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Jewish World Review May 14, 1999 /28 Iyar 5759

David Corn

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A 37-Year Losing Streak

(JWR) ---- (
THE MOST INTERESTING MOMENT I witnessed at the rematch between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cuban all-star team at Camden Yards last week did not occur on the field—where the lackluster Os, who were grumpy about playing on their day off, were trounced 12-6 by an ebullient Cuban squad. It came in the Camden Club, the bar and restaurant that overlooks the diamond from high above right field. There I overheard the conversation of two businessmen at the bar.

“So is the point to keep Communism from spreading elsewhere?”
“I don’t think so. Who the hell wants it?”
“But we say we want Cuba to be capitalist, right?”
“But we don’t let capitalism in?”
“No, we don’t.”
“And that doesn’t change anything.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“And the Canadians and the Europeans and the Asians are there, right?”
“Yeah. All over the place.”
“But not us?”
“No, not us.”
“This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Not any business sense.”
“Think this game’s going to make any difference?”

The other businessman shrugged and ordered another round of Scotch. In less than a minute, the two had encapsulated the absurdity of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. Since 1962, Washington has stuck to a consistent foreign policy regarding Cuba, which, unlike some other polices, has a clear goal: get rid of Fidel Castro and his undemocratic regime. After all that time, the results are easy to judge: Nada.

And it takes only a few moments between innings to figure that out. Before the game, Peter Angelos, the irascible owner of the Os, confessed to The Washington Post that one of his goals in pursuing baseball diplomacy with Havana was to take a swing at the embargo. Angelos recalled that in his preliminary discussions in 1995 with Washington writer Scott Armstrong and Baltimore attorney Rick Schaeffer, who were trying to organize this sports exchange, “we quickly reached a consensus that the embargo should be lifted and relations should be normalized. With the Orioles, I was in a position to make an overture, not to establish relations, but to do something positive.”

Though the game was marred by lousy play on the part of the ungracious Os, a rain delay and five anti-Castro protesters who ran about the field, it reminded people who probably don’t spend too much time thinking about Cuba—like the two suits at the bar—that U.S. policy prohibits any U.S.-Cuban commerce and bans Americans from traveling there. (As far as the U.S. government is concerned, Americans are free to travel almost anywhere in the world but this small island-nation.)

Angelos’ initiative is not likely to persuade the Clinton administration to lighten up or to address the contradictions of the embargo. (Trading with China, importing satellites for launches there and inviting its leader to the White House is fine, but American tourists cannot visit Hemingway’s home in Havana and Cuban baseball players cannot compete in the major leagues without defecting.) Still, the Os-Cubans games call attention to a policy that cannot withstand scrutiny.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the embargo has become even harder for conservatives to justify. In recent years, a small number of right-wingers have broken with the Cuban exile community on this matter. At the party hosted by Vanity Fair after the recent White House Correspondents dinner, I was chatting with Smith Bagley, a liberal philanthropist and Democratic donor, and Group-leader John McLaughlin.

The conservative among us was quite eager to see the embargo lifted and wondered if a legacy-seeking Clinton might try to normalize relations with Cuba. (McLaughlin is betting that Clinton is going to need to counter both Monicagate and Kosovo.) Bagley and I were not optimistic: It would entail political courage on Clinton’s part. He’d have to tell the Cuban expatriates who influence the Democratic Party in Florida and New Jersey to shove off. Clinton already punked out by signing the Helms-Burton legislation in 1996, which codified much of the embargo. Consequently, to undo the embargo, Clinton would need to win a fight in Congress.

But I did appreciate McLaughlin’s sentiments. And they’re spreading. A few weeks ago I ran into Grover Norquist, a conservative activist who functions as party central for the right-wingers in Washington, and asked him what he thought of the embargo. He wasn’t too enthusiastic about it, saying he recognized that perhaps lifting the embargo would bring change faster to Cuba. But, he added, the anti-Castro Cuban-Americans are part of his conservative coalition and he had to defer to them. If they decide to steer a new course, he’d follow. So it’s not only Clinton who is held hostage. When I saw Norquist more recently, he informed me that he had some initial conversations with other conservatives about rethinking the Cuba policy.

Except for those frozen by hatred of Castro, this is a no-brainer. The policy has failed miserably. Why not take a chance and see how Cuba might be affected by a flow of ideas, citizens and commerce between the two countries? If Castro became more repressive, the embargo could be reinstituted. After all these scoreless years, it is time to try a new game plan.


Two weeks back, I scoffed at former White House spin-jockey Lanny Davis’ attempts to spin his own reputation in his new book, Truth to Tell. Shortly after that I received an invitation to a reception honoring Davis. The bash was arranged by Patton Boggs, one of the cloutiest law firms in Washington, and Davis’ professional home before and after his stint as Clinton damage-controller. That the lobbyists of Patton Boggs should embrace Davis as a truth-teller is no surprise: Washington fixers make their livings by bending, folding and spindling the truth. Thomas Hale Boggs, the firm’s chieftain, not too long ago shared with a reporter his view on how to handle a political scandal: “You spin it and it’s over.”

On the invitation are the blurbs for the book, and it appears Davis has collected the seal of approval from at least two prominent journalists. Carl Bernstein, half of the reporting duo who became famous by countering Richard Nixon’s Watergate spin, says of Davis: “Lanny Davis has managed the considerable feat of serving all his constituents extremely well: President, Press and Public.” NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, too, offered kind words for Davis. Reporters who came into contact with Davis, as I did, should know that he saw his task as manipulating information to serve the Clintons, not facilitating the transmission of truth to the public.

His invitation features more spin. On the back cover it boasts an excerpt from a New Republic article on Davis written by William Powers in September 1997. The passage refers to a practice Davis engaged in during Senate hearings on Clinton campaign improprieties: Each day he passed out newsclips covering the subject at hand.

“It was a moment brilliantly conceived to work on the mind of a journalist: if what I am hearing has already been printed, then what am I doing here? If the White House is comfortable handing out these stories, then what I am hearing can’t be damning. This is the essence of the White House spin operation—that the Thompson committee’s hearings on fund-raising by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee amount to old news and therefore non-news. The effort has been creative, aggressive, and, so far, stunningly successful... And at the center of it all is White House special counsel Lanny Davis.”

No surprise, Davis did not refer to crucial portions of the article that, shall we say, round out the picture. Such as Slate contributor Jacob Weisberg noting, “Everything [Davis] says is immediately discounted 95 percent... His credibility is severely impeached”; such as a description of how Davis played reporters against one another in order to restrict the flow of information to the public; such as Powers’ observation that Davis was “off-the-record frank about how unfrank he’s being on the record.” Only the most audacious spinner would shamelessly present a description of his ability to manipulate the media as a tribute.

Davis learned his job well in Bill Clinton’s house.

JWR contributor David Corn, Washington Editor of The Nation, writes the "Loyal Opposition" column for The New York Press.


05/12/99: Funds Before Guns
05/07/99: Missing In Action
05/05/99: Gun Shy
04/30/99: A Flyover War
04/28/99: Darwin Made Me Do It
04/16/99: Spin to Sell
04/16/99: No Controlling Authority
04/16/99: Damage Done
04/14/99: No Left Churn
04/12/99: Clinton’s Policy Bombs
04/09/99: A Cuban Frost
04/05/99: Coups and Fibbers
03/31/99: The Flynt Fizzle
03/24/99: Liddy and St. Steve
03/19/99: Hope in Hollywood
03/12/99: Clinton: The Novel
03/08/99: A Tale of Two Clintons
03/04/99: ..and Dumber
03/01/99: Post-Mortem Ad Nauseam
02/25/99: What’s Next?

©1999, David Corn