“Oh my gosh! It went by so fast!” Hillary Clinton exclaimed Monday night as her first appearance on the Fox News Channel in 18 months came to an end.
“We look forward to having you back on Fox,” Special Report anchor Bret Baier ingratiatingly replied.
While Fox famously claims to be “fair and balanced,” and Baier has proved himself a down-the-middle yet aggressive interrogator (who can forget Mitt Romney’s angry eruption four years ago when Baier grilled the former Massachusetts governor on his flip-flops and health care record?), the network remains the go-to cable news venue for Republican voters and candidates alike.
Bernie Sanders has appeared on Roger Ailes’s channel from time to time during this election cycle, but Clinton has pointedly stayed away, despite repeated invitations.
So for the Democratic presidential frontrunner, there was at least the potential for peril and excitement associated with venturing behind enemy lines when she appeared separately from Sanders in a Fox News-sponsored town hall in Detroit, moderated by Baier on the eve of the Michigan and Mississippi primaries.
Alas, the situation overpromised and under-delivered on dramatic tension in the less than 30 minutes Clinton was given to make her case.
It’s entirely possible that while some loyal Fox News viewers might have felt good about themselves for sitting still for a serious elucidation of liberal-progressive policy at the Blue Plate Special hour of 6 p.m., others undoubtedly longed for the sheer entertainment of a Republican slap-fest like last Thursday’s Fox debate, in which the points of contention included breathing patterns, height deficits, and genital size, with GOP frontrunner Donald Trump relentlessly challenging the manhood of his competitors.
By comparison, Clinton’s appearance—which followed Sanders’s half-hour during the hour-long live broadcast—was tea and cookies.
The vibe was pretty civilized, even when Baier peppered the former secretary of state with a series of politically unhelpful questions concerning the FBI investigation of her private email server.
Yet Clinton—who every so often has contorted herself into rhetorical pretzels but has yet to crack, at least in front of cameras, during more than a quarter-century of public life, going back to her days as an activist first lady in Arkansas—was unflappable.
She answered emphatically, that no, neither she nor members of her staff are targets of the FBI. Repeating what she has said over and over about her dubious use of the private email server, she said it was on reflection a mistake, but she never sent or received anything marked classified and that she agrees with her State Department predecessor Colin Powell, whom she quoted as calling the retroactive over-classification of routine communications “absurd.”
“I am on exactly the same page as Colin Powell,” Clinton declared with a note of triumph.
Clinton also gave her usual baroque defense of her role in achieving the hot mess in Libya after advocating the toppling of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. She claimed that if Gaddafi were still in power, Libya would be experiencing a civil war of Syrian dimensions, with casualties approaching 250,000 instead of the 1,500 deaths she termed “miniscule by comparison.”
“This is exciting! Good!” she responded with a wide grin when a woman in the audience at Detroit’s Gem Theatre, apparently a Sanders supporter, interrupted her answer on affordable college—in contrast to her rival’s free college plan—to shout a demand for specifics.
“Have we got time?” Clinton asked Baier, before launching into a wonkily detailed explanation of her tuition payment policies.
As with Sanders—who was on his best behavior, discarding his grumpy-old-man persona to first-name each and every questioner and smile in an admirable attempt to connect—Clinton stood in front of a Patton-sized American flag and 30 or so seated audience members onstage.
There were about 250 voters in the crowd overall—many Democrats, judging by their frequent yells of approval—but also independents and undecideds, and at least one avowed Trump supporter, who told Sanders that, unlike Clinton, he seemed like an honest and trustworthy person.
The senator chose not to take the bait.
The dark-suited Sanders sported an antic tie, whose eye-popping pattern was perhaps meant to evoke stylishness and youthful energy but reminded me instead of a subway grate.
Clinton, meanwhile, wore an especially daring pantsuit, all black, except a jacket that devolved downward from basic black into an undulating muddle of what looked to this unschooled eye like gray and white wheatgrass.
After the town hall concluded, Baier did some analysis for Greta van Susteren’s 7 p.m. show.
“It’s a good sign,” he told van Susteren, “that the [Democratic] candidates are coming to the No. 1 cable news station.”
In an era of nasty polarization in the body politic, it’s difficult to disagree.