With Donald Trump’s campaign continuing to careen into incoherence, it’s becoming increasingly clear that barring some unforeseen circumstance (or low non-white voter turnout) Hillary Clinton will likely win the presidency. However, she will never win the peace. Hillary seems destined, if she wins, to be a president without popular devotion or even a public honeymoon. And she will likely spend four, or eight, years at constant war with a hostile press.
Why the relationship between Mrs. Clinton and the media is so fraught is a complicated tale. Journalist Jonathan Allen last year tackled the miserable web of mutual distrust and distaste that has defined the “rules” by which the press has covered the Clintons for more than a quarter-century.
The fact that many journalists approach the Clintons—especially Hillary Clinton—with a presumption that she has done something that if it’s not outright corrupt is at least worthy of looking into, inevitably colors the way the public views the former secretary of state, and the way they respond to her in the polls.
But the negative public perception of Mrs. Clinton often feels more visceral; almost primal, than something produced merely by bad press and polls. She is also a woman of a certain age, who has refused throughout her life to play by the Rules of Public People. She is a poor public speaker, who lacks the pleasing air of a more expert retail politician (though she is clearly wittier and more personable in small groups or one on one.) She refuses to be conventionally stylish. As first lady, she never evinced a flair for fashion or a knack for popular culture, the way Michelle Obama has or Nancy Reagan or Jackie Kennedy did; nor did she evoke the “momly” air of a Barbara Bush, or the quiet spousedom of Laura. And Clinton has never had the “good sense” to pretend she doesn’t actually want power, the way women are “supposed to.” Her assertive wonkiness and sometimes callous, sometimes tone deaf statements in defense of her husband or herself have even led some younger Americans to blame her even more than Bill Clinton for the policies of his administration.
Perhaps most importantly, Hillary Clinton has steadfastly refused to cultivate a relationship with the Washington press corps; there are no cute nicknames; no rides on the “straight talk express” and few uncontrolled encounters. She has, instead, made the rejection of the media, and the people who work in it, a feature of her public life. Her campaign has deployed a literal rope line to keep the press penned in and at bay. That incenses reporters, who feel entitled, on behalf of the public, to face time with the candidate. Indeed, it has been nearly 265 days since Clinton last held a press conference; though it’s not hard to anticipate how that would go.
But perhaps Mrs. Clinton’s most venal sin is that she is almost manically secretive—and there’s nothing the media hates more than a secretive pol. There is a conventional wisdom in our world that if you keep things to yourself it’s because you’re a liar or a cheat, and eventually we, the press, will dig up your secrets and reveal the rot that we know, inherently, is there.
Consider the latest faux outrage, over Clinton Foundation donors supposedly getting untoward access to the then-Secretary of State. The AP “scoop” on the matter is a movable feast of innuendo, but it contains nothing that even hints at an actual exchange of favors from the Secretary of State in exchange for charitable donations. There is nothing in the story that suggests that emails requesting a meeting were met with demands for cash; for supplying some 11 million people around the world with AIDS medication, or for rebuilding Haiti or for the microloans to African women, which are some of the things the Clinton Foundation actually does, and does quite well. There’s also nothing in the story that suggests that being a Foundation donor was the only way someone could get a meeting with the Secretary; given that it found fewer than 90 such meetings out of 1,700 known to have taken place at State during her tenure.
But that hardly matters. In the new Beltway math, which presumes the Clintons always do just enough to stay ahead of the law, but not enough to quite be ethical, the mere act of longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin responding to an email connotes potential corruption, or the more careful version: the “appearance of conflict.” No evidence of actual pay for play is needed. There are those who are so invested in the idea that Hillary Clinton is fundamentally mendacious, every ephemeral accusation flung onto the table by Judicial Watch in its quarter-century quest to nail the Clintons at last, simply adds logs onto the slow-burning fire.
And so, the secretary of state meeting with Melinda Gates, or the late Elie Wiesel, or Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning economist who holds both a Congressional Gold Medal and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, who also happens to be a friend of the Clintons since the early 1980s, is given the air of scandal.
In Yunus’s case, after several pleas for assistance in stopping the government of Bangladesh from forcing him to resign from his bank, he is cashiered anyway. What, then, did he receive, other than Mrs. Clinton’s sympathy and public support? It seems that itself is an act of corruption, when exhibited by our modern-day Lady Macbeth.
Whatever its cause, the media’s general Hillary Clinton loathing is a foundational truth that would define her as president. Even a landslide victory in November would surely be accompanied by a sidebar emphasizing how very unpopular and utterly disliked she is; and how her presidency could not have been possible without the utter decrepitude of Donald Trump.
Republicans, as longtime Clinton friend and adviser James Carville predicted this week on Bloomberg and MSNBC, would surely declare her presidency to be both accidental and illegitimate because of phantom “voter fraud” and Trump’s distortion of the political alchemy. If the past eight years of is prologue, the GOP will paint this supposed illegitimacy onto every proposal out of the Clinton White House; from budget bills to Supreme Court nominations, and attempt to freeze the federal government in place until 2020, when Paul Ryan or Marco Rubio can have another go.
The Republican-controlled House would likely begin to immediately investigate the new president, rehashing the amorphous, never-ending media bait that is “emailgate,” perhaps with an eye toward impeachment. And their cries of “corruption” and “criminality” will be duly covered by We, the Media, reinforcing the age-old narrative of Clintonian chicanery in a public already battered by Bad Hillary narratives. The coverage will of course be the most brutal on Trump TV, where perhaps Roger Ailes will direct a new cast of Trump TV characters, led by Sean Hannity and Alex Jones, to whip Hillary Clinton on a daily basis. When the first polls are taken, after this narrative has been sufficiently flogged, the new president will come up short in usual areas: honesty, trustworthiness, popularity, and raw public support.
The feedback loop is endless, it’s self-reinforcing, and it is not ever going to change.
Clinton supporters—and yes, they do exist—need to let this fact sink in, and think about what that means for the next four years; particularly the two leading up to the 2018 midterms. On the surface, it seems there is nothing that Hillary Clinton can do about it, short of throwing herself on the mercy of the D.C. press corps for a forensic examination of her entire life, to include many, many apologies (and perhaps even tears). And somehow I doubt that’s going to happen. Hillary is really just not that girl.
What she is, essentially, is Lyndon Johnson, who faced the presidency knowing he would never enjoy the public and media devotion heaped onto the martyred JFK; or George H.W. Bush, knowing the same was true of him and the sainted Ronald Reagan. With Obama nostalgia now coursing through an exhausted nation’s veins, Hillary Clinton is staring at a short-term future that promises to be nothing short of brutal.
She may not care. Hillary Clinton’s time in the Senate indicates she is happier being a policy workhorse than a show horse. And she has a history of disarming her Republican colleagues once they are in the negotiating room rather than under the klieg lights. But to the extent her terrible relationship with the media extends into her time in the White House—it has the potential to negatively impact her agenda, and her ability to implement the policies she’s running on. After all, LBJ wasn’t fighting the Dixiecrats and The New York Times.
“Transparency” has become the buzzword of Washington. To lack it—including by keeping the press at a distance —is to be held in eternal suspicion. Barack Obama has discovered as much, but then again, he and Michelle are far more careful than the Clintons, who one former aide once described to me as having adopted the attitude a long time ago that no matter the issue—be it accepting that speaking gig or choosing privacy over a State Department email—the press pack will come for them no matter the merits, so “fuck it.”
I suspect we’re in for a long four years.
Joy-Ann Reid is the host of “AM Joy” on MSNBC and the author of Fracture: Barack Obama, the Clintons and the Racial Divide, which is out in paperback on Sept. 27.