Skip to comments.What Is Hillary Clinton Afraid Of?
Posted on 05/01/2014 9:48:48 AM PDT by Second Amendment First
Over the 25 years Hillary Clinton has spent in the national spotlight, shes been smeared and stereotyped, the subject of dozens of over-hyped or downright fictional stories and books alleging, among other things, that she is a lesbian, a Black Widow killer who offed Vincent Foster then led an unprecedented coverup, a pathological liar, a real estate swindler, a Commie, a harridan. Every aspect of her personal life has been ransacked; theres no part of her 5-foot-7-inch body that hasnt come under microscopic scrutiny, from her ankles to her neckline to her myopic blue eyesnot to mention the ever-changing parade of hairstyles that friends say reflects creative restlessness and enemies read as a symbol of somebody who doesnt stand for anything.
Forget all that troubled history, and a Clinton run for president in 2016 seems like a no-brainer, an inevitable next step after the redemption of her past few years as a well-regarded, if not quite historic, secretary of state. But remember the record, and youll understand why Clinton, although rested, rich and seemingly ready, has yet to commit to a presidential race (people around her insist its not greater than a 50-50 proposition), even as shes an overwhelming favorite.
If Clinton says yes, shell have access to a bottomless pool of Democratic political talent and cash to match all those hyperbolic pronouncements about her inevitability. If she doesnt run, the single biggest factor holding her back will be the media, according to an informal survey of three dozen friends, allies and former aides interviewed for this article. As much as anything else, her ambivalence about the race, they told us, reflects her distaste for and apprehension of a rapacious, shallow and sometimes outright sexist national political press corps acting as enablers for her enemies on the right.
Clinton isnt insane, and shes not stupid. When you get beat up so often, you just get very cautious, says Mike McCurry, her husbands former press secretary, who joined the White House team to find a first lady traumatized by the coverage of her failed Hillarycare initiative. She [has] had a very practical view of the media. I have to be careful, Im playing with fire.
And while the white-hot anger she once felt toward the media has since hardened into a pessimistic resignation (with a dash of self-pity), shes convinced another campaign would inevitably invite more bruising scrutiny, as her recent comments suggest. Public life gives you a sense of being kind of dehumanized as part of the experience, she lamented a few weeks ago to a Portland, Ore., audience. You really cant ever feel like youre just having a normal day.
When asked why Clinton hasnt done more to reach out to reporters over the years, one Clinton campaign veteran began to spin several theories. She was too busy, she was too prone to speaking her mind and the likethen abruptly cut to the chase:
Look, she hates you. Period. Thats never going to change. Open In New Window
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How much is Hillary Clintons fear and loathing of the media going to influence her decision about whether to run in 2016? Of course, there are other considerations: her health, the impact of a campaign on mother-to-be Chelsea, whether the 66-year-old Clinton wants to spend the rest of her useful life being president, in the words of one confidant.
But consider this recent speech by one of the more improbable rising stars in Clintonworld: her tormentor-turned-defender David Brock, who exposed many of the ugliest Arkansas scandals of the Clinton years when he was a conservative investigative reporter in the 1990s. Fox has accused Hillary Clinton of murder, compared her to a murderer and suggested she commit suicide, Brock told a crowd at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in March, arguing that shes the ultimate victim of misogyny. Hillary Meets the Press: The White House Years
By Margaret Slattery
1992: In Hillary Clintons first appearance on 60 Minutes, she and her husband, in the midst of his presidential campaign, sit for a 10-minute segment to respond to reports of an affair between Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers. Hillarys comment that Im not sittin here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette draws fire from the country singer herself. Clinton apologizes.
1992: Facing conflict-of-interest allegations for her legal work in Arkansas, Clinton defends her career in comments that harden her abrasive image in the press. You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, she says, to the chagrin of stay-at-home moms. But what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.
1994: Amid the Whitewater affair, Clinton makes a rare solo appearance before White House reporters, in what becomes known as the Pink Press Conference for the color of her outfit. She responds to questions for more than an hour and promises to be more accessible to the Washington press corps: Ive always believed in a zone of privacy. After resisting for a long time, Ive been rezoned.
1995: At a United Nations conference in Beijing, Clinton famously declares, It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss womens rights as separate from human rights. While her comments are widely praised in the United States, the Chinese government, facing criticism for its one-child policy, blacks out the broadcast of the speech.
1998: In the early stages of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Clinton again takes to the national media to defend her husband. In an interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show, she dismisses the charges against Bill Clinton as a vast right-wing conspiracy since the day he announced for president.
Through intermediaries, Clinton let Brock know she appreciated that sentimentthen echoed it publicly a short time later, a welcome signal to those in her camp who felt she was too afraid to speak her mind during the 2008 presidential primary campaign she so famously lost to Barack Obama. Both Clintons still attribute that defeat to fawning coverage of her rival. The double standard is alive and well, Clinton told an audience in New York last month. And I think in many respects the media is the principal propagator of its persistence.
The battle lines have long since been drawn, argues Philippe Reines, a top Clinton communications adviser during her past decade in the Senate and State Department. Its like a tennis game, he says. You guys hit the ball at us, and we hit it backover and over and over.
Never mind that in recent years shes been portrayed more as a globe-trotting celebrity than the paranoid man-hating leftist of 90s vintage. Or that she spent most of the time since her 2008 presidential defeat being covered by the more genteel State Department press corps, a period even Reines refers to as Clintons golden age of media relations.
For much of her career, she has remained publicly unwilling (and, former advisers say, at times even privately incapable) of differentiating between malicious, coordinated political attacks and the legitimate scouring of her record undertaken by responsible reporters. In 1996, she laid down this marker in a letter to her best friend, Diane Blair, according to recently released papers. Im not stupid; I know I should do more to suck up to the press, I know it confuses people when I change my hairdos, Blair quoted Clinton as saying, after Blair suggested she fake a friendly attitude toward the media. I know I should pretend not to have any opinionsbut Im just not going to. Im used to winning and I intend to win on my own terms.
Clinton has gradually learned how to fake it. But to this day shes surrounded herself with media conspiracy theorists who remain some of her favorite confidants, urged wealthy allies to bankroll independent organizations tasked with knee-capping reporters perceived as unfriendly, withdrawn into a gilded shell when attacked and rolled her eyes at several generations of aides who suggested she reach out to journalists rather than just disdaining them. Not even being nice to her in print has been a guarantor of access; reporters likely to write positive stories have been screened as ruthlessly as perceived enemies, dismissed as time-sucking sycophants or pretend-friends.
Its like a war. You need both defensive and offensive air power, says Joe Conason, an author and columnist with deep connections in the Clinton camp. Shes serious about considering a run, but shes also aware of the price shes going to have to pay. Thats why she might say, Who needs this?
Look, she hates you. Period. Thats never going to change.
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For Conason and others close to Clinton, the problem with this permanent war against the media is that it portrays Clinton as a victim, rather than pushing her to create a coherent rationale for her actually being president. They are right to create the infrastructure to defend themselves when the attacks come, but they also need to emphasize the positive, says Conason. Out in the real world, people dont care about all of this political stuff. They want to know who she is and what she will do. And thats a story theyll need to tell.
Of course, theres a chance Clinton really has finally mellowed out, that the new generation of reporters and editors has grown bored with the old fight (or too young to remember it), or that the pulverized, twitterized national media are now simply incapable of coalescing into a conspiratorial posse out to destroy her. And maybe, just maybe, Clinton is finally willing to really play the game.
Or maybe not.
She wants to be president; she doesnt want to run for president, another Clinton veteran told us. The worst part of running for president for her, clearly, is dealing with the press.
Peel back the accumulated layers of wallpaper that make up Hillary Clintons career, and the one at bottom is that of a political spouse who started out defending a talented and flawed husband. Hillary Clintons political apprenticeship wasnt in the retail politics that Bill Clinton so loved; it was in crisis communications, which fit her temperament, acute lawyerly mind and her husbands penchant for getting into crises in the first place.
In the 1992 presidential race, she encouraged efforts to push back against press inquiries into Bill Clintons infidelities and her own financial dealings, and cooperated with a campaign-within-a-campaign in Little Rock, along with Betsey Wright, her husbands top aide, according to an account provided to journalist Carl Bernstein. The unit, known inside the Clinton campaign as the Defense Department, collected 2,000 boxes full of personal papers and correspondence and became a prototype of sorts for Clintons fortress-like approach to press relations from then on.
But she wasnt just any staffer; she was Bill Clintons wife, and their job, as Wright so memorably put it, was to stomp out the bimbo eruptions before they could derail his presidential aspirations. No wonder the strain of her dual roles seemed, at times, unbearable. Sitting by her husbands side in the famous 60 Minutes interview in early 1992, she pleaded for boundaries in the coverage of her family: She was no Tammy Wynette, standin by my man, but still, it was nobodys business if she wanted to be. I think its real dangerous in this country if we dont have some zone of privacy for everybody, she said, after the interrogation about whether Bill had in fact had an affair with former Arkansas TV reporter Gennifer Flowers.
Bill won, but no zone of privacy materialized, and his first four years in the White House were a procession of disasters that included Whitewater, Hillary Clintons failed health reform initiative and the suicide of her close friend and husbands deputy counsel, Vince Foster, who killed himself in July 1993 under withering scrutiny over allegations of impropriety in the White House travel office. At the time of his suicide, he had been working on a number of controversial legal issues in the White House, and Hillary Clinton viewed the hazing of her former law partner as part of a larger national press witch hunt against her family, friends and associates. Im sure that I sometimes appeared brittle, sad and even angrybecause I was, she wrote in her 2003 memoir, Living History, of her struggle to deal with Fosters death and the conspiracy theories it spawned.
If her overall attitude toward the prying press was immutably negative, Clinton reluctantly came to grips with the reality that she needed to connect with reasonable members of the media, establishing a pattern of grudging engagement followed by reflexive withdrawal. The first of her major outreach drives came in April 1994, when Clinton assented to White House press corps requests that she answer questions about her $99,000 windfall from a late 1970s investment of $1,000 in cattle futures. The Pink Press Conference, named for the sweater set she wore during her appearance before the cameras in the State Dining Room, was a relative successshe bored the media to death with detailed, numbers-heavy responses.
First Lady Clinton talks to the press in Jones Beach, N.Y., in 1999. | James Leynse/Corbis
Though unpleasant, the interaction was instructive about the consequences of her long-standing aversion to feeding the beast. I had kept the White House press corps at arms length for too long, she conceded in Living History. It took me a while to understand that their resentment was justified.
The lesson stuckfor a while. McCurry remembers White House reporters saying how much fun she was after an off-the-record session during her trip to Mongolia in 1995. But then the Monica Lewinsky scandal engulfed everything, and Clintons vast right-wing conspiracy declaration on the Today show came as she was professing to believe her husbands denial that he had had sexual relations with the former White House intern.
For years, beleaguered Clinton advisers tried to improve the toxic relationship with the media. Political hands, like Mandy Grunwald and Harold Ickes, and various communications aides, like Howard Wolfson and Lorraine Voles, counseled her to engage more consistently. So did younger staffers whose interactions with her can have the gentle, hectoring tone of children trying to get their mother to turn on the high-tech gadget they bought her for Christmas.
Its like a tennis game, Reines says. You guys hit the ball at us, and we hit it backover and over and over.
It is clear to me that Hillary is most comfortable doing press that is built around a specific purpose, wrote Lisa Caputo, at the time the first ladys press secretary, in a 1995 memo outlining a proposed strategy for Clintons It Takes a Village book tour. Hillary is comfortable with local reporters and enjoys speaking with them. This will help us get around her aversion to the national Washington media and serve to counter the tone of the national media.
Its certainly true that by that point Clinton had a strong aversion to the national media. Little Rock is not Washington, sniffed the Washington Posts Sally Quinn when the Clintons and their two-for-one act first came to town. The first lady responded in kind, according to William Chafes Bill and Hillary: The Politics of the Personal, saying that Quinn has been hostile from the moment we got here. Why should we invite somebody like that into our home? Clinton refused other entreaties to embrace the establishment by her social secretary, Chafe writes.
Perhaps because she never felt welcome, Clinton never created the alliances with the media elite that other politicians of her stature have established. She always viewed the courting of columnists as worse than pulling teeth, in the words of one longtime confidant, and would often bridle when opinion leaders, like Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius, pushed for more access than she wanted to give.
Time columnist Joe Klein, who covered the Clintons in the 90s and turned their story into the thinly fictionalized novel Primary Colors, thinks Clintons reticence is congenital, motivated by an innate fear of making mistakes in public. When Clinton thought she wasnt being scrutinized, she relaxed and engaged as candidly and incisivel