Show: FRESH AIR
Date: JUNE 16, 1999
Head: Lanny Davis Discusses Spin Control
Sect: News; Domestic
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
As special counsel to the president, my guest Lanny Davis was in the difficult position of being President Clinton's spokesperson on certain scandal issues; particularly matters related to improper fundraising. When potential fundraising scandals surfaced it was Davis who had to publicly spin the story and deal with the press.
He arrived on the job in December of 1996. He gave notice of his resignation a year later shortly before the Monica Lewinsky story broke. Now he's written a new memoir called "Truth to Tell: Notes From My White House Education," which is an insider's look at political spin and includes his thoughts on how President Clinton handled the Lewinsky story. Davis is now a partner in the Washington law firm Patton Boggs.
Now, you've described yourself as the president's chief spokesman for certain scandal issues. "The New Republic" once described you as "Clinton's Minister of Scandal..."
... two different spins on that position.
LANNY DAVIS, FORMER SPECIAL COUNSEL TO PRESIDENT CLINTON; AUTHOR, "TRUTH TO TELL: TELL IT EARLY, TELL IT ALL, TELL IT YOUSELF: NOTES FROM MY WHITE HOUSE EDUCATION: Well, there was a joke that Mike McCurry started out with that it turned out to be unfortunately more true than I realized when I took the job. I asked him when I first spoke with him, "you speak for the White House and I speak for the White House. Where does your job end and my job begin?"
And he said to me, and I'll have to use a euphemism for the exact word he used, "have you ever seen the bumper sticker, `blankety-blank' happens?" And I said, "yes." And he said, "well, when `blankety-blank' happens you speak."
GROSS: Now, why? Isn't that the press secretary's job?
DAVIS: Well, this is exactly the strategy that was developed when I was hired and actually my predecessor, Mark Fabiani (ph) who is also a lawyer. And that was the judgement that these scandal issues were diversionary from the main business the country wanted the president to focus on.
So that by hiring me and referring all questions on any scandal issue, the "blankety-blank," that would take away energy and focus from the West Wing where the president worked and shovel it over to me over in the Old Executive Office Building. And I would be the spokesperson so that Mike McCurry, when he was on camera, would be talking about the issues the American people cared about.
GROSS: Well, in addition to McCurry telling you that when "blankety-blank" happens it would happen to you, he also told you that, you know, it would be your job to catch the flack and drink the poison.
GROSS: So, what was the most wounding flack you had to catch or the worst poison you had to drink?
DAVIS: Oh, boy, that's a hard choice. There are so many.
I think my anecdote in the book that seems to have gotten some attention is my confession on my worst moment on "Nightline." When Ted Koppel was cross-examining me about whether or not the people who slept overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom, who were big Democratic donors, were invited because of their financial resources rather than because of their friendship and support for the president.
Now, I had given the press the heart of the story by giving them the list of everyone who stayed overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom, that wasn't dug up by some investigative reporter. I invited the reporters in and I handed them what was a very negative story.
So, I'd gotten the facts out, but then I tried to make an implausible argument from those facts. I told Ted Koppel, "well, of course there were Democratic donors, but we really invited them because of their friendship and support for the president." And Ted Koppel wasn't exactly taking that easily, and he cross-examined me pretty brutally.
Well, on my way home, my son, who is a reporter for "Sports Illustrated," and therefore gets away with talking to his father in this fashion, called me and he said, "I just watched you on `Nightline.' And dad even I know that you knew that you were full of crap."
And I realized a lesson is that no matter what facts that I put out there were certain implausible interpretations or spin that I should never do again. And I learned an important lesson.
GROSS: In fact you say Koppel said something to you in one of his questions that you wish you had given in one of your answers.
DAVIS: Yes, this was another lesson that I learned is that Ted Koppel was willing to acknowledge that there's nothing illegal about inviting big money people to stay overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom if you want them to be motivated to give you more money. And why not just admit that?
And I realized over time that it was much better to be very up-front about admitting what is described in the book as the "tacky factor" in politics. That a lot of journalists kind of wrinkle their noses at, but most of the American people understand that raising money in politics is not very pretty, and that if we want to change the system we really all have to do it on a bipartisan basis.
You can't just focus on Democratic Party abuses, which is what the Republicans tried to do. And that, again, was a lesson that I tried to practice once we got into the campaign finance hearings that were televised in the Senate and the House.
GROSS: My guest is Lanny Davis, the former special counsel to the president who has written a new White House memoir called "Truth to Tell."
Now, your background is as a lawyer and what you were doing was a form of public relations. So, what are some of the differences between how a lawyer approaches information and how a public relations person would approach it?
DAVIS: Well, that's a great question. And a recurring theme of my experience at the White House was the division between legal instincts and political and press instincts. And I was, as I was often described, a walking conflict of interest, because I was a lawyer in the counsel's office working with my fellow lawyers responding to subpoenas and to the various investigators both in the independent counsel's office and the congressional investigative committees.
On the other hand, I was dedicated to helping the press, answering their questions, getting them information, helping them write stories. Now, the instant of that litigate when you have a bad document that's damaging to your client is you don't call up your opposing counsel and say, "hey, guess what I have? I have this document that hurts my client, come on over and look at it."
But that's exactly what I did in the White House when I found a damaging document that might be embarrassing to the president or to the White House. I called up a reporter, sometimes I leaked it privately, sometimes I did it openly.
But I wanted to help the reporter write a complete and accurate story. It wasn't due to altruistic reasons it was because pragmatically I knew that document was going to be leaked somewhere. And I would rather do with myself, frame it with all the facts and then get my spin or my interpretation into the story, whereas I might not be able to do that if the opposition leaks the document.
GROSS: What's an example of a story in which that approach worked for you?
DAVIS: Well, one of my favorite examples was a very, very powerful document from the standpoint of journalism. It showed that the president had made a fundraising phone call or two from the White House. It turned out he made it from the residence, which made it perfectly legal. But it was a document that a lot of people were trying to look for because they were trying to prove the president had made fundraising phone calls.
I founded it in a box of documents that Harold Ickes had gathered, who was a former deputy White House chief of staff. And so I decided, number one, to place it with the Associated Press. That would put out to 350 newspapers all at once. And I placed it with a reporter that I believed would write a balanced and accurate story not only the hot news that he had made the phone call, but the not so hot news that it was perfectly legal.
And that would get my characterization into the story in a fair manner. Having decided to do that, I called him in on July 3rd late in the afternoon. He wrote the story overnight, put it out on the wires on July 4th. While everyone was out having a good time, that story was running in all the newspapers.
And I think it diminished the impact of the story by putting it out on July 4th.
GROSS: Spin always has a bad connotation nowadays. You know, it implies somebody is distorting the truth to serve the spinner's agenda. You differentiate between good spin and bad spin. What's the difference to you?
DAVIS: I think it's a very, very important difference. Good spin is putting although facts out, good and bad, answering all the reporters questions, helping them write the story and leaving no question unanswered if possible. Once I do that, then my spin, which is unfortunately a pejorative term and it shouldn't be, is an interpretation or an inference that I'm allowed to argue from those facts that's favorable to my client.
Bad spin is where I want a story to be written in a certain way and I withhold bad facts in order to push the story in a positive direction. That doesn't work because sooner or later all the facts are going to come out anyway and then there will be two bad stories.
One is the bad story itself, and second is the story of my covering up or withholding facts.
GROSS: You describe something as the baseline story and the importance of a having a good baseline story. What's that about?
DAVIS: Yes. The main objective in damage control or in working with the press is to keep the press factual and get them away from what I call "connecting dot journalism' where they try to draw inferences without evidence that suggests wrongdoing without proving bit. And so in order to fight against that instinct that most journalists have in the world after Watergate, to try to suggest wrongdoing even though they don't have the facts behind them, is to insist that a story be written one time that is a foundation block for all other reporting. I call it the "predicate story."
If it is done that way, and we were able to do it that way several times successfully, then there isn't a lot more to report. There is no more to pursue. In the trade it's called "no more legs." That is the ultimate goal, is to get a bad story written once, completely and accurately and then it's over.
GROSS: Yeah, what's the likely alternative to that that a lot of people would be on the story investigating it and it would go on and inflate itself?
DAVIS: Exactly. And unfortunately, the instincts are exactly in the opposite direction in any organization. It's no different in the Clinton White House or in General Motors. A bad story, the instinct is well why should we help the press write that story?
So what happens if that instinct is followed, and that's the universal instinct, is the story will dribble out little bits at a time. Every reporter in a competing news organization will say, well, if "The New York Times" did this then "The Washington Post" is going to try to build and do something else, and the "Wall Street Journal" will build and do something else, and the networks will do something else.
And it will continue to build, because every news organization is competitive. We have 24-hour news cycles. Everyone is trying to build on somebody else's story to try break some new news. So what I try to do is kill off that frenzied process of building and building and building and inflating and hyping scandal stories by having one story be written over and out and then it was gone.
And by the way, that presidential telephone call story is a good example. That story went nowhere. Not because it was released on July 4th, because the next week there could've been a lot of other news organizations pursuing the story, it's because it was written completely, there was nothing left to report.
GROSS: But wouldn't some reporters feel that well, if that's on the surface, imagine what's beneath the surface?
DAVIS: Absolutely. And that was my job, was to dig beneath the surface to be sure there was nothing that I had missed. Now, there are chapters in my book where I describe that we failed at that. The Roger Tamaraz (ph) story, which probably had all the elements of what could have brought President Clinton down for very valid reasons.
And that there was at one point in time the possibility, it never panned out thank goodness, that the Central Intelligent Agency, the Democratic National Committee chairman had compromised the National Security Council and American foreign policy with the blessing of the president of the United States.
That story crossed my desk with those elements potentially true, and I sat late on a Friday night when I first got that telephone call from a "Wall Street Journal" reporter. And I thought to myself, this could be the end of the Clinton presidency if it's true.
But unfortunately, we never got that predicate foundation story written all at once. That story dribbled out over time because people in the White House were so fearful of what might be true that there was a lot of resistance to putting the full story out all at once.
GROSS: What was your instinct?
DAVIS: I wanted to tell it early, tell it all, tell it myself. But because they had all of these elements, including some classified information that I wasn't cleared to see, I had to end up -- this is really my favorite chapter in the book -- I had to end up being an investigative reporter within the White House.
I had to go out and find people who would talk to me off the record and on "deep background," which means not for attribution, to help me fill in the gaps of information so that I could then leak and get that story written. Even without permission from people in the White House.
GROSS: What was the shape of the story as you came to know it?
DAVIS: Well, it's an ironic twist ending. The story which had such amazingly dangerous implications when it first crossed my desk, turned out to be a complete dud. As Roger Tamaraz said when he testified on national television, "I gave $300,000 to get my pipeline approved, and I got absolutely nothing." It was a complete dud.
So, yes, there was an interesting story about all these players trying to help Tamaraz get access. At the end of the day, the president of the United States never lifted a finger to help him, and all this naive gentleman did was spend a lot of money thinking he could buy influence when he couldn't.
GROSS: Lanny Davis, what is a "document dump?"
DAVIS: Well, that was the expression used for one of my techniques in getting the story out. It began with the Harold Ickes files. Mr. Ickes not only was the deputy chief of staff in '94 through '96, but he essentially ran the campaign for the reelection of President Clinton.
So, all of his political files and all of his juicy documents about political strategy and fundraising were subpoenaed by a congressional committee headed by a Republican who I felt was going to leak and dribble that information out over a long period of time. So I invited reporters in.
I literally dumped on a desk boxes and boxes of documents that were -- journalistic heaven, I guess is the only way to express the looks on the faces of all of these reporters. Who were unaccustomed to having such a presentation of juicy information available to simply spend as much time as they wanted, look at everything they wanted.
I stood in the front of the room for about three hours. I said, ask me be any question you want. Tell me what I can do to help you. And so that was the first time that anyone had ever seen such a thing. We then did it a second time, and a third and a fourth time. And it got the expression, "look out, Lanny Davis is doing another document dump."
GROSS: My guest is Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton. He's written a new memoir called "Truth to Tell." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lanny Davis, former special counsel to the president; author of a new memoir called "Truth to Tell."
Now, one of the fires you had to put out had to do with the so-called White House coffees, in which major contributors, or potential major contributors, to the Democratic Party were invited to meet with the president and officials of the Democratic National Committee; sometimes to discuss policy.
And the questions about this practice included, is it illegal for the president to participate in such fundraising activities? And is it unethical for policy to be discussed in return for money? Now, there was an excerpt -- I want to read you something from "The New York Times" by Stephen Labiton (ph)? Am I pronouncing that correctly?
DAVIS: Very good reporter.
GROSS: From January 25, 1997. And this is an article about those coffees, particularly about a meeting of bankers with the president, members of the fundraising -- members of the Democratic National Committee, and officials from the Treasury as well. So this had raised a lot of questions. And it quotes you as saying -- it describes you this way.
It says, "still, Lanny J. Davis, the special White House counsel, said that there was nothing unusual or improper about the meeting. And that it was perfectly proper and even helpful to regulators and the regulated for the treasury officials and banking officials to attend a meeting arranged by the Democratic National Committee.
"`We see nothing evil here about bringing people in who have a particular interest and to have them offer their ideas to other people in the government.' Davis said in a telephone news conference. `The key issue is that as a result of those conversations no government action was affected.'"
Did you say the right thing?
You single out probably one of my more severe embarrassing moments, but let's start with the very last sentence. The very last sentence is the point that I should have stuck with and not gone beyond. There was no policy influenced by that event that I could detect or find. And the key legal issue is that issue.
Money buys access all over Washington. I should have acknowledged that that can be extreme and somehow tacky or even unethical, but it's not illegal.
What I did wrong in that particular story was not too different than what my son was trying to tell me when I denied that invitations to the Lincoln Bedroom had nothing to do with trying to raise money. That is I should have been up-front about what was the most uncomfortable aspect for us in the White House about that event when we learned about it.
The comptroller and the regulators from the Treasury Department had no business being invited to a political finance event raising money for the Democratic Party. We were uncomfortable with that. We decided not to acknowledge that because we were just being defensive, and in your face why give them an inch?
And that's a big mistake if what you end up doing is saying something that damages your credibility, which I believe my comments there did for a while. Now, interestingly, the person that reversed the flow and brought us back to where we should be was none other than the president.
I described in the book several days after I was stuck in that position defending that event we had a session with the president preparing him for a national press conference. And there was still a lot of debate that we didn't want to concede that something was wrong with that particular event.
When it came time for the president to be asked about that event to see what he would say at the press conference, he turned to Vice President Gore and he said, "you know, I don't really think that the comptroller of the currency should been have been there. And I don't think he knew that it was a Democratic Party finance event."
And I kind of looked around the room thinking, well, then why am I defending him if President Clinton himself acknowledges that the event was improper? So, I kind of spoke up and I said, "don't worry about undercutting me on this one, Mr. President. You just say exactly what you said."
GROSS: But wait. What were you thinking when you said, "oh, don't worry about undercutting me Mr. President?"
DAVIS: I was -- honestly, and this is one of the most memorable early moments of my painful experience at the White House, I was totally relieved. Because I knew the position that I was taking was untenable and implausible. And I was being bashed around about defending the indefensible.
And I needed to retreat, but nobody in the White House would allow me to retreat and suddenly the president said, "of course he shouldn't have been there." And it was just a complete relief. And that story was over right after the press conference.
I didn't receive -- I received a couple of phone calls from people in the press saying, "how do you feel? Don't you feel undercut? And I said off the record, "I'm completely relieved."
GROSS: How did that affect your credibility with the press?
DAVIS: I think they were understanding and empathetic. I think they recognized in my early days that I was trying to learn my job and learn how to do it right and how not to do it. And they recognized basically what my strategy was, which was to help them write stories from for my own interests not because I cared about making them look good.
But I think there was a sort of a, as I describe in the book, the frail relationship between spinner and spinnee or press person and journalist, is really built on the thread of trust -- mutual trust in each other's integrity. And over a period of time I think it's fair to say that that develop between me and most of the White House press corps.
GROSS: Lanny Davis is former special counsel to President Clinton. His new memoir is called "Truth to Tell." Davis will be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Back with Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton. From December 1996 to the end of '97 Davis was the White House spokesperson on certain scandal issues, particularly relating to fundraising. In his new memoir, "Truth to Tell," Davis writes about his experiences spinning stories and dealing with the press.
Let's get to a really damning document that you came across and that you had to figure out what to do with. And this has to do with the question of whether people were getting being invited to sleep overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House in exchange for large donations to the Democratic Party.
GROSS: And you came across this memo from the national finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee. And I'll read an excerpt of it, it said, "during my recent meeting with the president we discussed the following projects: one, I would like three dates over the next month about one week apart for breakfast lunch or coffee with the president and about 20 of our major supporters. The purpose of these meetings would be to offer these people an opportunity to discuss issues and exchange ideas with the president. This will be an excellent way to energize our key people for the upcoming year. We would need one hour of the president's time for each of these meetings. These individuals will come to Washington from across the country.
"Two, the following individuals are our top 10 supporters." Then it lists the individuals and in handwriting next to that it says, "overnights."
So, it's thus eliminating any question of whether overnights were given to big fundraisers or not.
GROSS: So, when you came across this -- oh, wait, and then there's an answer from the president.
DAVIS: In the president's handwriting.
GROSS: In the president's handwriting. And he says, "yes, pursue all three these things and probably, and get other names $100,000 or more -- $50,000 or more. Ready to start overnights right away. Give me the top 10 list back along with the 150." And then the rest is illegible.
DAVIS: Ah, yes.
I remember the moment that I came across that document. It was about midnight on a Friday night and we were just going through Harold Ickes' last box of documents. And one of the things that I think is fun about the book that I wrote is it really tells the story behind the story.
What it's like when you come across a document like that and suddenly you look and you see a vision. And it's a vision of 150 journalists in frenzy. And you're in the pool with blood in the pool and all the piranhas are about to attack you.
I saw that document and called in my deputy almost in a perverse giddiness. I said to him, "what's your prediction?" I handed him the document and he said, "front page right hand lead in every newspaper in the country." And he was right.
So, what did we do? We had to get that document out and make sure that we had all of the Lincoln Bedroom invitations at the same time out so that there would be no further reporting necessary as to who else was invited to stay overnight.
That was what we did at a press briefing in the White House briefing room. And that was in fact the evening that I went through my wonderful experience with Ted Koppel.
GROSS: Were you irritated with anybody at the DNC or the president himself for not telling you about this memo and alerting you to what had really gone on behind the scenes?
DAVIS: I guess I was irritated mostly with the DNC for being, let me be euphemistic, less than truthful with me when I first arrived at the White House. And I was asked -- you have to remember that every story that appears in a newspaper has a long pipeline, way, way back in time where some reporter has gotten a rumor of that story, maybe weeks before you ever see it in print.
When I got to the White House in December of 1996 one of the first phone calls I received was from Alan Miller of the "Los Angeles Times," who asked me about a program for fundraising called White House coffees. Did I know anything about that?
And I called the DNC and they denied that there was such a program. And I asked people in the White House who were vaguely aware of White House coffees, but didn't think it had anything to do with fundraising. So, it took me about four weeks to ferret out the basic information that there was such a program.
That it was a program about raising money. Congressman Burton recently sent a letter to Attorney General Reno using a statement in my book to prove that the White House coffees established illegal conduct and therefore an independent counsel is necessary. In fact, those coffees were perfectly legal even if they were fundraisers because they were held in the White House residence, which is not a federal building under the Hatch Act.
But, indeed there weren't solicitation events. They were events to motivate people to give. And you have to solicit money in a federal building for it to be illegal. So, at the end of the chapter on the White House coffees I raised the question second guessing my own strategies, why didn't we just admit that these were fundraising events because there was nothing illegal about them.
They may have been, what I call tacky to try to raise money using the White House residence, but I would have been able to point out that so did Ronald Reagan and so did George Bush. So, it was nothing unusual.
GROSS: So why didn't you?
DAVIS: Well, I think at the time two reasons. I was a little bit insecure in my job, and I was being really, really pressured by the White House counsel's office not to concede that these were about raising money because they weren't a 100 percent sure about the legal issues.
And secondly, I think we were all just in a defensive crouch, similar to what I said about the banker's event. We were in a defensive crouch unwilling to just be in your face -- yes, they were about fund-raising, what about it? And then see what the answer is.
And let some Republican sanctimoniously say, "I am shocked that the White House was used to help raise money." It's a shocking as Rick in Casablanca saying there's gambling going on in his casino. And that's really the lesson over time that I learned, is just be up-front, dare the Republicans to say we Democrats are worse than they are at fundraising.
GROSS: My guest is Lanny Davis, former special counsel to the president; author of the new memoir called "Truth to Tell."
You left your position at the White House 10 days before the Monica Lewinsky story broke, and I can't help but wonder if you saw that story coming because you knew that Isikoff had been reporting on the Kathleen Willey story.
GROSS: And if you saw that story coming and thought, I'm getting out of here while the going's good.
DAVIS: Well, I -- the two toughest chapters in my book, that a lot of people who've read the book tell me are the two best chapters, are the prologue about the breaking of the Monica Lewinsky story and the epilogue, which is my retrospective wondering if my proactive disclosure rules had been followed by President Clinton and the White House whether we could have avoided the impeachment horror.
First of all, the story itself was a surprise to me in the sense that I knew nothing about Monica Lewinsky, and the relationship between the president and Ms. Lewinsky. In fact, I had never met Ms. Lewinsky. She says in her grand jury testimony that she met me, but I just don't recall that.
I found that when the story was breaking it was a different, different White House. And although I felt badly about leaving, I had announced I was leaving the month before with the memorable line to the president when I told him, "look Mr. President, I think I can leave now because all of the scandal is behind us." I guess I was wrong about that.
I felt that there were two factors making this completely different, and therefore not subject to my disclosure rules that I followed during the campaign finance issues. One was Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, trying to bring the president down and perhaps put him in jail.
It's not so easy to be proactive and open and answer all the questions when you have a prosecutor trying to put you in jail. And secondly, the subject matter. You're talking about concealing a sexual relationship that you don't want your wife, your daughter and the American people to know about. Again, it's a lot easier to give the advice to tell the truth than it is to take it when you're in that situation.
GROSS: Well, getting back to the question of whether you knew about the Monica story, even though you didn't know about Monica Lewinsky, did you have an idea that there were other affairs that were being covered up that might become public and be very damaging to the presidency?
DAVIS: No. The only one that I really -- that came my way over my desk was the Kathleen Willey story the previous summer that Michael Isikoff and I talked about over a period of time before he published the story. And I believe the president's denial. It was very, very forceful when we asked him about it when the story broke.
Even to this day he is extremely forceful in denying Ms. Willey's allegations. Of course, he was forceful in denying the Monica Lewinsky relationship. I felt at the time that something had gone on between the president and Ms. Lewinsky.
When I went in to see him a couple of days into the story, right before I left the White House, and I revealed this meeting for the first time in my book, I knew that he was uncomfortable. I knew that he was embarrassed. But -- and I was there to really tell him, Mr. President, you've got to get this story out. You've got to get it behind you; my usual philosophy and advice.
But I just knew that something was bothering him, and as I walked out that day I looked back and saw a very, very conflicted and very, very lonely man sitting at his desk.
GROSS: Tell me more about what you think the president -- what you told the president at the time that he should be doing.
DAVIS: Well, I went in after the Lehrer interview on January 22nd. That was the day after the story broke. Because I'd seen him interviewed by Mr. Lehrer and didn't recognize who I saw.
GROSS: Let's just over the big newsmaking quote of that interview when Lehrer asked if the president had had an improper sexual relationship. The president said, "well, I think" -- and the president denied it -- no, no, I'm sorry.
The president said he didn't have an improper relationship, and Lehrer asked him to explain what that meant. And the president said, "well, I think you know what improper means. It means that there is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship or any other kind of improper relationship."
DAVIS: I'll tell you a little interesting anecdote about the word improper. I received the first phone call the night before from Peter Baker of "The Washington Post," so I was the first one to learn that the story was breaking. That was my job. And I had to call the White House, tell them what was about to happen.
The president was meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and as I relate in the book I had to drive down about 9:30 at night and try to figure out what the answer when "The Washington Post" was asking us for our comment. And the next day when the story was breaking all over the place we had to talk to Mike McCurry about what he should say to the press.
The first statement that we made was that there was no sexual relationship. And someone in the meeting told McCurry don't use the word sexual, use the word improper. And a lot of us in the room knew that we were never get away with the word improper, people are going to push it right to the word sexual immediately. So it was a silly effort to be coy.
Another legal instinctive that just doesn't work when you're in that kind of situation. So when I saw the president use the word improper I wasn't surprised that Mr. Lehrer followed up and said, well, what about sexual. And I knew that he was being evasive in that interview. I've known him really for a very long time, and I just didn't like what I saw.
So the next day I went in to see the chief of staff Erskine Bowles, and I told him how even though I was about to leave the White House how uncomfortable I was that the president really wasn't being forthcoming and something was bothering him. And Erskine just picked up the phone and sent me down the hallway to see the president. It was in the morning, so it wasn't on his official schedule.
And I went in and I said to him, as I relate in the book, "I'm here as a friend not as your lawyer. And I just want you to know that whatever you've done, whatever happened don't act like a lawyer, be president. Let your lawyers worry about the legal issues. You just get this story out get it behind you, and that's what you do best." And I think he was very, very concerned, and I think he wanted to do -- and follow exactly what I was saying.
But as I said there were other factors at stake here that ultimately led him, I think, to his regret led him not to follow that advice.
GROSS: My guest is Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton. He's written a new memoir called "Truth to Tell." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton. He was a spokesperson on scandal issues. He gave his resignation just before the Monica Lewinsky story broke. Davis was one of Clinton's defenders before the president admitted to his relationship with Lewinsky.
How did you find out the truth?
DAVIS: Well, another kind of painful experience, I had been out there, as you may remember, on television defending him and asking people to wait for the evidence to come in before jumping to conclusions. And trying to argue that this was not a grounds for an impeachment.
And on the 31st of July, I guess, the story of the blue dress came out, and it caused me great concern because it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps there really was a relationship, and that he hadn't been telling the truth in denying it.
As the weekend of the grand jury testimony on August 17th approach I finally realized I had to make a decision whether I was going to continue to go on television and defend him. And I called a very old friend of his who was in town. I went to visit him at a hotel breakfast shop and I said I need to know the truth. I need to know now exactly what the president's going to testify to.
I was supposed to be on "Meet the Press" on Sunday and I was considering canceling my appearance. His friend and I talked, he told me basically that there had been a relationship and not to be surprised when that was the news of the weekend.
And I had to decide what to do from that point on.
GROSS: What did you do? Did you go on the show?
DAVIS: I did go on the show and I did continue after that to defend him, but I made by a basic decision that I was at the White House because I believed in his presidency. I left the White House still believing in what he had done for the country. That I could not defend the conduct, I was angry at the conduct only in the sense that he had done such an injury to what I thought was a very, very good presidency.
So I chose to go on "Meet the Press," but when I did so I wanted to speak directly to him through Tim Russert. And at that point I said I think the president should immediately publish his grand jury testimony, and answer every question he can wherever he can so that this story gets completely and totally reported.
He did not follow that advice, but I think it was the right advice.
GROSS: Once you found out that the president probably really did have an affair with Monica Lewinsky did you stop defending his version of the story? In other words, stop saying, oh, I believe the president and just argue from a different point of view no matter what the president did it shouldn't be seen as impeachable behavior.
DAVIS: Yes. I went back to basics. That's exactly what I chose to do, and that's how I made my decision to continue to defend him because I went with my wife and friend talking about why I went to the White House to begin with.
And that is -- two major reasons why I'm grateful to President Clinton. One is, what he's done for the country, and second what he's done for the Democratic Party. I'm a longtime Democrat that had lost hope that we could be competitive in the White House. And I saw a one-party government with the Republicans controlling both houses of Congress and the White House and in my judgment dominated by the Christian right.
That's a country that I feared. It was Bill Clinton that created a new centrist Democratic Party in 1992 and captured the White House twice for us. And brought a Democratic Party back to the center. I wanted that party and that presidency to be defended. I also genuinely believed, and still do, and fortunately the United States Senate agreed with me, that whatever he had done that was indefensible on a personal level was not a reason to remove him from office.
GROSS: When you were special counsel to the president you worked very closely with the press secretary then, Mike McCurry, and you describe him as being helpful to you in every way. When he left the White House he started saying some pretty surprising things about the president. Surprising in the sense that it showed, I thought, that he didn't hold president in the highest regard.
And I'm not remembering exactly what some of those things were, but they really were kind of insulting. And I'm wondering if you thought that that was bad form for a press secretary to leave office and to leave the White House and while the president was still in office to criticize him that way.
DAVIS: I don't think it was bad form except on one example that Mike McCurry himself regards as a terrible mistake. And that is he was interviewed on BBC, and right at the time of the impeachment vote. And that BBC interview, slightly taken out of context, had Mike saying something about serious doubts about President Clinton's fitness for the office given what he had done with Ms. Lewinsky.
Unfortunately for Mike, that interview was televised on the morning of impeachment vote. And I know that he felt very badly about that. No, I don't blame Mike McCurry or George Stephanopoulos or anyone for feeling upset or angry about what the president did and for expressing that.
I think the president deserves that kind of criticism from people who are out there defending ham. People who were saying things that he knew to be untrue and who might have felt, in Mike McCurry's case, who was a hero in defending President Clinton.
Mike certainly felt very compromised. I just didn't react that way myself.
GROSS: Why not?
DAVIS: Well, I didn't take it personally. Because I saw the injury, more the injury to himself and his presidency than to me. I'm an adult and I'm a lawyer, and lawyers I guess know their clients don't always tell you the truth. The issue is not how a lawyer feels, the issue is the lawyer can't do his job and the client is injuring himself.
So I was angry at the self-inflicted injury to his presidency. And I was angry of course because I felt badly for the first lady and for the family. But it wasn't personal it was more about his presidency.
GROSS: My guest is Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton. He's written a new memoir called "Truth to Tell." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton. He's written a memoir called "Truth to Tell," about his work spinning political scandals.
You handled the press and public statements regarding the president's financial investigations -- the investigations of the president's finances and Whitewater and so on. Kenneth Starr plans on filing a final report on his investigations into the president's and Hillary Clinton's financial dealings.
What are you expecting from that report?
DAVIS: Well, what I hope is that Mr. Starr finally will exercise prudent and responsible judgment and not characterize and not express an opinion or inferences or anything that constitutes editorial judgment of the Clintons. First, that would be terribly unfair and wrong, and he should know that.
It is not his job to suggest wrongdoing it is his job to prosecute in a courtroom. And Bob Dole, on the floor of the Senate when the independent counsel statute came up for amendment, made that point and amended the report language saying that an independent counsel cannot under the previous language express opinions or reasons why he is closing down his investigation.
He simply must report on the disposition of the cases. If Starr does that, and the leak to "The New York Times" on Sunday by Starr's "associates," was another example of unconscionable and legally unethical conduct to depict people for wrongdoing without having the guts to indict. If Starr goes down that road he will be held, I think, in contempt by responsible people. And I believe unethical behavior as an attorney he will have to confront at some point in his future.
I hope he doesn't do that.
GROSS: There were days when you were special counsel to the president that you were taking about 100 phone calls a day, or every hour you were on a different interview show. I mean, your schedule kind of looks like "TV Guide" on some days.
And most of us, if we had to talk that much about very sensitive subjects would start to totally lose track of what we were saying and really begin to put both feet in our mouth. How do you prevent yourself from making terrible gaffes when you've been like talking all day?
DAVIS: I thought you were making a pretty accurate description of what I was actually doing.
You make mistakes and they're embarrassing mistakes. You know, I make a mistake every so often in my legal practice and not that many people know about it. I make a mistake when I was in the White House job and it went around the world on the Internet within 30 seconds.
I guess Mike McCurry was a tremendous help, a reservoir of support and advice. The White House counsel, Charles Ruff, the deputy White House counsel Cheryl Mills, my special counsel Lanny Brewer -- there was a whole bunch of people surrounding me, helping me walk through the mine fields.
And most importantly, when I screwed up, and I did have some major mistakes -- you're too kind to mention them on the air but they were major -- they were there to defend me.
GROSS: Do you want to add another gaffe?
DAVIS: Well, let me add the best moment of defense that I still thank him for, and that was President Clinton. During the time that I was being criticized for my performance on the Ted Koppel show, including a leak to the "Wall Street Journal" that I was about to be replaced, I was in a state of fairly bad distress. That having been put out there to do this awful job I now had people leaking in the White House that I wasn't doing such a good job, saying what they wanted me to say.
So, I was kind of angry and not real happy, and we had a staff meeting with the president prior to his press conference. And at the end of the meeting, very deliberately in front of everyone, he handed me a box that looked like a tie box. And I opened up and it up and it was a tie.
And on the tie was a some Latin, the exact expression of the Latin was "non illigitimati corborundum (ph)." And I looked at the Latin and I didn't really understand it. And I -- he saw that I didn't understand it. And he said, "don't you know what it means?" And I said, "no."
And he said, looking around the room very carefully to everyone on the senior staff, "don't let the bastards get you down." I think he was reflecting not only the people in the White House, but anybody out there that was criticizing me for doing my job. And that meant a lot to me.
GROSS: And you're confident that that tie wasn't sending a secret message to Monica Lewinsky?
DAVIS: Very good.
GROSS: One last question. What reporter on television or in the newspapers is best at getting you to say, or other people in the White House, to say things that they didn't intend to say or they didn't really want to reveal?
DAVIS: I think Tim Russert is probably the best interviewer on television in that respect. And I would say Wolf Blitzer is a close second. And probably the reason is that they are so seductively nice and intelligent people that you forget that what their goal is is to get you to make a mistake.
So, there will be a headline.
GROSS: Lanny Davis, thank you very much for talking with us.
DAVIS: Thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Lanny Davis is former special counsel to President Clinton. Davis' new memoir is called "Truth to Tell."
I'm Terry Gross.
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Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Lanny Davis
High: Former Special Counsel to President Clinton, Lanny Davis. He served from December 1996 through January 1998. During that time he saw the President through various financial scandals and developed a style for dealing with bad news head on. Davis left the White House just as the Monica Lewinsky story was breaking. Davis has a new memoir, "Truth to Tell: Tell it Early, Tell it All, Tell it Yourself: Notes from My White House Education."
Spec: Government; Politics; Lifestyle; Culture; Media; Lanny Davis
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Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Lanny Davis Discusses Spin Control
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.