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.
Hardly anyone bought the story. "It was ridiculous," says one newspaper reporter who heard Begala's explanation. "Find a single person who doesn't remember being drafted. People remember what they had for breakfast when they were drafted because they threw it up." Pressed to explain how the governor had forgotten something so significant, Begala went on the attack, berating the press for asking such absurd, unfair questions. "He understood that bullying works," says the reporter. "He would get in your face and denounce you as part of the media elite and denounce you as someone who hated Clinton, hated progress. He understands that your average upper-middle-class white male Washington journalist is a product of a sheltered, suburban upbringing, and he would play on the guilt associated with that. It was never a pretty operation."
It didn't get any prettier. After the election, Begala continued to put out scandal fires for the Clintons, and to rail against the "Republican sleaze machine." When the Washington Post reported that Clinton had received a $ 200 haircut on the tarmac at the Los Angeles airport, Begala berated the newspaper for running the story. "That's pathetic," he said. "Get a life." When Newt Gingrich suggested that some White House staffers had been using drugs, Begala attacked the speaker as a pot-smoking "deadbeat dad," who had organized a "pro-obscenity campaign in college." The Clintons believed that Begala's outbursts were effective -- they went over particularly well with Hillary -- and Begala might have stayed attached to the White House indefinitely. In 1994, however, Bob Woodward published The Agenda, his book on the first year of the administration. It was obvious that Begala had been one of Woodward's more talkative sources. Begala was forced to apologize to the White House. Within a year, he had moved back to Austin.
"I fully intended to stay in Texas for the rest of my life," Begala says now, sounding slightly wistful. "I had the life I wanted. I had a great teaching job, I had a great PR job, I was with all my friends. I was never asked to do anything I was uncomfortable with." He was also making good money, representing corporate clients like Coca-Cola and Southwest Airlines. When Clinton called last year and asked him to return to the White House, however, Begala says he had little choice: "I realized I couldn't say no to this guy."
Paul Begala is a religious man -- his sentences are studded with lines from Scripture, he reads papal encyclicals, his oldest son is named after the pope -- and if you listen to him long enough it becomes clear that Bill Clinton has a prominent place in his theology. Begala speaks like a person whose very life has been redeemed by the president. "I believe in this man. I really love this guy," Begala says with some emotion. "I owe him. He's certainly earned the faith that I have placed in him."
Faith is what Begala's defense of the president is all about. Begala happily admits that he has never asked the president to explain what, exactly, Monica Lewinsky was doing in the Oval Office -- or for that matter asked about any of the other details that have convinced the rest of official Washington that Clinton is lying about the affair. "I don't have to ask," Begala explains. He knows. Such faith has turned out to be helpful in the PR arena, allowing Begala to dismiss without contrary evidence unflattering news stories about the president. Asked on television the other day to comment on a New York Times report that Monica Lewinsky had been waved into the Oval Office 37 times, Begala announced authoritatively that the story was "untrue." How does Begala know the story is inaccurate? "Most people don't know [Clinton] the way I've come to know him," he says.
Misplaced as it may be, Begala's belief in Clinton's goodness is not phony. "There's an enormous consistency between what he'll say on the air and what he says in meetings," says one of Begala's White House colleagues, "more so than other people here." Talking to him, one gets the sense that if it is ever proven that Clinton lied about Lewinsky, Begala would be crushed, that his very understanding of the world would crumble.
On the other hand, he's not taking any chances. Not only did President Clinton not -- never, not ever, under any circumstances -- have a sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky, Begala says, but lots of Republicans do it, too. "From President Reagan to Sen. Dole to Speaker Gingrich, there have been leaders in the Republican party who have admitted to a lot of moral failings," he says. "I haven't seen Bill Bennett attacking them, passing moral judgment on them. I'm bothered by the hypocrisy." And, says Begala, he's not the only one who is bothered by it. So is Jesus. "In fact," he points out, "the only time Christ was moved to physical violence was in the face of hypocrisy, not in the face of adultery or immorality."
Paul Begala's loyalty to Bill Clinton is genuine, and apparently boundless. But how does Clinton regard Begala? It's hard to know for certain, but there are signs. During the 1992 race, Begala spent more time with Clinton than perhaps any other member of the campaign. Begala was frequently the first to see Clinton in the morning, sometimes handing the candidate his towel as he emerged from the shower. The two usually spent all day together.
How did Clinton repay him? According to The Agenda, "The morning of the inauguration, Begala received a phone call telling him he would not be sitting on the podium outside the U.S. Capitol where Clinton would be sworn in. Instead, he was assigned seats down front. He and his wife picked up their tickets that morning, only to find their seats were located in the last reserved section, down front, but way, way back. They went, and his wife wept. "
As it turns out, Begala's partner, James Carville, also found himself relegated to third-class seating at the inauguration. Carville, however, is a somewhat less faithful man than Begala -- "I'm a Mediterranean Catholic," he says -- and so is less willing to endure such a humiliating snub. He stayed home and watched the event on television.
Not surprisingly, Carville also has a less theological understanding of political loyalty. Begala, he says, is a good political consultant, and, unlike "sunshine soldiers and summer patriots," a good consultant is apt "to be drawn by the sound of gunfire on the Potomac." That's simply the way good consultants are. To explain it, Carville invokes not metaphysics, but The Godfather: "In the words of Michael Corleone, 'This is what we chose to do with our lives.'"
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.