U.S. public was fed misleading predictions Clinton bounces LTC back because he exceeded planted expectations

September 27, 1998|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When the history of the capital's sex scandal is written, last Monday may prove to be a turning point: the day Mount Clinton failed to erupt.

Predictions that America would see President Clinton explode in a volcanic rage during his videotaped grand jury testimony turned out to be wildly off-base.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres says Clinton "clearly came across better than people expected, and what it's done is stop the Democrats' free fall."

Clinton's rebound indicates that his survival may depend less on what's written in the Constitution than on a bedrock political guidepost: Exceed expectations.

Polls conducted after the video aired showed the president bouncing back, amid growing signs that the public disapproves of the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee.

Now, as Republicans pursue what Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat, terms a "now-until-November strategy," Clinton's fate may well turn on whether expectations of sweeping Republican gains in the congressional elections prove accurate.

If so, it would not be the first time expectations became a driving force in the scandal.

"It's been very important from the start," says Donald Baer, a former Clinton aide who remains in close touch with the White House.

Only hours after it was revealed that independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr was investigating the president's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, George Stephanopoulos, a former Clinton adviser who is now a network TV commentator, was openly speculating about the threat of impeachment.

Expectations sprout vigorously in the hothouse atmosphere of official Washington. Endless conversations among White House staffers, members of Congress and their top aides, political consultants and lobbyists, as well as top journalists, yield a rough consensus against which the actions of others -- in this case Clinton, Starr and key players in the congressional impeachment fight -- are measured.

The president's four-minute speech to the nation on Aug. 17, for example, was widely viewed as a bust because he failed to display as much contrition as expected.

On the other hand, Starr's Sept. 9 referral to Congress landed with diminished force because it had been robbed of any big surprises. All the major details had been made public in advance -- through calculated leaks from Clinton's side, but also through information that could have originated only in Starr's office.

Legendary skill

The skill with which the Clinton team has influenced expectations over the years is legendary. Clinton's own mastery of political spin became apparent as early as the 1992 primaries, when he victoriously declared himself the Comeback Kid on the night he lost the New Hampshire primary to Paul Tsongas.

For much of this year, however, the vaunted Clinton machine seemed ineffective. It reached its low point Aug. 17, when the president admitted his sexual affair with Lewinsky.

Since then, however, the White House has come to life. It is once again reaching out to Democrats on Capitol Hill and around the country, checking in by telephone and regularly faxing "talking points" in an effort to pull Clinton's presidency back from the brink. Presidential defenders, including senior White House advisers whose own credibility was shredded by having repeated Clinton's lies about the affair, have re-emerged.

Their ultimate triumph may have been to set the stage for the telecast of Clinton's videotaped grand jury appearance last week, some believe. But a closer look reveals that Republicans, perhaps unwittingly, played a key role, as did a press corps that aggressively recycled predictions that, in the end, turned out to be erroneous.

In the days leading up to the broadcast, anonymous White House aides were quoted in news accounts as dreading the release of the tape.

The image of Clinton being grilled by prosecutors, they confided, might be far worse than even the salacious details of sexual behavior contained in the Starr report.

Unlike the contents of the Starr report, however, which Clinton's lawyers tried unsuccessfully to obtain before its release, every aspect of the president's testimony was known to the White House. A team of Clinton lawyers had been present throughout the taping on Aug. 17, had heard every word and witnessed every gesture.

But when CBS News quoted congressional sources as saying Clinton had stormed out of the session, White House staffers made no effort to correct the mistake.

Paul Begala, a senior Clinton aide, denies that the White House tried to manipulate expectations. "We're not as Machiavellian as people make us out to be," he says.

Whatever efforts the White House may have made to set expectations were augmented by the comments of Republicans. anonymous Republican aide who viewed the tape was quoted as saying that it was "devastating" for the president. Bob Schieffer of CBS News has said that a Republican was the source for his erroneous report about Clinton's stomping out of the room.

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