Now that Donald Trump has disinterred a heap of 1990s-era scandals, Hillary Clinton is under the microscope for how she reacted then, and how she’s reacting now as a woman standing by her man.
When she was first lady, her husband’s infidelity boosted her poll ratings. In the current campaign, with a majority of voters saying she is not honest and trustworthy, Clinton struggles against an image that is hard to dislodge: that she is power hungry and stayed with her husband not because she loved him and wanted to save their marriage, but because he was her ticket back to the White House.
“The public and the media won’t give her credit for being committed to him and saving their marriage because they think she’s a super-calculating ambitious woman who if not for Robin Wright could have been cast in House of Cards,” says Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
By again airing the Clintons’ dirty old laundry, Trump risks putting her back in a more sympathetic light. In the years since they left the White House, the anti-Clinton sleaze machine has continued unabated, bearing out Hillary’s belief in a vast right-wing conspiracy, or at least a well-greased and lucrative alt-right industrial complex.
Clinton’s wariness of the press is a well-known feature of her personality, with roots going back to Arkansas when she was first lady and caught hell for not taking her husband’s name.
If she can seize the opportunity Trump has given her, and see the media as her conduit to the voters, she may be able to convince people she’s a better person than the one her critics have portrayed.
The Lady Macbeth image took hold in 1993 when word came down that the new first lady wanted to close off access for reporters to what is known as the upper press office with the press secretary’s office, which is just steps from the Oval Office. White House reporters reacted with fury. Even Richard Nixon wouldn’t have attempted such a dastardly deed, they said.
The decision was quickly reversed, but the damage had been done, with reporters just as wary of the new first lady as she was of them. It was fertile territory for what followed and what the media dubbed “Travelgate,” the first of a string of mostly pseudo scandals.
Clinton was presumed behind the firings of several staffers in the White House travel office, which handled travel for reporters following the president. The staffers were holdovers from the two previous Republican administrations, and while there were legitimate charges of mismanagement, the attempt to replace them with Arkansas pals of the Clintons backfired big-time—raising the same kind of questions about cronyism and playing by her own rules that plague Clinton today.
Travelgate was the Benghazi of its day. Numerous investigations by Congress, the FBI, the White House itself, and finally an independent counsel, parsed Clinton’s statements and found them wanting, prompting influential New York Times columnist William Safire to call Hillary “a congenital liar.” Safire’s label stung as it went further than anyone else in the mainstream media at the time. No charges were ever brought, and Clinton regarded the whole episode as evidence of what she would term “a vast right-wing conspiracy.”
Clinton consigliore Sidney Blumenthal is believed to be the author of the phrase, and the architect of a chart circulating in the White House at the time that showed the evolving conservative infrastructure that amplified stories critical of the Clintons.
After the health care bill that Hillary had crafted failed in Congress, Frank Sesno, then with CNN, tried to get her on his Sunday show. Before she would agree, she invited him to meet with her for an hour one afternoon in the Map Room—off the record with no aide present, no “minder,” and no camera. She was wary and wanted to size him up. “It was a remarkable thing,” he recalled to The Daily Beast.
She wanted to explain what had gone wrong, that the legislation was too big, and they would go back and work incrementally (eventually passing the children’s health program she touts on the campaign trail today). “The part that really stayed with me,” he said, was the story she told of driving in Arkansas when Bill was governor, and all you could hear on the radio was right-wing talk, “and they were going after us and it was an industry,” she said.
Conservative talk radio was coming of age, and the Clintons were prime targets. “That’s the story she talked about then, and it’s not wrong,” says Sesno. “She was observing there was a vibrant anti-Clinton media, and it made her wary.”
In 1994, when the GOP took the majority in the House for the first time in 40 years, the GOP caucus swore in talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh and Michael Reagan as honorary members.
Even a paranoid has real enemies, and Clinton certainly did. Her first serious encounter with the national press was during the 1992 campaign around the issue of her husband’s extramarital activities. She regarded these “bimbo eruptions” as political problems that could derail the campaign, and the frenzied coverage conditioned her to believe the risk-reward ratio was not very good. “The advice was always get it all out immediately, and you will turn a raging fever into a one-day flu,” says William Galston, a veteran of the Clinton White House who is now with the Brookings Institution.
“But it’s a lot easier to recommend than to do,” he said. “And the stronger your moral sense the more likely you are on some level to feel embarrassed about what a full unvarnished depiction of you is likely to reveal. If you’re strongly convinced of your own rectitude and the purity of your intellect, it may make it harder to acknowledge some things you’ve done along the way weren’t wise,” he says, summarizing the Clinton personality that those who have followed her have come to know.
“This particular aspect of her personality has not served her well,” says Galston, “and if it were to persist in the White House, it would lead to a continuation of the bad feelings that have existed across many administrations.”
The resistance to the press may be deeply rooted in Clinton’s unique experience with the press, but she’s hardly unique in coming to some negative conclusions. After four years in the White House with Jimmy Carter, his press secretary Jody Powell said only half-joking, that he thought maybe Nixon had gotten a raw deal.
Fast-forward to Barack Obama, and you will find a grumpy press corps complaining about the lack of access and transparency. Every successive administration tries to more tightly manage the media, and the next president will likely be no exception.
Clinton went some 260 days on the campaign trail without a press conference. It made her seem walled off, it built up a resentment in the press that comes out implicitly and explicitly, and it created a backlog of questions on all the issues she’d like to not talk about, says Sesno.
She changed strategy out of necessity. Now she’s flying around in the same plane with reporters, chatting them up on a regular basis, while Trump, once the media maestro, is under siege and not holding press conferences anymore.
It’s a role reversal, and for Clinton, it’s been a long time coming.