Lanny Davis: Clinton Campaign Moralist, Spin Doctor
His is a ubiquitous presence on the campaign trail.
Lanny Davis, the crisis management communications guru, is not, technically speaking, affiliated with Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. But when it comes to surrogates in this never-ending Democratic race, his enthusiasm for the New York Democrat is seemingly unmatched; his elbows, uniquely sharp.
Indeed, Davis has gone where others only tread in private. In the wake of revelations over controversial statements of Sen. Barack Obama's former pastor, the Clinton campaign enforced a code of silence. Davis, in contrast, took to the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal -- enemy turf in progressive circles -- expressing bewilderment about the relationship.
And even before William Ayers and the Weather Underground were thrust into the center of the political debate, Davis was posing questions to Obama on the matter during a segment of Fox News' Hannity and Colmes.
Advocacy on these issues, while usually not directed by Clinton's staff, has its side effects: Davis's words are often interpreted by media outlets as indicators of the campaign's unvarnished mindset. And it also raises questions, such as, is Davis practicing what he preached? After all, it was only two years ago that he wrote a book decrying the omnipresence of gossip and triviality in political campaigns.
"Scandal has become the chief instrument of mass political destruction for more than 30 years," he wrote on page two of his work, "Scandal: How 'Gotcha' Politics Is Destroying America": "More and more people are fed up with the food fight ideologues on both sides and share Shakespeare's sentiment, 'a pox on both your houses.' Across the spectrum there is a desire to debate the issues on the merits and find solutions -- and a disgusted with the politics of personal destruction."
To the casual (and not so casual) observer, there would appear to be a certain amount of friction between such political piety and Davis' current campaign conduct. But Davis, not surprisingly, doesn't see it that way. For him, Wright and even Ayers are hardly superficial matters.
"My view on Reverend Wright is, I don't care if you are black or white, if you sit silently and you listen to racism or bigotry or hate and you're silent, then you are complicit," he told The Huffington Post. "There is no such thing as context if someone says n----r. There is no context. If my Rabbi from the pulpit said they are all n----rs, would you ask me to understand the context, or would you say there is no context? There is no context that is bigotry. So you are using a double standard if you say [when Wright says] God damn white America, let's look at the context versus my Rabbi saying they are all n----rs... They are the same statements."
There is a moral dimension to such an interpretation, one that laces Davis's broader assessment of Obama. Take, for example, his view on Will Ayers, the unrepentant Weather Underground member with whom Obama has a 'friendly' but not serious relationship.
"Would I serve on the board with a murdering thug terrorist? No. This isn't gotcha politics," Davis said. "What bothers me about it is not that he is friends with the guy, who he disagrees with. It is, does he draw the line when it is somebody who justifies murder and justifies terrorism?"
The question, in essence, is not whether Obama relates with what Wright said or Ayers did -- "he doesn't share those views," Davis acknowledged, "there is not a shred of bigotry in Barack Obama's body" -- it is whether Obama has shown the requisite judgment in each instance.
But such moral policing demands consistency. And, in private, Obama's supporters and even impartial observers question whether Davis is nothing more than a shill on these matters. After all, it was two years ago when Davis was telling NPR that "the American people are angry" because "we can't even get issues debated anymore because we are so subsumed under the scandal culture."
Moreover, it was just a decade ago when he was the one spinning -- day in and day out -- the infidelities of former President Clinton.
"If you want me to compare character issues to what this reveals about Obama and what Bill Clinton's dalliances revealed about his character issue, I would not have to comment because this is an election about Hillary Clinton," he said when asked about this period of his life.
Moreover, Davis has also been involved in at least one politically controversial episode himself. In the late 1990s as a lobbyist for Patton Boggs, he successfully convinced the U.S. government to provide Pakistan a slate of F-16 jets the country had purchased but, because of its newly nuclear status, had not received. The move did not sit well with India or some foreign policy officials. Nor for that matter does Davis's current opinion that Pakistan should be as well-armed as its democratic neighbor.
"I had more mixed feelings before the election than I do now," he said. "But yes, I certainly feel that Pakistan and India should be treated the same but especially after 9/11. It's a complicated question. But now that [Pakistan has] gotten closer to being a democracy, it looks to me that they are much closer to where they need to be."
For all the quibbles over Davis' resume, it is difficult to deny that he has been one of Clinton's most committed surrogates. Davis got his start in politics as a student in the 1960s working for former New York mayor John Lindsay. He met the Clintons at Yale law school. And in the 1970s, he twice tried to run for Congress. He went to work for the White House counsel's office in 1996 as the point guy on inquiries surrounding fundraising scandals, Whitewater and Travelgate. White House press secretary Mike McCurry called him "my garbage man." Soon after, he was brought back to deal with the Lewinsky scandal.
Ten years later, he is soldiering on for Clinton's wife. And his passion -- or is it spin? -- is similarly fierce. Take, for example, Davis' opinion on Tom Shales, the Washington Post television critic who took serious umbrage with ABC's handling of last Tuesday's debate.
"Tom Shales has been a negative, cynical -- I won't use the word bitter, that's not the word you are allowed to use any more -- writer for years," he said. "Why doesn't he say Tom Shales, Washington Post, Barack Obama partisan, and write his piece?"
Or his opinion of the netroots, the Democratic activist base that aggressively targeted Davis's close friend and political ally, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, during the 2006 Senate campaign and has frictional relationship with Clinton.
"The real scary hatred and truly vicious personal attack language is coming from the left now and not from the right," Davis said. "[Lieberman's campaign] was the beginning of my understanding of the hatred and virulence from the left of Democratic Party that otherwise describes itself of liberal and tolerant."
But for all the complaints -- or, perhaps, because of them -- Davis seems aware that his candidate of choice may end up losing the nomination. And, perhaps cognizant of this reality, he made sure that his criticisms of Obama were tempered with a splash of reverence as well. Before hanging up the phone on a follow-up interview, Davis made one last request. That the following passage finds its way into the article:
"My regard for Barack Obama as a candidate, human being and intellect, is very high. And I have not changed my mind about that one iota. He excited me when he first started running and he still excites me if for no other reason than what he is doing for the younger generations... The Reverend Wright unease is derived from another set of issues but it has nothing to do with all the positive regard for him."