Whether or not Hillary Clinton managed to persuade ordinary voters with her “Email-gate” press conference at the United Nations on Tuesday—assuming ordinary voters even cared—she did nothing to de-escalate a decades-long war with the news media that has been waged, with varying degrees of intensity, since she was first lady of Arkansas and her husband Bill was governor.
“There has been a pattern of good and bad behavior going back to the mid-1980s,” said National Journal editorial director Ron Fournier, who got to know the Clintons as a reporter in the state capital of Little Rock.
“They have great strengths and great weaknesses. Among the weaknesses are a sense that the ends justify the means, a sense of entitlement, and a sense of grievance and paranoia, so those attributes get them to do things that get them into trouble and distract from their broader mission of public service.”
During Tuesday’s hostile engagement outside the UN Security Council, where a mob of more than 100 reporters yelled questions at her, the helmet-haired Clinton looked girded for battle—her sparkly-gray power suit the fashion equivalent of chain mail.
It was a telling coincidence, perhaps, that the choreographed confrontation took place in front of the UN’s tapestry of “Guernica,” Picasso’s famous painting depicting the Fascist bombing of a Basque village during the Spanish Civil War—though it would be going too far to suggest that Clinton was experiencing something like a personal “Guernica.”
The prohibitive frontrunner, who’s expected to formally announce next month, firmly rejected a rising clamor from television talking heads and others, including Fournier, that she give up her email server and its contents to the State Department, and that she promise that her family foundation will return contributions from foreign countries (another apparent infraction while she was America’s chief diplomat) that have trampled on women’s rights.
“It’s not enough to give a couple of brief comments and talk her way out of this,” Fournier said. “She can’t spin her way out of this. She can’t explain her way out of this.”
Thus the Clinton-press clash shows no signs of abating.
“I’m not sure there’s a way to fix it,” said former Democratic consultant Robert Shrum, an occasional contributor to The Daily Beast, “because the press seems just instinctively hostile—meaning that part of it is ‘Take down the Big Guy’ or, in this case, the Big Woman.”
University of Southern California professor Shrum, the chief strategist of Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000 and John Kerry’s in 2004, said Clinton, ironically, is disadvantaged in her media relations by her colossus-like presence on the political scene.
“It’s not dislike for her personally. It’s an aversion to that kind of non-race”—in which Clinton is the overwhelming favorite—“and the natural desire to bring her down a peg.” In that sense, Shrum predicted, the press is likely to be Clinton’s peskiest primary opponent. “Who else is there?” he said. “But,” he added, “the press will not win the primary.”
The email brouhaha—which Clinton loyalist James Carville has dismissed as the latest in an endless series of press- and partisan-driven mini-scandals, from Whitewater to Benghazi, that amounted to nothing—“is not a big story for voters,” Shrum said. “I don’t think it matters. They’re more concerned about their jobs than somebody’s email. But if you get pounded and pounded relentlessly over a period of time, of course it can hurt. Gore was hurt by the ceaseless pounding about ‘inventing the Internet,’ which he never said.”
University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato—who explored the dynamics of the media “Feeding Frenzy” in his 2000 book of the same title—said Clinton’s fractious relationship with the Fourth Estate “is inevitable. The Clintons have had a very rocky relationship with the press that is going to continue. The wounds may have healed, but there’s a lot of scar tissue.”
Stating the obvious, Sabato added: “The Clintons have survived far worse than this.”
Public relations executive and Hillary fan Howard Bragman agreed. “I think she will power through,” said Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com. “The Clintons have been backed into a corner before, and they’re pretty good at getting out of these corners.”
As for her press relations, “I think she has to be intelligent and she has to be upfront,” Bragman said. “And she has to be ‘likable enough,’ if you will”—a reference to candidate Obama’s diss of Clinton during a 2008 primary debate in New Hampshire.
Mother Jones magazine’s David Corn, the chief tormenter of Bill O’Reilly, placed the current fracas in historical context in an essay titled “The Return of the Clinton Media Persecution Complex.”
“It is, unfortunately, an old and all-too familiar story,” Corn wrote. “A Clinton, meaning Bill or Hillary, does something wrong (or possibly wrong). The media pounces; the Clinton antagonists of the right hit the warpath. Immediately, the Clinton camp and its supporters accuse the media and the conservative Clinton Hate Machine of trumping up a story to thwart the noble Clintons.
“Clinton spokespeople go into war-room mode. Resentful reporters grouse (privately and publicly) about the heavy-handed operators and obfuscators of Clintonland. And the right claims this latest fuss is a scandal that surpasses Watergate. Rinse, repeat.”
Corn added that Team Hillary’s reaction to Email-gate is “bad news for anyone hoping that Hillary 2016 has learned from the miscalculations of the past.”
Fournier, who covered the Clinton White House for the Associated Press, has been a severe critic of what he believes is the defensive and disingenuous manner in which Team Hillary—as it ramps for the 2016 presidential campaign—has responded to The New York Times’ March 3 revelation that as secretary of state, she skirted the rules and legitimate public interest by keeping her government-related communications on a private email server.
The Clintons’ lack of transparency, especially with nosy journalists, “is all part of a piece,” Fournier told The Daily Beast. “The first thing they should understand is that it’s not about us in the press. It’s about them as leaders and the people they’re presuming to lead. And about realizing that the media has changed dramatically since their last time in the White House.”
Fifteen years ago, unlike today, it was possible for a politician and his or her operatives to concentrate on a manageable segment of the media and thus affect public perceptions.
“Chris Lehane and Mark Fabiani and the gang,” Fournier said, citing two of the Clinton White House’s most aggressive crisis communications spinners, “could literally write down on a sheet of paper every reporter covering the impeachment, and take another half-sheet to write down every editor overseeing the coverage in the mainstream media.” The Clinton pushback operation “knew everyone they had to bully, intimidate, deceive, flatter and schmooze—all their tricks to throw us off the scent or get us focused on the Republicans or just lie to us.”
But that was then, this is now.
“Trotting out [Hillary detractor-turned-acolyte] David Brock to demand a correction from The New York Times for a story that didn’t need a correction, or trotting out James Carville to talk about the right-wing conspiracy, might have worked in the 1990s,” Fournier said. “But what has changed is that now there are 300 million reporters and researchers; everyone with a laptop and Internet service now has more information at their fingertips than I ever did in 1998. And they’re deciding on their own whether this is a right-wing conspiracy or a left-wing conspiracy, or whether or not it’s right that Hillary Clinton took public emails and kept them in her basement.”
Fournier added: “The 1990s tactics don’t work in an age where you can’t possibly spin and intimidate 300 million people.”