Masters Of Disaster

BILL CLINTON ADMIRED BOB DOLE. HE HAD TOLD AIDES THAT IF he lost, he would rather lose to Dole than any of the other Republican candidates: ""Dole would make a better president than the rest of those jokers.'' He had appreciated Dole's statesmanlike decision not to play politics on Bosnia, and he had found him reasonable and responsible during the budget standoff. At one point in the negotiations over the government shutdown, he had even phoned Dole to tell him, ""I don't want to do anything that would hurt you in the primaries.'' Clinton's solicitude toward Dole was not altogether altruistic, of course. In part, he liked Dole because he thought he could beat him.

When he locked up the nomination in March, Dole was 8 points behind in the president's polls; by the time he resigned from the Senate in May, he had fallen 15 points behind. To keep his staff from getting complacent, Clinton kept muttering, ""Greg Norman, Greg Norman, Greg Norman,'' after the golf pro who had blown a six-stroke lead in the U.S. Open. ""Excited?'' James Carville, Clinton's flamboyant '92 campaign strategist, had exclaimed in early May. ""Hell, you work for Bill Clinton, you go up and down more times than a whore's nightgown. Nuttin' to be excited about yet.''

By the spring of 1996, the Clinton campaign had found a routine and a rhythm. Egos were as large as ever, but the campaign was no longer riven by the backbiting that had marked the ""Charlie'' period. In part, the competing camps had been brought together by the prospect of victory. Clinton's State of the Union in January had boosted the president's favorable rating to over 60 percent. When Bob Dole surprised Washington with his decision to quit the Senate, the Clintonians were able to react with speed, cockiness and ruthless purpose.

On the afternoon of May 15, President Clinton's two top admen, Bob Squier and Bill Knapp, sat in their tastefully high-tech office on Capitol Hill, watching Bob Dole give up his congressional career. Perpetually tanned and full of quips, Squier was a smoothie around town, a fixture at Georgetown cocktail parties. Knapp was an irreverent, wisecracking workaholic. Together, Squier and Knapp had made the brutally effective ads accusing Gingrich and the GOP of selling out the elderly on Medicare.

Squier and Knapp were appalled by the ""visuals'' of Dole's speech. If Dole was trying to convince voters that he was a man of the people, ""a Kansan, an American, just a man,'' why was he surrounded by a bunch of middle-aged pols in suits, with a shot of the Capitol dome looming behind them? Also, what idiot let Gingrich get in the same frame while Dole was making the most important speech of his career? Gingrich had been dragging Dole down in the polls for at least six months. Knapp and Squier had been doing their best to marry the two in the ads they made for Clinton: in the voice-overs, the announcer would say ""Dolegingrich'' as one word, as in ""the Dolegingrich cuts in Medicare.'' And if Dole was such a ""doer,'' the man who could get the job done, how come he was abandoning his legislative commitment and leaving the gridlock behind? Dole had not finished his speech before the two admen began thinking of how they might be able to portray him as a quitter.

That night, at the regular political meeting in the Yellow Oval Room on the second floor of the White House residence, Clinton's team was similarly baffled by Dole's behavior. Why hadn't he quit the Senate earlier and gone on a campaign blitz bashing Clinton's character? They couldn't understand his apparent inertia, the long Florida vacation, the desultory campaigning between legislative squabbles in Congress. The Democrats had spent more than $20 million on ads attacking the GOP and, astonishingly, the Republicans had not struck back. ""Welcome to the Sitzkrieg,'' said Ron Klain, Vice President Al Gore's chief of staff. Going back to the Senate was ""the single dumbest mistake you can make,'' said Doug Sosnick, the White House political director.

Dick Morris began the meeting, as always, by asking pollster Mark Penn for the latest numbers. Penn had done a quickie poll of 400 voters in the afternoon, and the results were encouraging. People had been moved by Dole's performance, but they weren't more likely to vote for him. ""It's not a vote-getter,'' Penn said. ""It's more of a "so what?' event.'' Morris then held forth in his colorful way. Dole's quitting was ""like a military funeral at sea,'' he said. ""There will be a huge memorial. There will be lots of attention. It'll be glorious, uplifting. Then the coffin will slip beneath the waters, the waves will wash over it and the boat will sail on.''

Clinton, who tended to overlook Morris's fanciful metaphors, sat impassively in a wingback chair. He had been surprised that Dole was quitting. ""Really?'' he had exclaimed when Stephanopoulos gave him the news that morning. ""Wow!'' He was not nearly as confident as Morris about the futility of Dole's move. Al Gore, too, was wary. Dole had always been predictable and cautious. Now he was making a risky and unexpected step. The vice president had long worried that the White House was underestimating Dole.

Sure enough, after Dole's first weekend on the road, Morris and Penn began detecting signs that he was gaining, if only slightly. Dole's personal favorable rating, stuck for weeks at a dismal 40 percent, had started to creep up, to 48 percent. It was important to keep him below 50 percent, the ceiling for unsuccessful challengers in the past. What's more, voters were starting to use terms like ""effective,'' ""decisive'' and ""on my side'' to describe Dole, words that made him seem like a leader instead of a legislator mired in petty details.

Looking at the numbers, Morris flew into a state approaching hysteria. He called Clinton, who summoned a special session of his political team in the Yellow Oval Room. Morris repaired to his laptop and composed an agenda in agitated language and upper-cased emotion. ""DOLE IS ESCAPING FROM THE CELLAR . . . WE ARE LETTING HIM DO IT,'' he wrote. Maybe Dole's gains looked modest, but they could be leading indicators of trouble unless the Clinton command got over its caution--""THE CREEPING CANCER OF THIS CAMPAIGN''--and went negative fast. ""Dole is about to break this race wide open and slash our lead to single digits,'' Morris wrote. ""We must not let him.''

Squier and Knapp had already produced his weapon of choice, a 30-second ad titled ""Empty.'' At the meeting, Knapp punched it up on a video screen.

THE AD OPENED WITH A SHOT OF A cluttered desktop and an empty chair, with the Capitol looming in the background. The camera pans past a black-and-white portrait of a scowling, Brylcreemed, 45-year-old Bob Dole. ""He told us he would lead,'' intones the announcer as the shot widens to show packing boxes. ""He told us he was a doer, not a talker. Then he told us he was quitting, giving up. Leaving behind the gridlock he helped to create--and all he offers are negative attacks.'' Cut to bright shots of a studious Clinton, hard at work in the Oval Office. ""Meanwhile, the real work goes on: balancing the budget, protecting Medicare, education, the environment, reforming welfare, cracking down on violent crime.'' A parade of gauzy images marches by: an old lady smiling in a hospital bed, cheery schoolchildren, a healthy family tromping through a forest, jut-jawed police officers.

For months, the meetings in the Yellow Oval Room had followed a predictable pattern. They would begin with Morris's somewhat manic monologues. Using reams of polling data, Morris would rattle off a stream of ideas, some inspired, some dreadful, some goofy. Then Squier or Knapp would screen the latest ad. Clinton and Gore sat at the front of the room; an ever-larger group of White House advisers and staffers squeezed themselves onto the delicate silk sofas that lined the room. Gore tended to slouch way down in his chair, his long legs stretched straight out in front, with his hands in his lap and his chin on his chest. From the back of the room it looked as though the vice president was taking a nap. But whenever Mor- ris's recitations got too tedious, Gore would pipe up. ""Hey, Dick, could you go over that again?'' The line would inevitably provoke a round of giggles, since Morris had the annoying habit of repeating himself almost robotically whenever a new person entered the room.

On this evening, the discussion was unusually spirited. Morris and Squier began by arguing that voters were starting to buy Dole's campaign bio: a hardscrabble kid from the heartland turned war hero turned bold citizen challenger of the shifty, liberal, duplicitous--even criminal--Bill Clinton. They were forgetting about a ""35- year gap,'' said Squier dryly, when Dole worked in Washington. The voters needed to be reminded of what Dole had been doing during that time and what he was walking away from now. Ron Klain agreed. ""We've taken too much of this,'' said Gore's chief of staff. ""It's time to whack back.'' Stephanopoulos, who had formed something of an entente cordiale with Morris over the previous two months, also agreed. But Harold Ickes, eternally hostile to Morris, resisted, with support from chief of staff Leon Panetta and Commerce Secretary Mickey Kantor, Clinton's campaign chairman in '92. Go- ing negative would just provoke the media. Reporters, ever eager to even the horse race, would say the White House was panicking.

Clinton listened to the debate in silence. When he had listened enough, he gave a two-word order: ""Buy it.''

""Empty,'' dubbed ""The Quitter'' by the press, aired for five days in 51 percent of the country. Dole's favorables stopped climbing. Clinton's remained stable, more than 10 points higher. He was 17 points ahead in the horse race. As far as the staff was concerned, going negative had worked.

As he looked at the numbers on Monday, May 27, a chilly, rainy Memorial Day, Morris was exultant. ""If we keep this up, we're going to be in a landslide,'' he crowed. Penn replied, ""With numbers like this, we can almost afford to take a day off.'' But good news never lasted long in the Clinton White House. The next day Whitewater blew up again.

Just before 5 o'clock on May 28, White House staffers got some news they had been dreading. Three of the president's old friends had been convicted by a federal jury in Little Rock on fraud charges related to Whitewater. Jim and Susan McDougal, who had made the original investment in Whitewater with the Clintons, appeared headed for jail, along with Clinton's successor as governor, Jim Guy Tucker. The details of the case were complex and obscure, but the verdict meant that Whitewater wasn't going away before the election. The special prosecutor, Ken Starr, could now try to ""flip'' the McDougals and Tucker and make them testify against the Clintons. Clinton sat at his desk, looking sad and subdued when McCurry and Stephanopoulos told him the news. ""Don't be in the bunker,'' said Stephanopoulos. Clin- ton said, ""I need to think about this for a few minutes.''

THE MOOD WAS UNEASY TWO nights later at the political meeting in the Yellow Oval Room. Penn tried to be reassuring. He had been reporting for months that Whitewater was not a vote-mover. ""The voters just don't care,'' he told Clinton. On character, Dole had Clinton beaten hands down. But it didn't seem to matter. As long as Clinton embraced public values the voters cared about--as long as he was tough on crime and drugs and TV violence--voters would forgive or forget about his personal life. Morris and Penn had created a strategy to ""immunize'' Clinton against character attacks by the GOP. Republican ads on womanizing or the draft or ""slick Willie'' would be countered with Clinton's record on banning assault weapons or supporting school uniforms or calling for a V-chip in TVs. Penn's slogan was ""public values trumps private character.''

The Whitewater verdicts had not changed that, said Penn as the political team slouched down on the silk sofas. They had not affected the president's credibility. The convictions had, however, given new life to special prosecutor Starr. Voters did understand the word ""guilty,'' even if they cared little about the legal tangle of Whitewater. ""Get to the point,'' snapped Clinton. Lectures about the public-relations aspect of Whitewater always made him irritable.

He was worried, said Stephanopoulos, that Starr (""that son of a bitch'') would indict Hillary ""for no good reason.'' As usual, the discussion in the Yellow Oval had danced around the topic of scandal. Only Morris, who reveled in his familiar relationship with the president, could easily say ""Whitewater'' in front of Clinton. Other aides would refer euphemistically to ""character attacks'' or ""other stuff.'' The word ""Whitewater'' had come to mean ""everything bad''--any petty scandal, even ones that had nothing to do with Arkansas land deals, fell under this rubric. The topic consumed hours of the Clintons' time and much of their money. Clinton bitterly complained that he would not be able to afford Chelsea's college tuition because of his legal bills. ""It's a horrible parallel, but it's like the term "AIDS','' said Stephanopoulos. ""AIDS isn't any one thing; it's everything. It can kill you, but it can also be chronic and let you go on for years.''

To campaign consultants like Morris, Whitewater was an abstraction, a problem to be spun. But to the White House staff and the Clintons it was a permanent affliction, a disease that sapped their energy, clouded their thinking, threatened to turn the most trivial or innocuous acts into a grand-jury subpoena. Bruce Lindsey, Clinton's closest personal aide, was a well-organized man who had kept track of things by writing himself notes on a card-- reminders, phone numbers, even the punch line to a joke he might want to tell his friend Bill Clinton as they unwound over an evening game of hearts aboard Air Force One. By 1996 he had stopped. ""I don't write anything down if I don't have to,'' said Lindsey. ""Who can afford it?''

Other aides had become equally wary. The vice president's press secretary, Lorraine Voles, was shocked to find her notes from a 1993 conversation with a newspaper reporter blown up as a sinister-looking graphic on ""Nightline.'' She had merely been writing down a reporter's questions about the Travel Office affair, but since the words ""Travel Office'' appeared, she felt compelled to turn over her notebook to a congressional committee. Moderately paid aides like Voles racked up thousands in legal fees.

The staffers with the most to lose worked for Hillary Clinton. All but one of her 13 senior staffers received a subpoena at one time or another. Her chief of staff, Maggie Williams, had spent her career as a do-gooder before coming to the White House, working mostly for liberal think tanks. This earnest, 41-year-old black woman spent more than a year's salary on lawyers to represent her before various investigating committees. Had she spirited Whitewater-related documents out of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster's office on the night of his suicide? Witnesses said yes; Williams, backed by a lie-detector test, swore no. She said she just sat on Foster's sofa that night, weeping for a dear friend.

WILLIAMS WAS ACCOMPANIED to one confrontational Senate interrogation by her mother. ""Ma, this is a waste of time,'' complained Williams. Her mother admonished her to respect the institution. ""You will say "Senator','' instructed Mrs. Williams. ""You will be polite.'' To make sure, Mrs. Williams took a seat right behind the witness's chair. Whenever Maggie appeared even slightly querulous under the barrage of questioning, Mrs. Williams would give her daughter's chair a swift kick. For a long time, Maggie Williams could not talk about the depositions, the testimony or the legal bills without crying.

The steadfastness of Hillary's staff was remarkable. ""Hillaryland,'' the suite of offices occupied by the First Lady's staff in the Old Executive Office Building, was about the only part of the White House that did not leak. Mrs. Clinton was able to command great affection and loyalty by playing the role of den mother to her mostly young assistants. She could be silly, wearing a Christmas necklace of flashing lights; or corny, exclaiming, ""Okey-dokey, artichokey,'' or sometimes a little prudish, admonishing some of the women on her staff for wearing too short skirts. She could be cozy, asking about their boyfriends. She could also be demanding, calling them in the middle of the night with trivial questions that could have waited until morning. She was able to convey her own sense of mission and purpose, even her spirituality. But she was a disaster at the art of damage control. In a town where the first rule of scandal is get it out and get it behind you, Mrs. Clinton equivocated, stonewalled and thus helped prolong Whitewater.

IT WAS HARD TO TELL WHY. WAS SHE really hiding something? Or was she just embarrassed to be seen having tried to make a fast buck? In 1992 the Clintons had campaigned against the excesses of the '80s, the get-rich-quick schemes of the Reagan era. It would hardly do for Mrs. Clinton, advocate of the rights of poor children, to look like a greedy Yuppie who had tried to use her husband's office to cash in on land deals and cattle futures. Or maybe Mrs. Clinton really believed what she said: that her private fi- nancial matters were none of the press's business. For whatever reason, Mrs. Clinton was behind most of the decisions that kept the White House from taking the course of openness.

The starkest example was her opposition to a plan advanced in the late fall of 1993 by presidential adviser David Gergen. Gergen had the novel idea of simply inviting The Washington Post over to the White House and opening up the Whitewater files. Gergen predicted that the Post reporters would drown in the minutiae, then bore their readers with an unreadable five-part series. But Hillary strongly objected. She had a lawyer's resistance to turning over anything she didn't have to.

Now Whitewater was driving Hillary's popularity to dangerous lows--and endangering the president's. How to seal off the threat? It was Harold Ickes who came up with the solution. He might have lost out to Morris in the struggle for Clinton's ear, but his wary--some would say paranoid--personality was well suited to the role of campaign guardian. His idea was to try to isolate the scandal. He could see that the press corps' obsession with Whitewater was, as White House spokesman Mike McCurry put it, ""polluting'' the daily briefings in the press room. McCurry wanted the entire subject to be ""walled off.'' Ickes's first step was to hire an outside lawyer, Jane Sherburne, who would work exclusively on Whitewater. She and Ickes set up a separate Whitewater unit that was sealed off from the rest of the White House.

For its spokesman, Ickes and Sherburne tapped Mark Fabiani, who had proved a master of scandal control as chief of staff to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, defending the mayor against a string of unproved ethics violations in the late 1980s. Fabiani's office was tucked in the top floor of the Executive Office Building, across from the Africa directorate of the National Security Council, about as far from the center of West Wing power as possible. Fabiani's intense, irreverent deputy, Chris Lehane, jokingly dubbed room 488 the Arsenal of Democracy, and he and Fabiani called themselves the Masters of Disaster. Lehane filled his office with artifacts and memorabilia, like a bottle of Whitewater cologne. The walls were lined with Whitewater cartoons, and the floor was piled high with pie graphs and charts showing the hundreds of hours and millions of dollars Congress had spent on its fruitless investigation.

McCurry was delighted with the arrangement. He simply referred Whitewater questions to Fabiani, whom he called ""my garbage man.'' The arsenal's basic approach was to drown reporters. In contrast to the administration's usual practice of withholding information, Lehane and Fabiani bombarded them with it--documents, testimony, phone and beeper logs, favorable press clippings, GOP misstatements. Shrewdly, the damage controllers counted on the essential laziness of the press corps. ""When we first set up shop, it was like the Gold Rush,'' says Fabiani, laughing. ""We'd tell reporters that we had something to show them, and they'd come flying over here like we were giving out free samples. Now when we call to show them something, your hear this "Uh . . . I'm pretty busy today.' So we just messenger it over.''

Fabiani's basic story line was: Sure, the Clintons or their aides might be guilty of poor or emotionally clouded judgment (the original Whitewater investment, removing files from Vince Foster's office) or mismanagement (Travelgate and Filegate), but not of criminal behavior. The real villains were Alfonse D'Amato and Ken Starr, one a partisan fronting for the Dole campaign, the other a partisan masquerading as an ""independent'' counsel, all part of the Republican-driven, anti-Clinton scandal machine.

IN THE LAST WEEK OF JUNE, WHITEWATER, as broadly defined by the Clinton camp, was busting out all over. In Little Rock, two good-ole-boy buddies of Clinton's were on trial by the special prosecutor for funneling illegal contributions to Clinton's 1990 gubernatorial campaign; White House aide Bruce Lindsey was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. On Monday a new book by The Washington Post's Bob Woodward revealed that in 1995 Mrs. Clinton, wounded by scandal and defeat, had turned to a New Age guru who prompted her to conduct imaginary conversations with the late Eleanor Roosevelt. The tabs and late-night comedians immediately began hooting over ""Hillary's sEances.'' On Wednesday a pair of hapless White House aides, Craig Livingstone and Anthony Marceca, were summoned to Capitol Hill to explain what they had been doing with the private FBI files of hundreds of federal officials, including many top Republicans from the Bush administration. ""Filegate,'' with its Nixonian overtones, threatened to become a scandal that voters could understand.

Then, on June 28, the Masters of Disaster were confronted by a threat from a completely unanticipated quarter. The front page of The Washington Times trumpeted the sort of headline the president's men had always dreaded: CLINTON'S WEE-HOUR DASH TO A ROMANTIC TRYST. The president, the story alleged, had been sneaking out of the White House at night, under a blanket on the back seat of a car driven by Bruce Lindsey, to rendezvous with an unnamed starlet at the Marriott Hotel. This account came from a new book called ""Unlimited Access,'' by a former FBI agent named Gary Aldrich. His memoir of his 2i years on the White House detail included tales of gay group sex in the White House showers, sex and drug paraphernalia hung from the White House Christmas tree, male staffers whose hair was too long and females whose skirts were too short.

George Stephanopoulos read the newspaper account with a sensation he associated with bad motel food in New Hampshire and headlines about Gennifer Flowers, the bimbo who had almost ended Bill Clinton's political career before the first primary in 1992. Stephanopoulos's rule of political survival was: never let a news cycle pass without hitting back. He knew that strongly worded denials would not suffice. Aldrich was already booked on ""Larry King Live'' and ""Dateline''; even the august David Brinkley had invited him onto his Sunday talk show.

STEPHANOPOULOS CALLED ON the Arsenal of Democracy. He wanted to know everything about Aldrich. It didn't take too many Nexis searches by Fabiani's shop to find some interesting links between Aldrich and the Dole campaign. It turned out that Aldrich was being represented by Matthew Glavin's Southeastern Law Foundation, which had close ties to Newt Gingrich, and that his PR was being handled by Craig Shirley--a right-wing activist who had handled publicity for Paula Jones, the woman suing Clinton for sexual harassment. Shirley, it appeared, was also a sometime adviser to the Dole campaign. The Arsenal of Democracy got to work on a press packet helpfully pointing out Aldrich's GOP connections.

Meanwhile, the juiciest allegation in the book--the part about Bill Clinton's head-under-a-blanket sorties from the White House--was coming badly unstuck. Michael Isikoff, a NEWSWEEK reporter, tracked down the source of that detail: David Brock, a right-wing writer, who had casually mentioned it to Aldrich over lunch. But Brock considered it little more than a rumor of a rumor; he had no intention of printing it himself.

By Sunday, word of Isikoff's discovery was making the Washington rounds. George Will, a regular on the Brinkley show, called Brock at his home Sunday morning before going on the air and learned himself of the extremely shaky provenance of Aldrich's allegations. The former FBI man did not know it, but he was walking into an ambush.

Stephanopoulos, who had wangled an invitation to join Aldrich on the Brinkley show, couldn't believe his good fortune when he arrived at the ABC studios on Sunday morning. There, standing with Aldrich, were Craig Shirley, Matthew Glavin and Greg Mueller. All three represented Aldrich and had close ties to the GOP. ""Dolegingrich'' had accommodated the White House by stepping out of the shadows just in time to be exposed by the truth tellers from the Arsenal of Democracy. Stephanopoulos had been accompanied by Chris Lehane, the deputy Master of Disaster in room 488. Lehane took one look at the three men and cracked, ""Thank you, we've got our first sound bite.''

Sensing a fiasco, Shirley asked the ABC producers to move them to a different waiting room. The clean-cut Lehane taunted Aldrich as the FBI man left makeup: ""Is my hair too long for your taste?''

On the air, Aldrich was mercilessly interrogated by George Will, who exposed the book's dubious sourcing. When Stephanopoulos took his turn, he pointed out that Aldrich had been accompanied to the studio by Shirley, his PR man with ties to the Dole campaign. He went on to tick off Shirley's work for the tobacco and gun lobbies and to describe Aldrich's other handlers, men linked to Gingrich and Buchanan. ""So you have a smear campaign conducted by Republican Party operatives,'' he concluded, full of appropriate moral indignation. With help from the Masters of Disaster, Stephanopoulos had managed to turn a potentially disastrous scandal into a shameful Republican ""plot'' in less than 72 hours.

As they looked at the polling data in early July, Clinton and his team began to breathe easier, even to joke a little about subjects once forbidden. One evening after Dick Morris had finished reciting the numbers on voters' approval of Clinton's foreign-policy performance, McCurry stood up and began a dramatic reading. His text was ""Bill Clinton, Ambassador of Love,'' an item that had appeared in Harper's magazine. ""Clinton's foreign policy shows that he is a better lover than any president in U.S. history,'' McCurry began.

""Hey,'' said Clinton. ""Gimme that.''

CLINTON, HIS READING GLASSES perched on his nose, seized the article, which went on to compare Clinton's hesitancy to use force internationally to his supposed skills in bed. ""For once, here is a president who delays his own climax to coincide with that of his mates,'' the article suggested. The president was engrossed.

After the flap over Hillary's imagined conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt, Penn had polled on whether people thought the First Lady was really talking to spirits or just seeking a deeper understanding of the problems faced by earlier presidential wives.

Penn displayed the results for Clinton on the overhead projector in the Yellow Oval Room. Thirteen percent thought Hillary was trying to talk to the dead. Nearly 80 percent went for the more benign explanation. Eleven percent were undecided.

Penn was about to whisk away the display when Clinton interrupted. ""Hey, leave that up there,'' the president said. ""That's more than a hundred percent.''

""Yeah, we got the paranormals,'' someone cracked from the silk sofas.

""Well, they're our voters,'' Clinton shot back. ""I told you I was expanding my base.''