Another bedroom farce

The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Fred Barnes and others claim Clinton had Ken Lay for a White House sleepover. One problem: Wrong president.

By Brendan Nyhan
Published February 21, 2002 10:47PM (EST)

In the echo chamber of the 24-hour news cycle, lies and deception can quickly metastasize from rumor to conventional wisdom due merely to repetition. The latest example of this is a false claim that former Enron CEO Ken Lay stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House during the Clinton administration. Despite a complete lack of evidence that this took place, irresponsible or malicious journalists have repeated this lie so often that it is on its way to being accepted as fact.

The newest perpetrator of the claim is Patrice Hill of the Washington Times, who asserts in her story Thursday that "evidence of Mr. Lays links to the Clinton administration are ample and well-documented," including that Lay "at times was Mr. Clintons golf partner and slept in the Lincoln Bedroom."

Hill evidently failed to consult the original Clinton Lincoln Bedroom guest list from February 1997, the July 1999-August 2000 list or the White House Coffee and Sleep-over Database. Ken Lays name appears on none of these lists.

If she wanted to do some actual reporting, she could have even called Julia Payne, Clintons spokeswoman, as I did, and she would have found out that, according to the White House archivist, Lay was never an overnight guest during the Clinton administration, though they did play golf together. Lay did, however, stay at the White House when George H.W. Bush was president.

The dissemination of the myth apparently began in a Jan. 13 Chicago Tribune story, which stated that "Lay was no stranger to the Clinton White House, playing golf with the president and staying overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom." Whether the reporters were deceived into believing that such a stay had taken place or merely inadvertently confused Lays stay during Bush 41 is unclear.

In any case, USA Today picked up on the claim the next day, Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard repeated it on Fox News that night and from there it took on a life of its own, appearing intermittently in letters to the editor and editorials in newspapers nationwide over the last month or so. Gene Lyons of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is the only person to refute the claim in print thus far (on Feb. 13).

Because the facts are so obviously wrong, however, the Lincoln Bedroom myth didnt reach critical mass until the past week, when it was given a new lease on life by two conservatives. As Spinsanitys Ben Fritz pointed out, Barnes and GOP operative Alex Castellanos said Lay stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom under Clinton on separate cable talk shows on Feb. 14, and Castellanos made the same claim Sunday on ABCs "This Week."

In a Feb. 15 letter to the editor in the Portland Oregonian, the myth was repeated, and it seems only to be growing, as even greater numbers of writers fail to check their facts.

Hungry for more Spinsanity? Click here.

This story has been corrected since it was first published.

Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist currently serving as a RWJ Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan.

MORE FROM Brendan Nyhan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------