. . . . were I an investigative journalist.
If I were an investigative political journalist, there are three books I would like to write. Well, if that were my profession and I had the opportunity, I would have already completed two of them and would currently working on the third.
The first two would be about the Clinton Administration. One would look into how the Democratic president’s staff failed to prevent the then-president’s bimbo eruptions from metastasizing into a scandal. Had any one of his advisors warned Clinton that his private indiscretions could become public knowledge?
The second book would be a happier one for the Democrats. It would show how a man who, in 1992, had worked to prevent Bill Clinton from winning the Democratic nomination had, in the mid-1990s, all but saved his Administration. I would look at how Mike McCurry, White House press secretary from 1995-98 helped the then-president recover from the loss of Congress to the GOP and deal with the aftershocks of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
McCurry succeeded in spinning these stories to minimize the damage to the Clinton himself, his Administration and perhaps even his legacy.
By the time McCurry stepped down in October 1998, Republicans’ focus on the then-president’s peccadilloes enabled the Democrats to win seats as the party more serious about governing despite the then-Democratic president’s reckless behavior. My book would also consider the question Howard Kurtz posed in writing about McCurry’s last White House daily briefing: “How can a man who denies, obfuscates and beats up on reporters be so popular with the White House press corps?”
McCurry’s popularity was an essential aspect of his success. (Working on this piece, I wondered if McCurry had written a book about his White House years, but when I looked him up on amazon, found the only book he had written was the forward to a media relations handbook–a field where he certainly excels.)
The volume I would now be working on right would, in many ways be the opposite of my study of Mike McCurry’s role in rescuing the Clinton Administration. In this study, I would consider why the Bush Administrations failed to develop an effective means to respond to policy setbacks and adverse stories in the news. As I’ve been pondering where the president went wrong, I keep coming back to what James Taranto calls the “Plame kerfuffle.”
Had, for example, the Administration responded more effectively to Joe Wilson’s dishonest editorial in the New York Times in July 2003 — as well as to the misrepresentations he made in his various media appearances that year — the notion that “Bush Lied” (us into the Iraq War) would never have gained much steam (outside the fever swamps of the far left). George W. Bush’s credibility would not have taken the hit it did.
At the same time this story was breaking, Bush’s first Press Secretary Ari Fleischer was stepping down. Instead of bringing in a talented public relations master like McCurry to replace him, the White House tapped Scott McClellan, a competent but undistinguished Bush loyalist. If the press corps treated this Administration in an even-handed manner, McClellan may well have done a fine job, but this Texan lacked the mettle to deal with a hostile media. He lacked McCurry’s presence which allowed that Democrat to control press briefings and his savvy which enabled him to spin the news.
Each of these books would help the next president see how his predecessors failed–and where they succeeded. And recognize that without good public relations, a leader can’t make his successes known. Nor can he prevent dishonest adversaries from distorting his record and letting those distortions gain acceptance among the general public.