A Tale of Clintonian Spin: Trying to Blow Past the Weathermen Question

| Mon Apr. 21, 2008 1:30 PM EDT

All campaigns spin. All candidates spin. But there is something about Clintonian spin that is...well, spinnier than conventional spin.

Here's an example. Last Thursday, following the mis-moderated Clinton-Obama debate of the previous evening, the Hillary Clinton campaign decided to follow up by blasting Barack Obama on two issues that had been tossed at him the previous evening: his past support of a handgun ban and his connection to William Ayers, a former Weather Underground radical who has become a distinguished professor and education expert. During a conference call that morning, Howard Wolfson and Phil Singer, two senior Clinton aides, hammered Obama for having held a fundraiser in 1995, during his first campaign for state senator, in Ayers' apartment. At the time, Ayers, who has admitted taking part in bombings during the 1970s (which never caused any loss of life) and who was never arrested for any of his radical actions, lived near Obama, and the two served on the board of a nonprofit that provided grants to groups working on poverty issues. Obama, Wolfson insisted, had "to be more forthcoming" about Ayers.

During that conference call, I asked Wolfson whether Senator Clinton supported the pardon Bill Clinton issued in 2001 to two Weather Underground radicals: Linda Evans, who was sentenced to prison for participating in a series of bombings in the 1980s, and Susan Rosenberg, who was charged with being part of a bank robbery that left a guard and two police officers dead. Whether or not the Ayers matter was a non-issue, if Hillary Clinton's aides were going to bash Obama for having once had a connection to a former radical who had never been arrested, it seemed fair to wonder if she had opposed her husband's pardons of two radicals who had served time for their crimes.

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Wolfson did not answer the question. Instead, he noted that the pardoned Weather Underground radicals had never held a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton. I pointed out that was not the issue--and again asked if Senator Clinton supported or opposed those two pardons. "I don't know what she said," Wolfson replied. And in front of the dozens of reporters on the call, Wolfson promised he would get back to me.

Once the call was done, I emailed Wolfson a reminder that he had promised he would provide an answer to that question. Within minutes, he responded, "It was a fair question and I know this issue does inspire a fair amount of passion." There was no answer in this email.

I waited patiently for a day and then shot Wolfson another note: "Any answer to my question from yesterday?" He replied, "turns out i actually answered this in '01." And he sent me an excerpt from a news story at the time of the pardons:

"She thinks that it was a pardon made by the president," said spokesman Howard Wolfson. Wolfson provided the same response to questions about her view of the pardon of former Weather Underground radical Susan Rosenberg, serving a 58-year weapons-possession sentence and long suspected by law-enforcement officials of involvement in the 1981 Brink's truck robbery in which two New York police officers were killed. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has criticized that pardon.

Consider Wolfson's reply: She thinks it was a pardon made by the president. It's close to a non sequitur. Imagine if you asked Hillary Clinton what she thought of her husband's affair with an intern, and her spokesperson said, "She thinks that it was an affair."

Did Wolfson believe he could get away with pretending this was actually responsive to the question of whether Clinton supported or opposed those two pardons? Meanwhile, other reporters--and Obama aides--were asking me if Wolfson had yet provided an answer.

In an email to Wolfson, I noted that the quote he had sent did not answer the question. "The question is," I wrote, "does she believe the pardons were appropriate? And at the time, did she support or oppose them?" In return, there was silence. I waited a bit and sent another email: "Am I going to get a reply to my last note?" Nothing came.

On Monday morning, during a Clinton campaign conference call, I asked Wolfson once more if Clinton supported or opposed the pardons. He remarked that he had sent me that clip. I pointed out that it had said nothing. He then commented, "I'm not aware she had an opinion" at the time the pardons were granted. He next insisted that my question had only applied to that time frame. It certainly had not. In the first call, I had asked "whether she thought [the pardons] were appropriate" and "what she thinks of" the pardons. (Note the verb tenses.) I also had asked whether she would "do anything like that herself." But now I said I would amend the question to cover then, now, and any time in between. He replied, "I don't have any more for you than what I've given you." That is, more nothing.

Clinton's pardons for these two radicals--like Ayers' relation to Obama--is no big issue. But Wolfson had promised an answer. Instead, he sidestepped and then ducked. Wolfson makes about $450,000 a year working for the Clinton campaign. I suppose evading questions is part of the job. But absurd spin? She thinks the pardon is a pardon. Mischaracterizing questions to avoid answering them? If this is how Wolfson handles this not-so-tough question, what would he do as White House press secretary?

Clarification: Clinton did not issue pardons to Rosenberg and Evans; he commuted their prison sentences. Media accounts often conflate the two different actions. These two commutations were announced by the White House on January 20, 2001, as part of a long list of almost 140 pardons and commutations, which included the infamous pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich--which was a pardon.