The Magazine


Feb 23, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 23 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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PAUL BEGALA IS NOT YOUR ORDINARY PR sleaze -- so why is he acting like one? In his private life, the presidential adviser is by all accounts a decent, upright person, an ardent Catholic with three children and a stable marriage. Off camera, he is friendly, intelligent, and witty. He is well liked by his peers at the White House. But put a microphone in his face, and Begala becomes something else entirely.

Four days after the Monica Lewinsky story broke, the White House sent Begala to the first of many network television appearances, on ABC's This Week. Begala arrived in the studio with almost nothing new to say about the scandal beyond what little President Clinton himself had already said. Unable to explain the president's ties to Lewinsky, Begala was reduced to dodging. In one particularly painful exchange, co-host Cokie Roberts asked Begala a simple question -- Can a married man have a "proper" physical relationship with a woman who is not his wife? -- more than half a dozen times without getting a direct answer. Begala finally retreated into non sequiturs. "I think that we have now descended into a point where we are going to shut down the recovery," he huffed. "We are going to shut down the government. We are going to shut down everything to start asking about whether somebody made a phone call to somebody."

Begala's interview with Tim Russert on Meet the Press two weeks later was even more excruciating. Russert went after Begala relentlessly, pressing him to answer "a very simple question: What was the relationship between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky?" Begala didn't even bother to be subtly evasive. Instead, he launched directly into a rambling lecture on Ken Starr's moral failings. By the end of the segment, Begala had referred to the independent counsel's "false," "corrupt," "criminal" campaign of "illegal leaks" more than 15 times. "Well, Mr. Begala," said Russert at one point, clearly frustrated, "let's get beyond the leaks, let's get beyond Ken Starr." Begala made a sympathetic face. "I wish we could," he said.

Begala's performance on Meet the Press was remarkable even by the standards of political flackery, and in the most obvious ways it was dishonest and transparently diversionary. But it is also possible to feel sorry for Begala. Why is he doing it?

Habit, for one reason. Begala was an early practitioner of the Clinton administration's now-familiar strategy for containing scandal -- deny, attack, change the subject. Begala (along with his partner, James Carville) was hired by the 1992 Clinton campaign largely on the strength of his reputation as crafty but brutal. "If he works for you, he'll go to war for you," said Georgia governor Zell Miller, who first recommended Begala, his former client, to the Clintons. Begala's partisan zeal soon became legendary. "I want to drive a stake through those Republican hearts," he told the Washington Post days before the election. "I really do." His temperament made him perfectly suited to manage the campaign's many unexpected public-relations explosions, and Begala spent much of his time trying to convince the press that Gennifer Flowers and Whitewater were not worthy topics for news stories. He was particularly visible during the furor over Clinton's draft record.

In April 1992, the Associated Press reported that, while at Oxford in 1969, Clinton had received an induction notice from the U.S. military. It was a damaging revelation, particularly since the candidate had already implied, in an interview with the Washington Post, that he had never been drafted. "I wound up just going through the lottery," he told the Post in December 1991, "and it was just a pure fluke that I wasn't called." Begala was charged with explaining this apparent inconsistency to the media. At an informal press conference, Begala told reporters that Clinton had simply forgotten about getting his induction notice. It was a long time ago, Begala explained, and although his military record had been an issue in several previous campaigns, Clinton hadn't thought about it since the '60s.