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Essay: Go, And Spin No More

By Michael Kinsley

TIME magazine

(TIME, Sept. 7) -- The underrated movie version of Primary Colors ends differently from Joe Klein's novel. In both, the idealistic young campaign aide, modeled on George Stephanopoulos, is disillusioned by the moral flaws (adultery and lying) of the presidential candidate, modeled on Bill Clinton. The book leaves it unclear whether George quits or joins the Administration. The movie adds a scene at the Inaugural Ball, making it clear that George has signed on. The camera pans the crowd, and a woman begs the President-elect, "Don't break our hearts."

Cut to real life. Hearts were broken. George did join the Administration, left after one term to become a pundit, and now feels betrayed. He said so in Newsweek last week. Former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers said something similar in TIME. But what exactly is the nature of these betrayals? They surely didn't believe, until Aug. 16, that Monica Lewinsky was making it all up. Stephanopoulos helped quash "bimbo eruptions" during the 1992 campaign, and both aides spun mightily for the President they now say can't be trusted.

Loyalty to friends and mentors, loyalty to causes and loyalty to the truth are all virtues and often create terrible conflicts. People deserve tolerance in trying to resolve these conflicts. In criticizing Clinton for lying, his former aides are telling the truth, which is admirable. But it is also suspiciously convenient. Having risen to prominence by spinning for Clinton, they are now selling their disenchantment at Clinton's having gone a spin too far. In the immortal words of Liberace, they are crying all the way to the bank.

Or, to put it another way, they are still spinning--for themselves this time. And, as Mickey Kaus pointed out in Slate in January, they're doing it without "a nanosecond of contrition," at least in public, for their former spin on Clinton's behalf. But then consistency is a hobgoblin of the pre-spin mentality. Although the truth about Monica, or something close to it, was forced out of President Clinton, we are still in the golden age of spin. Spin as a metaphor derived from "putting a spin on the ball," and meant putting your own twist on the truth. But a better image today is the spinning wheel, thence the expression "spinning a tale." Truth is incidental.

Even as spinning has become more egregious, the general attitude toward it has mellowed. Once it was disreputable. Then it became accepted, traditional, expected. Now it is positively glamorous. James Carville and Mary Matalin have become famous and wealthy by flaunting themselves as spin doctors. Every time you think the beyond-egregious Dick Morris has finally said something so preposterous that TV bookers will shy away, his appearances only increase.

Why? First, the very notion of spin implies a kind of moral neutrality in which any issue is subject to a variety of interpretations, all of equal legitimacy. My spin is that two plus two is four; your spin is that two plus two is five. After this break, we'll be joined by a woman who says that two plus two is three. Second, like drug addiction it gets worse over time because we build up a tolerance. Artifice that seemed outrageous during the Carter Administration seems routine today--not because the Clinton folks are inherently less honest, but just because it's 20 years later. Third, the celebrity culture imposes its own moral neutrality: a famous liar is famous, which is what counts.

Journalists' shameful secret is that we love being spun. The networks vie for the privilege of having the next round of lies uttered on their particular Sunday talk show. It's called "advancing the story." Correspondents, only human, are flattered to be leaked upon by important people. Spinning gives journalists something to interpret. If politicos ever started saying it straight, reporters would have nothing to be knowing about.

Often these days, the spin is the story. This is especially true of an episode like Monicagate, in which the story's importance must be indicated by vast quantities of reportage even though most days almost nothing has actually happened. There have been big headlines in recent weeks about prospective spin, about alternative spins, even about rejected spin. The premise--that political actors may choose freely among different versions of reality--is so ingrained that it isn't even questioned.

The institutionalization of spin is one reason some journalists have qualms about government officials' passing through the revolving door into our profession. These qualms are too hoity-toity. Journalism should be a game anyone is allowed to play. But when folks show up claiming to be reformed spinners, they ought to confess their own past spins before they start denouncing others'. Let the person without spin cast the first stone.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: September 7, 1998

Free Fall
Stormy Weather
Starr's Report To Congress: Author! Author!
A Pair Of Quick Arrests
Essay: Go, And Spin No More
Notebook: Giving Newt A Hand

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