The Frequent Liars Club

There is so much lying in Washington that its residents had to invent a new word for it to feel better about themselves: spinning. None of the town’s most prominent spinners – Mike McCurry, James Carville, Paul Begala, the ones who are begging you to believe the president’s version of l’affaire Lewinsky, a story he still hasn’t told even them – have been there long enough to remember when what they do was called lying.

Spinning seems like a word sent by God to Washington, because this thing that at first merely looks like an embarrassingly transparent semantic device actually carries the miraculous power to instantly and permanently absolve guilt. Spinning does not feel like lying before, during, or after the fact.

People in Washington take as dim a view of lying as everyone else; they just don’t think they lie. I learned this the way newcomers to any culture learn their most unforgettable lessons – the hard way. In my first year working in the Senate, I was arguing with the majority leader’s chief of staff and pushed her to the point of saying, “Are you questioning my integrity?” Thinking that the whole country questioning the integrity of everyone in Washington every day made this a small thing to admit to, I said, “Of course I am.” She never spoke to me again.

I eventually learned to lie as well as everyone else, but I worked for the worst spinner in Washington, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who, as chairman of the most powerful Senate committee back when Democrats ruled the world, was offered more network spinning opportunities in a week than most senators have in a year. I was the one who would get the anguished phone calls from the White House every other Sunday after Moynihan told the Meet the Press audience that the numbers did not seem to add up in the president’s health-care plan or that the time had come to appoint a special prosecutor to look into the Whitewater mess. I faced the same question every time: “Why would he say that?”

“Because that’s what he thinks.”

“But why would he say that?”

“Because that’s what he thinks.”

“But why would he say it?”

My one-line explanation, complete with the ring of apology I tried to give it, could not make sense to a White House staff that never wants the president or vice-president to be so old-fashioned and unprofessional as to say something into a microphone simply because that’s what he thinks. They admire nothing more in a politician than the ability to stay on message, even if that means never saying what he thinks.

From its humble beginnings as a method of lying only to the press and the public, spinning has, as government programs inevitably do, expanded its jurisdiction. It now covers virtually all communication by politicians, including private conversations. I have watched the president spin senators in the Oval Office and senators spin senators in the cloakroom. One of the reasons it takes so long to legislate anything is that senators, congressmen, and the president have to spend so much time trying to figure out each other’s spin. When the failure to negotiate a budget shuts down the government completely, as it has under the Bush and Clinton administrations for a weekend here and a weekend there, it is because a president of one party and a Congress of the other have spun each other into paralysis.

Telling anyone, including their staffs, what they really think has become the ultimate act of trust for politicians, the ultimate intimacy. Bill Clinton’s voice on the Gennifer Flowers tapes startled all of us in the life, not because they discussed oral sex or because he was trying to get her to deny they’d ever had sex but because Clinton actually told Flowers what he really thought of Mario Cuomo.

According to leaks of Clinton’s Paula Jones-deposition testimony, the president has finally admitted to having an affair with Flowers, something that Carville and Begala begged you not to believe when she played her tapes to a packed New York news conference and sold her story to a tabloid in 1992.

When the White House offered Carville and Begala to the Sunday-morning shows to insist that everything on the Monica Lewinsky tapes is untrue, in a sane world, a world of standards, the bookers might have demurred, insisting on someone who had not already lied to their audiences about this sort of thing. Not in Washington. The bookers do not think Carville and Begala ever lie; they just spin. And all of the bookers, producers, and hosts of those shows believe that letting spinners spin on national television is a public service.

The president’s official spokesman is always the busiest spinner in Washington. Mike McCurry, the third person to hold that job in the Clinton White House, is more popular with the press than his predecessors because his spinning is less intelligence-insulting than Dee Dee Myers’s was, and more often than not he seems to actually tryto help reporters. Outside the briefing room, McCurry is an easy guy to like, and many of the White House press corps first met him outside of that room.

That was in 1992, in New Hampshire, when he was out to destroy Clinton. McCurry was then spokesman for Senator Bob Kerrey, who looked like the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination the day he announced his candidacy and never again.

McCurry could not believe his luck when the Gennifer Flowers story broke. According to the laws of politics as all of us then understood them, Clinton would be dropping out of the campaign in a matter of days and Kerrey would have the nomination sewed up in a matter of weeks.

McCurry knew he didn’t have to say anything on the record about Flowers. The press would force the story to its logical end and the Kerrey campaign could avoid the mudslinging. But as Clinton went on to win one state primary after another, McCurry, still trying to keep his nose out of the mud, found himself saying things like “We are moving inexorably toward the nomination of a candidate so flawed that we can’t win in November.” Even with Kerrey out of the race, McCurry continued to take the occasional potshot at Clinton from the sidelines, telling the Los Angeles Times, ”If I was on the Clinton staff, I would say we have one problem and one problem only: People don’t think we’re honest enough to be President.”

Last week, McCurry insisted there was nothing inconsistent in Clinton’s 1992 denial of an affair with Flowers and his rumored 1998 under-oath admission of an affair with Flowers, and no one in the White House press corps laughed. None of them found it at all strange that a well-known disbeliever of Clinton in 1992 was telling them they should believe Clinton’s 1992 and 1998 stories. They did laugh the day McCurry began his briefing by saying, “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the theater of the absurd.” They thought that was a joke.

Polls continue to show that the Clinton presidency has forced a new maturity on voters. They finally seem fully at ease with separating a president’s job performance and personal behavior. And as the jurors in the court of public opinion, they have admirably reserved passing judgment about the Lewinsky scandal until they hear from all the witnesses. If the day ever comes when the principal witness, Monica Lewinsky, convinces a majority of them that the president of the United States lied under oath about having sex with her, we will discover whether the national tolerance for spinning now extends to perjury.

Lawrence O’Donnell Jr., a former Senate Finance Committee chief of staff, is now an MSNBC political analyst.

The Frequent Liars Club