The Magazine

THE PRESIDENT'S SAMURAI

Aug 31, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 48 • By TOD LINDBERG
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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.