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Book News

No White House tell-all memoir

'Truth to Tell'
by Lanny J. Davis

Free Press, $25

Review by L.D. Meagher

June 8, 1999
Web posted at: 3:40 p.m. EDT (1940 GMT)

(CNN) -- Benjamin Disraeli warned those who love the law and sausages that they should avoid watching either one being made. If he were here today, the great statesman might offer the same advice to people who love the news.

What appears on the printed page or the television screen might seem to be a dispassionate recitation of objective facts. That, after all, is the purpose of journalism. But news stories often are neither dispassionate nor, alas, objective.

The flaws of modern journalism have never been more visible than in the reporting of the various allegations of scandal that have descended upon the Clinton White House like the biblical plagues on ancient Egypt. Whitewater, the FBI files, the travel office firings, Paula Jones, campaign fund raising, and Monica Lewinsky. Who on earth would want the job of performing damage control for this president?

Lanny J. Davis, for one. He served as Special Counsel to the President from the height of the campaign fund-raising flap until the Monica Lewinsky story exploded into the headlines. His book "Truth to Tell" recounts his experiences and what he calls his "White House education."

Davis, who attended Yale Law School with Hillary Rodham Clinton, was working at a high-powered Washington law firm when he was offered the job of White House Counsel. He's an attorney, but his duties for the Clinton Administration were tailored to his other specialty, spin control.

"Truth to Tell," despite its title, is not a West Wing tell-all memoir. It's more of a handbook on the art and science of political spin. It's also something of a cautionary tale.

In it, Davis recounts his efforts to contain the political damage launched at President Clinton by allegations of improper fund raising during his 1996 re-election campaign. The most effective tool, he says, was the truth.

The strategy for dealing with questions from the media was laid out for him by White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry. Davis summarizes it this way: "Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself." By cooperating with reporters and sticking to the facts, Davis hoped he'd be viewed as a straight shooter, a credible source for both information and interpretation.

It didn't always work that way, as Davis quickly found out. During the flap over the White House coffees for major political contributors, the White House line, at least at the outset, was that they were not fund-raisers. That was a response to concerns by the White House lawyers, who worried that fund-raising inside the executive mansion might be illegal.

It later turned out that it isn't illegal to hold campaign fund-raisers at the White House. By then, the denial of the obvious conclusion that the coffees were fund-raisers was already on the record. The incident taught Davis that there's no percentage in trying to deny the obvious.

Pressing the point

"People in the press," he writes, "are like everyone else in their common-sense instincts as to what rings true and what doesn't. They are trained over the years to assume that what they are being sold by politicians is not likely to be true in all respects. Thus, their first reaction to an effort to deny an obvious fact will be to try to disprove the denial, and not stop until they are successful."

Not exactly a ringing declaration that "the truth will set you free," perhaps. But it's a good piece of advice to people in the public eye. In most cases, the truth will come out eventually, so you might as well tell it from the start.

Davis presents himself as a seeker of the truth in a White House with more than its share of staffers who obfuscate. "Truth to Tell" details his struggle to learn the facts about various allegations of campaign finance irregularities, and promulgate them in the way that most benefited, or at a minimum did the least damage to, President Clinton.

It was a difficult and thankless task, the way he tells it. Davis made his decision to leave the White House long before the tale of Monica Lewinsky began to unfold. He admits he felt a pang of guilt for walking away just as the biggest scandal of the decade was crashing around President Clinton's head.

Davis says the experience changed his perception of what he calls "the scandal machine" that springs into action at the slightest hint of impropriety. A life-long, ardent Democrat, who cheered each new revelation during Watergate, he writes that he now feels less partisan in his views about the politics of scandal.

"The political and journalistic focus on scandal, and the willingness of politicians to take advantage of the destructive power of that focus for their political advantage, are now deeply imbedded within the body politic. All of us in the process -- Democrats and Republicans, journalists and lawyers, not to mention a public ready to assume the worst about politicians -- have combined to produce rot, horrible rot."

Unlike many others who have played the part of scandalmonger and spin-doctor in recent years, Lanny Davis acknowledges that at least some of the fault is his own.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for 30 years.

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