Scandal Handling 101


The stonewalling has only just begun. The most experienced scandal handler in recent American politics comes to senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s rescue this week, building a cone of silence over the squawk engulfing her husband’s eleventh-hour pardon of a half-dozen New Yorkers.

Jim Kennedy was Bill Clinton’s exclusive spokesman for all questions about the Lewinsky saga. Later, he raced from situation to situation trying to stamp out flash fires for both Clintons, and for Vice President Al Gore.

As Kennedy officially begins work this week as Hillary’s spokesman, the longtime former aide to Joe Lieberman faces questions about what role Hillary played in her husband’s pardons of financiers Marc Rich and Pincus Green, and the commutation of sentences for four felons from the Hasidic village of New Square.

The New Square scandal isn’t likely to go away, and not only because the conservative village of Orthodox Jews overwhelmingly and surprisingly voted for Hillary. It’s because Chaim Berger, the founder of New Square and the alleged leader of the scam to steal $10 million in government grant money by setting up a phony yeshiva, fled to Israel in 1997, and is now fighting extradition.

Berger’s son was one of the four New Square residents whose sentences were reduced by Clinton. As of early this week, the subject of whether the revered Chaim Berger will still be pursued on criminal charges hadn’t yet surfaced in questions about the controversial pardons and commutations.

“Someone had to hand out the few daily crumbs to the press.”

If the past is prologue, the celebrity senator will duck and cover while her new spokesman takes her defense to new heights of legalistic nit-picking, sarcasm, and half-truth telling.

Hillary granted practically no interviews during her Senate campaign, and she appeared on zero talk shows. But that is nothing new. During a two-week excursion with 15 journalists through Africa as first lady, she refused all requests for interviews, media maven Howard Kurtz later wrote in his book Spin Cycle.

Her penchant for secrecy was not a reaction to her years in the White House; she brought it with her. Immediately after Bill Clinton took office in ’93, he set up a health care “task force” headed by Hillary, but those meetings were closed to the public.

When the Lewinsky scandal broke in January 1998, Bill Clinton’s political advisers urged him to grant interviews and talk about it, according to Kurtz’s account. But Clinton’s legal team advised him to say nothing. Hillary “also opposed the idea,” wrote Kurtz. It was at that time that Kennedy became the legal team’s mouthpiece, taking the title of special adviser to Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff.

“Someone had to hand out the few daily crumbs to the press,” Kurtz wrote, and Kennedy became that person.

A week later, Hillary went on the Today Show and blasted the “vast right-wing conspiracy” of “evil-minded” people who had supposedly conjured up the story of her husband and Lewinsky.

No one knew at the time that the odds were literally 7.87 trillion to one that Bill Clinton was responsible for the semen stain on that devil of a blue dress.

But even before that, several of Clinton’s advisers urged him to talk. In April 1998, only four months after Lanny Davis (a former college classmate of Joe Lieberman’s) turned over his flak jacket to Kennedy, Davis urged Clinton to eventually talk in detail about the Lewinsky matter.

“On the day Ken Starr files his report, I believe the President should sit down with one or more journalists and answer every question there is to be asked,” Davis was quoted as saying in the Daily News.

When Clinton finally did speak to the country on August 17, 1998, he was combative rather than contrite.

Much later, it was reported that Clinton had had a chance to express remorse, but he had rejected a speech that included this passage: “I never should have had any sexual contact with Monica Lewinsky, but I did. I should have acknowledged that I was wrong months ago, but I didn’t. I thought I was shielding my family, but I know in the end, for Hillary and Chelsea, delay has only brought more pain.”

Instead, in the speech he ended up giving, Clinton didn’t use the phrase “sexual contact.”

Kennedy’s response to press queries about the rejected version was typically weaselish. He was quoted as saying that the rejected speech “appears to be a draft that was volunteered by someone outside the White House, and my understanding is it is not one that the president saw.”

The spokesman made it sound as if some admirer from Keokuk had suggested it. But top Democrats confirmed that the remorseful version was submitted by the Democrats’ most revered speechwriter, Bob Shrum.

A skillful speechwriter like Shrum may eventually be needed to help Hillary. But her more immediate problem is how not to answer the continuing questions about the Clintons’ frenetic quest for Jewish support. Perhaps Hillary herself could have quelled some of those back in 1999 if she had been more open.

A month after her trip to the West Bank, in which she angered many zealous Jews by pecking Suha Arafat on the cheek and sitting silent while the Palestinian leader’s wife blasted Israelis, Hillary was escorted by Joe Lieberman to a New York meeting of the powerful Jewish group the Orthodox Union.

It was her first meeting with Jewish leaders since the disastrous trip, and they had told her that they didn’t mind its being open to the press and would leave it up to her.

It was closed.

Kennedy’s longtime boss, Lieberman, was on hand to spin for Hillary after that meeting. But Kennedy himself spun and wove for Hillary during the campaign.

When the Clintons relied on friend Terry McAuliffe to guarantee the mortgage for their new White House in Chappaqua, ethics watchdogs howled.

Kennedy, identified as the “White House legal office spokesman,” gave this explanation: “This is a mortgage product offered to other customers. It’s not unique. It’s something anyone can obtain.”

Well, not exactly. The Washington Post quoted mortgage bankers as saying it was an unusual deal. And Charles R. Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity, hardly part of any “vast right-wing conspiracy” against the Clintons, said, “I am always uncomfortable when people who give money or raise money are personally involved with a public official financially.”

By that time, Kennedy had wide experience; he had handled questions about the China fundraising thing, Al Gore’s Buddhist temple thing, the missing e-mails thing, the FALN clemency thing.

It was only natural that late last December he would be the one speaking for the president about the possibility of upcoming pardons.

A December 22 story in The Christian Science Monitor noted that presidential pardons were taking on a “more partisan tone” and that presidents usually wait until the end of their tenure to grant the more controversial ones.

Clinton was to make his announcements soon, the Monitor noted, and Kennedy said fairness, not politics, would be the motivation for the pardons.

“It’s about what’s just,” Kennedy was quoted as saying. “We’ll let the record speak for itself.”