a while. And even the most powerful politician occasionally finds it convenient to tell a difficult truth.Amid the constant media din, it takes a conscious leap to remember that the key political lies of our nation have nothing to do with sex in the White House or anywhere else.The crucial deceptions involve the power of those with enough economic leverage to dominate Washington and severely limit democratic decision-making. Of course, we don't hear big- name journalists advising the president to speak honestly, at last, about such matters.

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