The Magazine

THE PRESIDENT'S SAMURAI

Aug 31, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 48 • By TOD LINDBERG
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NO GOOD MORALITY TALE is complete these days without a wallow in the slough of victimhood, and the Monica Lewinsky affair is no exception. Those laying claim to the mantle of victim are many, ranging from President Clinton (in his blast against independent counsel Kenneth Starr when he was supposed to be apologizing) to Monica herself (who at last report was miffed that the Big He didn't have so much as a kind word for her). As the week of The Speech unfolded, though, the emerging consensus of official Washington was that the true victims were the poor souls whom Bill Clinton had callously and calculatingly sent out for seven months to do his lying for him: the loyal aides and allies who had taken him at his word.


That list is a long one, starting with the first lady, continuing through the secretary of state and other cabinet officials, to Democratic members of Congress, on to senior and junior White House staff, and down to a small army of Democratic consultants, pollsters, chief cooks, and bottle-washers sent out to feed the all-Monica cable programming. The closer to the Oval, the greater the sympathy: Poor Ann ("Sex is sex. A sexual relationship means what it says, and that includes sex") Lewis. Poor Rahm ("He said there was no sexual relationship. . . . And I believe him") Emanuel. Poor Paul ("I believe him completely, and I know he's telling the truth") Begala. Oh yes, and poor Hillary. How was she holding up? "She's a human being," her spokesperson reassured us.


No doubt there is a world of hurt out there. The president did have defenders who believed him. He also had a bunch more who, whether they believed him or not, put their mugs out in his behalf. But before we get too caught up in a victimology that, by the time it's finished, is going to assign martyr status to the Democratic party's entire cadre, let's not forget that this band of brothers voluntarily stepped out to propagate the president's line. And their willingness to do so was unpreceded by searching personal inquiry into the truth or falsity of the allegations against their president. On the contrary. They had their jobs to do, they had their talking points, and they did their jobs.


To understand what has been going on, one must consider an aspect of Washington culture generally regarded as a bit impolitic to get into. And that is the culture of Samurai Washington.


I first heard the term applied to the capital at a university roundtable discussion starring an important United States senator. Around the table we went, introducing ourselves and giving our professional affiliations. When it came the turn of a staffer traveling with the senator, he matter-of-factly gave his name, then said, "Samurai to Sen. [X]." It got a laugh. It's a funny line. But it's not merely funny.


The Washington aristocracy is not hereditary, as was the landed aristocracy of feudal Japan. But our latter-day daimyos are no less the sole masters of their domain, from the White House to the House and Senate office buildings, from the party committees to the cabinet departments. The generic Washington name for such a baron is a "principal." And, not to put too fine a point on it, if you are not a principal, you serve a principal. (Sometimes even if you are a principal, you serve a bigger principal.) And in exchange for the benefits of the patron who has you on retainer, you serve your principal faithfully and completely.


This is a phenomenon that applies to both political parties. If you speak to someone in Newtland, for example -- that network of staffs and organizations emanating from the House speaker's office -- you will get the Gingrich perspective on things. Oh, sure, there are plenty of topics on which the speaker is indifferent, or on which he wishes to encourage debate among his retinue. His samurai are not automatons. But on the issues on which he has decided to take a stand, he is not to be contradicted. Is he right? Is he wrong? Wrong questions. He is right because he is the speaker. To cease to advance his positions is to forfeit one's claim to his patronage. In other words, go find yourself another job. If you don't like the code of the samurai, perhaps you should pursue another career (such as journalism).


What you need in order to go out in the world and spread the world is not some deeply felt certitude about the truth or efficaciousness of the message. What you need is your talking points. You are certainly permitted to believe your talking points. But you are not required to believe them. And your self-esteem, samurai self-esteem, comes not from speaking truthfully and thoughtfully but from speaking well in the service of your master. How can they do it, these consultants -- so people ask? How can they just stare into the camera and ignore the questions and spout back the party line? The answer is really very simple: It's their job. Moreover, there is usually a sense of higher purpose, namely, that advancing the interests of the principal serves some good end. In politics, after all, your principal's enemy wants to defeat you. Your principal need not be perfect to warrant a vigorous defense. James Carville has noted that he owes everything he has to Bill Clinton, and that Bill Clinton's partisan enemies are out to get him, so Carville is going to be a defender of Bill Clinton. That is samurai.


You could say that the feudal baron owes a certain debt to his samurai. He should not send them off to battle for no reason. He should not let them be destroyed. And usually he doesn't. In the case of the samurai sent out to spread the word, that means maintaining credibility. Spinning is a time-honored Washington activity, and its premise is that there is some point of connection between the spin and the truth. Because of this convention, one may spin extravagantly but still be credible, at least as a spinner. If your party wins a special election, it is surely an indicator of a great victory to come, whereas to your opposite number, the loss was purely a product of local factors with no lessons to teach about nationwide trends. At least you will agree who won.


But every so often, and not infrequently in Bill Clinton's Washington, something goes wrong. It is the unique gift of this administration to take all the sins of Washington and magnify them a thousand-fold. In this case, the baron of the Oval Office sent his spinners forth to lie for the cause. Presumably, he did so in the hope that the lie would never be discovered. But still, he did it.


This was surely a bad thing. But given Washington samurai culture, it was a natural thing. Clinton merely expected his staff to serve him. That, after all, is their job. And note well: Had he come clean about Monica Lewinsky at the outset in January, he would have sent the very same people forth to make the case for him, albeit with a different set of talking points. Does anyone think they wouldn't have gone?


Lanny Davis, that generally happy warrior, understands the situation well. On MSNBC the day after The Speech, he was asked about his feelings. It had been a hard day, he said. But "people like me aren't priorities here."


Spoken like a true samurai. Of course this is Washington, not feudal Japan. The samurai culture that people join here, they join willingly. They are free to leave. What's noteworthy is how many put aside their feelings, even under such extreme circumstances as Bill Clinton's demands create, and decide to stay. They did not create his lie, but they did propagate it without question. For this, they deserve no pity.




Tod Lindberg is editorial-page editor of the Washington Times.