Conspicuous Consumption

Lanny Davis's 'Crisis Tales': The Art of Distortion


Lanny Davis's 'Crisis Tales': The Art of Distortion

Illustration by Daniel Horowitz

Has a passenger died aboard your cruise ship? Have you been accused of insider trading? Have you led a corrupt and violent African regime? If you answered yes to any of these questions—or think that one day you might—then I’ve got a 381-page book for you.

On second thought, it’s best not to approach Crisis Tales, by Lanny Davis, as a “book” but rather as a lengthy advertisement to prospective clients who might avail themselves of Davis’s services as an attorney and crisis communicator. In it, Davis goes through “the five rules of crisis management,” using case studies to teach PR lessons such as “get ahead of the story” and “fight for the truth using law, media, and politics.”

Davis rose to prominence as a lawyer in the White House Counsel’s office, where he was an aggressive, effective defender of President Clinton through a series of congressional investigations. In the years since, he’s brought that same doggedness to the private sector, lobbying successfully on behalf of Martha Stewart, Royal Caribbean, and Charlie Rangel, among others.

Full disclosure: Davis and I have tangled once before. I made a joke on Twitter about an op-ed he wrote, and he responded by suggesting I didn’t have all the facts (a refrain he repeats often in Crisis Tales). All the same, I came to the book with an open mind, and I’ve now read each and every chapter in which he attempts to set the record straight and get to the “facts”—or “true facts,” as he insists on calling them—in defense not only of his clients but also of himself. He goes so far as to dedicate the book to “truth and fairness.” His tone is at times glum: Davis laments that “no matter how hard you try, some people just don’t consider … being fair all that important.” His critics? A swarm of killer bees.

Some of his spin is harmless, such as the self-inflating way in which he remembers conversations. Davis ominously reports that he does not keep notes, not even as an aid to memory. Who needs notes when you’re in command of the true facts? “You’re the famous ‘tell it all’ Master Spinmeister,” says football legend Gene Upshaw, not quite speaking likea human being. “You had it right with the press conference. It was ‘tell it all, tell it early’ classic Davis preemption strategy,” offers Rahm Emanuel, sounding nothing at all like Rahm Emanuel.

Davis’s reframing of history is harder to stomach. In 2009 he was hired by the Honduran National Business Council, the wealthy backers of a military coup that had removed a democratically elected president. He places the word coup in quotation marks, a flourish that’s revealing, if not very charming. As he describes it, negotiators in contact with the exiled president seeking his return would present a proposed compromise to Davis. Davis was to bring that compromise to the council, which, surprising no one, was in close contact with the installed interim government. That’s not shuttle diplomacy; that’s defending a side.

Here and elsewhere, one’s left feeling unmoored, unsure of what’s true and what isn’t. Moreover, it’s hard to distinguish between what Davis believes and what he believes he has to say, between the justifications he’s made to himself and those he makes to the rest of us. A gem: “It never dawned on me that people wouldn’t believe that I could be hired by a client and paid a lot of money while not defending the client’s position.” This on his decision to represent the government of Ivory Coast despot Laurent Gbagbo for $300,000.

In Washington there are many honorable people on all sides, young staffers, earnest wonks, skeptical reporters, and furious activists. Too often they’re set against a humming system of misleading reports and shady front groups, of lobbyists and hired guns who poison debates, sow mistrust, and provide cover for politicians. This machinery of misinformation has helped lead our country to dysfunction. And, unlike Davis, we won’t spin our way out of it.


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