Miss Uncongeniality

Column: Why Hillary’s press strategy could backfire

May 22, 2015

There it was—the classic Hillary charm. Close to a month had passed since the Democratic frontrunner answered questions from the press. So this week, when reporters were invited to gawk at the spectacle of Clinton sitting with "everyday Iowans," Ed Henry of Fox wanted to know: Would the former secretary of state take a moment to respond to inquiries from non-stage-managed reporters?

Before Henry was able even to finish his sentence, however, Clinton interrupted him, tut-tutting his impertinent shouting and raising her hand, empress-like, to quell her subject. After a few seconds of talking over each other Clinton must have realized that she had to give Henry an answer. Whereupon she said, slowly and sarcastically: "I might. I'll have to ponder it." What a kidder.

After the photo-op was over, Clinton did take six questions from reporters—raising the total number of media questions she has answered since announcing her candidacy in April to a whopping 26. She committed no gaffes, but unleashed the full blizzard of Clintonian misdirection, omission, dodging, bogus sentimentality, false confidence, and aw-shucks populism. Voting for the Iraq war was a "mistake," like the kind you make on a test; she and Bill are lucky people (that’s one way of describing them); Charlotte needs to be able to grow up in an America where every little boy and girl has the chance to go from public office to a foreign-funded slush fund; and family courtier and dirty trickster Sid Blumenthal is just an "old friend" who sent her emails about Libya, where he had business dealings, so that she could get out of her "bubble."

Not much for an enterprising reporter to go on. And for all we know, the ice caps will have melted before Clinton submits to more questions. It’s part of her strategy: limiting press availabilities also lessens the chances of another "dead broke" moment, of giving answers that raise more questions. Clinton is busy—raising money, positioning herself on the left to thwart a liberal insurgent, doting on Iowa so as not to repeat her defeat there in 2008. Talking to reporters would be a distraction or, worse, an error. Everyone knows who she is. And interviews leave exposed the most vulnerable part of her campaign: herself. Nor is it like she doesn’t have anything to hide. She has a whole lot to hide: her record, her emails, her charity, her brothers, and her friends. Why risk it?

This strategy of press avoidance worked for Clinton pal Terry McAuliffe in 2013 when he was elected governor of Virginia. McAuliffe rarely if ever spoke to reporters, and instead visited with carefully selected businesses and interest groups and sob stories to whom he would nod sympathetically and explain, in the vaguest of ways, how he would make the commonwealth a better, more progressive place. McAuliffe’s campaign manager was Robby Mook, who now performs the same job for Clinton. The lesson he must have drawn from his Virginia experience was that the press, at best, is a nuisance and irrelevant to the outcome of an election. Strategic communications, lots of money, television advertising that defines one’s opponent as extreme, and the Democratic "coalition of the ascendant" are enough to win.

At least it’s enough to win Virginia in a—surprisingly close—off-year election. But treating the press with contempt may not work at the presidential level. On the contrary: It could backfire. Not because voters care about how the press is being treated; they don’t. But because the media are exactly that: the medium through which a candidate is presented to the public. Disturb the medium, tic off its individual components, and the presentation may begin to change.

Slowly and subtly, a candidate may find herself shown to be inaccessible, aloof, conniving, manipulative, privileged, elusive, dishonest. The questions she faces might grow more hostile; the investigations into her wealth might widen; interest in her husband’s friendship with Jeffrey "Lolita Express" Epstein might sharpen. The message she wants to communicate could be displaced by a media-driven caricature.

Republicans know what I’m talking about. They live with it every day: rising stars that go into eclipse, hidden behind media cartoons. Dan Quayle, Clarence Thomas, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz. The latest target is Tom Cotton—see how a Harvard-educated combat veteran is being labeled an amateur, out of his depth, disruptive because of his efforts to stop the nuclear deal with Iran. Our media are fickle, sensationalistic, anxious, insecure, and petty. They’re surprising me with their tough coverage of the Clinton Foundation. Imagine what might happen if Hillary really begins to annoy them.

The assumption has been that the mainstream press will guard Clinton like they did Obama in 2008—avoid damaging lines of inquiry, play up the gender angle just as they played up the racial one. I don’t see it happening yet, however. Clinton can’t be happy with the way her candidacy has been portrayed in the media, from her speaking fees to her email server to the family foundation. You can’t ascribe this treatment to the conservative press alone—though we’ve happily played our part.

Since Bill first became president the Clintons have held a suspicious attitude toward the media, an attitude the media seem to have reflected back at them. Obama was new, cool, postmodern, suave; Clinton is old, a grandmother, clumsy, a millionaire many times over who has been one of the most famous people in the world for more than two decades. She has none of Obama’s edge, his antiwar bona fides, the quasi-mystical importance his followers bestowed on him. No one would have written a story about Obama like the one McClatchy wrote about Hillary on Thursday: "Clinton campaigning in a bubble, largely isolated from real people." That's why she has Sid.

The press will no doubt take a different approach once the Republicans choose a nominee, who can then be written off as primitive or corrupt or inexperienced or stupid. I’m not expecting a revolution here, a paradigm shift in the way the media establishment conducts itself. But I am surprised at the way in which Hillary and her supporters dismiss media complaints as extraneous. Bad press hurts campaigns—ask Al Gore, John Kerry, or Mitt Romney. It can hurt Hillary Clinton too. Saturday Night Live is already portraying her as a power-mad robot; think of the damage that could do to perceptions of her over time. And there’s plenty of time.

By not talking to the press Clinton has made a strategic choice, as valid as any other. But it may be the wrong choice—in fact it probably is the wrong choice, because most of the choices Hillary Clinton has made since 2006 have been bad. She lost the Democratic nomination, she was the top foreign policy official for a president who is widely seen to have bungled foreign policy, she joined the ethically murky Clinton Foundation and gave high-paying speeches to business groups despite knowing she'd soon be running for president.

It’s the same lack of judgment and mismanagement that would cause her to vote for Iraq, then oppose the surge, then support the troop withdrawal; to do Obama’s bidding on Russia, Israel, Iran, Libya; to keep up the pen pal correspondence with Blumenthal; to act unlike any presidential candidate in recent memory. Maybe I’m dreaming, but the press could respond by taking someone who’s likable enough—and making her not likable at all.