Spinning a story works well, but not for long. Watching spin-meister Bill Clinton last week reminded me of its short-term power and long-term futility.
Clinton — sporting a bright yellow open shirt and blue sports jacket, and holding up a wireless mike — was dazzling our star-studded conference in Aspen, Colo. Meanwhile his minions were spinning Time magazine about how our last president was a staunch anti-terrorist while our current president, George W. Bush, was lackadaisical, if not irresponsible, on terrorism.
Time bit the bait. Its current issue "scoops" how the Clinton team devised an aggressive plan to kill Usama bin Laden and demolish the Al Qaeda network. Sadly, the Bush crowd let the tough plan languish for eight months, until after Sept. 11. That was the line, which the White House denied in general over the weekend.
Yet the Time story had by then made the news rounds. Hence the fast effectiveness of a spin operation.
But, so what?
Clinton's constant maneuvering and shaving of truth had long tarnished, if not ruined, his credibility. If the Clinton team scored with a nice spin over the weekend, it loses in anything longer than a single news cycle.
Obviously, the Clinton machine is ramping up his toughness against terrorism precisely because he's especially vulnerable there.
At the Aspen conference, sponsored by Fortune magazine, Clinton was staunchly anti- Saddam. Indeed, he was among the conference's harshest critics of the Iraqi tyrant. But he talks so tough now primarily because he acted so weakly then — when it really counted:
— When Saddam stopped U.N. international inspectors from looking around key Iraqi facilities, the Clinton team acquiesced.
— When Iraqi henchmen tried to assassinate a former president of the United States in 1994, the Clinton team flung a few cruise missiles Saddam's way. These U.S. weapons hit Iraqi military and intelligence facilities late at night, signaling that it was OK for us to kill the nighttime cleaning crew, but not OK to kill any military or intelligence leader of the regime itself.
— When Iraq stopped all international inspections, there was scant protest from the Clinton White House, or ambassador to the U.N.
Listening to Clinton on Iraq now impresses. Learning what Clinton did on Iraq then depresses.
Likewise on his handling of bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network. Time's current story portrays a determined president urging assertive action. The real record shows a queasy president spurning much of any action.
A major book in the works documents precisely how President Clinton passed up three chances to nab Usama bin Laden before the Sept. 11 attacks against us. The first public glimpse of this negligence appeared last January when Britain's best, and best-selling, newspaper, The Sunday Times, ran a three-part series on Al Qaeda that concluded:
"President Bill Clinton turned down at least three offers involving foreign governments to help to seize Usama bin Laden after he was identified as a terrorist who was threatening America, according to sources in Washington and the Middle East."
In the summer of 1996, intelligence officials from the Sudan suggested they would hand over to us Usama bin Laden — then living in Sudan — just as they had handed over Carlos "The Jackal" to French authorities two years earlier.
Yet unlike the tough-minded French, the flabby Clinton crowd let pass Sudan's offer. Sure enough, a month later bin Laden struck, with a 5,000-pound truck bomb that ripped the Khobar Towers, an American military installation in Saudi Arabia, and killed 19 innocent U.S. soldiers.
The Clinton White House received two more offers in the summer of 2000, neither receiving any serious response. Then, of course, Usama bin Laden struck big time by slaughtering more than 3,000 Americans in the World Trade Centers and Pentagon on Sept. 11.
We all shared the horror. For a fleeting instance, even Clinton felt the cost of his frivolous behavior. In that Sunday Times series was the report that Clinton "admitted how things went wrong in Sudan at a private dinner at a Manhattan restaurant shortly after Sept. 11 last year. According to a witness, Clinton told a dinner companion that the decision to let bin Laden go was probably 'the biggest mistake of my presidency.'"
But that was before the Clinton spin operation resumed its attempt to manage the truth. It won't work, at least not for long.
Kenneth Adelman is a frequent guest commentator on Fox News, was assistant to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from 1975 to 1977 and, under President Ronald Reagan, U.N. ambassador and arms-control director. Mr. Adelman is now co-host of TechCentralStation.com.