Tell it all, tell it early, tell it yourself

The headline above was the strategic crisis-management mantra when I worked at the Clinton White House in 1996-98 as special counsel to the president. It was my job to deal with the scandal-hungry White House press corps and act as media spokesman. 

I am reminded of that strategy as it seems increasingly likely — I hope I am wrong! — that the Republicans will take over the House in the November elections. And if they do, the Obama White House lawyers might consider following a similar three-part strategy to what we did in the Clinton White House in response to dozens of subpoenas from more than 20 Senate and House congressional committees investigating the 1996 Clinton campaign’s fundraising practices. 

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First, by “telling it all,” we meant disclosing all facts — especially the bad ones, i.e., the ones most likely to lead to embarrassing and even politically harmful media coverage. 

Why? The president’s press secretary, Mike McCurry, who crafted this overall strategy, used logic as irrefutable as it was counterintuitive: We need to help reporters write all the bad stories, and if they don’t ask the right nasty questions, help them do so. Why? Because if we didn’t get the nasty facts out and stories written, then the Republicans surely would. But if we leaked all the facts, good and bad, we had a better chance of a story written with context — with our comments or “spin” included higher up in the story. (By the way, Professor McCurry insisted on equal-opportunity leaking — we rotated our leaks among all the major news organizations and reporters covering the White House.)

Sometimes, when there was a plethora of nasty stories in a particular collection of documents, it was more efficient to do what came to be called by the White House press corps the “document dump.” We would dump all the documents on a conference table in the Old Executive Office Building and invite all the White House reporters to come over and read what they wanted, and we were there to answer all their questions. At times, if there was a nasty document they had missed, I would be sure to point it out to one or more reporters. 

Second, by “telling it early,” we meant getting the stories written well before the Republicans could break the bad news with maximum negative impact at nationally televised hearings scheduled for the summer of 1997. Instead, when the hearings were held, due to our proactive early strategy, the main bad stories had already been written months before. Thus, during the hearings, I and my colleagues routinely circulated among reporters, reminding them that hearings were oh-so-boring because they were about “old news, been there, done that.” 

At one point, a frustrated Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), then the chairman of the Senate investigating committee, introduced a brand-new topic that we White House lawyers hadn’t known about. He declared with unconcealed glee on national TV, “Even Lanny Davis won’t be able to say that this is old news.” Everyone laughed — especially McCurry and me, because we knew this proved our strategy had worked. 

Third, “telling it ourselves” meant as attorneys we had to learn to speak directly to reporters. Unlike non-attorney press spokesmen, we attorneys who provided legal advice were protected by attorney-client privilege from being compelled to testify as to that advice. (Some attorneys believe there is no such privilege for White House attorneys who are paid by taxpayers, especially if there is a criminal investigation.)

In sum: My advice to my friends in the Obama White House counsel’s office, if the Republicans take over and begin to issue subpoenas and conduct hearings, is to use our three-part strategy and repeat every day the simple three-sentence message: 

“Republicans want to investigate, not legislate. It’s all about politics. What a waste!”

 Game, set, match. The American people will get it. Trust me. 

Lanny Davis is the principal in the legal/media/legislative strategies firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates. The headline is the subtitle of his Clinton White House memoir: Truth To Tell: Tell It All, Tell It Early, Tell It Yourself: Notes From My White House Education (The Free Press, 1999).