In Her Voice

Hillary’s Media Generals Prepare for War

With a presidential run in the cards, and as her email controversy continues to rumble, Hillary Clinton is assembling a tried-and-trusted set of defenders around her.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Call them the four horsemen—or maybe it’s five or six; the number keeps growing—of Hillary Clinton’s media apocalypse.

They include old Clinton hands like James Carville, Lanny Davis, Karen Finney, and Kiki McLean—plus erstwhile recording industry lobbyist Hilary Rosen and antagonist-turned-acolyte David Brock—who are regularly leaping onto their steeds and riding to the defense of the unannounced Democratic presidential frontrunner.

While Clinton is hardly a damsel in distress, she lacks a formal campaign organization that can rapidly respond to damaging publicity. Thus, in the past two weeks, since “Email-gate” was launched with an above-the-fold front-page story in The New York Times, the former secretary of state’s ex-officio champions have been a near-constant presence on cable and broadcast television.

“If I were the crisis manger, doing what I do, Hillary would have been out within hours with what she ended up saying, which was: ‘In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have done it that way,’” said Washington lawyer Davis, who’s been pals with the once and future presidential candidate since their Yale Law School days four decades ago, and toiled in Bill Clinton’s White House as a special counsel managing reactions to Whitewater and other political scandals.

“But without a campaign structure to support her, it took her eight days to respond,” Davis added. “In the era of the 1990s, that is not a long time. But in the era of the Internet, eight minutes is a long time.”

Davis and the others have been spending recent days mixing it up with Clinton’s journalistic critics, attesting to her legal and ethical propriety regarding her use of a private email server for official government business, and otherwise attempting to change the subject to the perfidy of her Republican “witch-hunters.”

Some of Hillary’s champions—like Carville and Davis—say they are freelancing without benefit of approved talking points; others—like Finney, McLean, and Rosen—say they check facts and nuances with Hillary’s staff before going on TV; Finney and Rosen say they participated in a conference call hosted last week by Clinton press aide Nick Merrill on the subject of Hillary’s emails, while Carville and Davis say they pointedly avoided it.

“I’m not a conference call kinda guy,” said Carville, who defended Hillary this past Sunday on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos and on Andrea Mitchell’s MSNBC program a week ago Monday. “I’d rather have barbed wire stuck up my butt than get on a conference call.”

Davis, who estimates that he has made at least a dozen email-related television appearances in defense of his old friend, has a different reason for not coordinating with Team Hillary.

“I never talk to anyone, and I never talk to her, about what I should be saying,” Davis explained. “Because I tell everyone when I’m on the air that I am just a friend of Hillary Clinton, not an official spokesman. I’m not told what to say. So if I say something stupid—which I sometimes do—they [Clinton’s team] can say, ‘Lanny’s on his own.’”

Davis’s March 8 appearance on Fox News Sunday arguably fit that description, when he told host Chris Wallace that an independent third party should examine Clinton’s emails and private server.

“There can be a neutral party to review all these records,” Davis said, predicting that Clinton would agree to turn them over. “If the State Department asks, she will say yes. If there’s a subpoena, she must say yes.”

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The resulting headline in The Wall Street Journal, “Clinton Ally Backs An Independent Review in Email Controversy,” was hardly on-message—especially when Clinton herself made clear at her United Nations press conference two days later that she had no intention of cooperating with such a fishing expedition.

Similarly, Carville’s appearance on This Week produced arguably unhelpful news stories with his suggestion that “convenience”—Hillary’s stated reason for exclusively using a private email account while secretary of state—was not the sole explanation.

“I suspect she didn’t want Louie Gohmert rifling through her emails,” Carville said on television, referring to the right-wing Republican congressman from Texas, “which seems to me a kind of reasonable position for someone to take.” Carville’s comment was widely interpreted to mean that Clinton was deliberately dodging scrutiny from Congress.

Carville, who became an international celebrity, the famed “Ragin’ Cajun,” as Bill Clinton’s chief campaign strategist in 1992, told The Daily Beast that he’s being very selective about his pro-Hillary media hits.

“I’ll do anything I can to try to help her, but I’m not doing 200 television appearances. I don’t have the time,” he said. “I might get 200 phone calls. I think what I have is a valuable historical perspective.”

Carville, who recently signed on as a columnist for David Brock’s liberal-leaning Media Matters press criticism site, added: “Right now, I’m kinda working on ‘The Anatomy of a Clinton “quote” Scandal’ which I might post in the next week...It’s always the same thing. The Republicans leak it to the press, generally The New York Times...and then the press walks it back. It started with the ethics Whitewater scandal, then Filegate, Travelgate, Pardongate, Benghazi...My question that I’m gonna pose is, ‘Why do they [the media] keep falling for that?’”

Brock—who demanded that the Times correct its email scoop--debated the issue on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and won a minor concession from the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, that the initial story, while valid, “was not without fault”—declined to comment to The Daily Beast.

As a writer for The American Spectator during the Clinton administration, he exposed the Paula Jones scandal, which ultimately led to impeachment proceedings. Later Brock apologized to the Clintons, renounced his former career as a self-described “hit man” for the vast right-wing conspiracy, and became an enthusiastic booster of Hillary’s political prospects.

Longtime Democratic activist Hilary Rosen, who on the night of the UN news conference discussed Clinton’s emails on PBS’s NewsHour and on CNN where she's a paid contributor, described her role this way: “My job isn't to defend Hillary, it is to call it like I see it. I believed her, though, thought her explanation was reasonable, and was happy to say so. I thought this whole issue was nothing but filling a vacuum before she announces. And I really don't think that 20 months from now, voters will make a choice based on emails.”

Karen Finney, who served in the Clinton White House as the first lady’s deputy press secretary and later was communications director of the Democratic National Committee, said: “I felt like I wanted to do this if I could be a part of helping get the correct information out there. I believe in her. I think she would make a great president.”

Public relations consultant Kiki McLean, meanwhile, echoed: “I’m somebody who believes in her leadership, and I also believe that the American people deserve to know the facts.”

McLean, who has argued Hillary’s case during three appearances on MSNBC over the past couple of weeks, added: “My only concern is that the expectations of the media, from a pure process standpoint, be reasonable.”

Last week’s televised spectacle at the UN, where Clinton and her sole press aide, Nick Merrill, confronted a mob of nearly 300 reporters in front of a tapestry of Picasso’s “Guernica,” demonstrated that in the limbo period of a pre-campaign, the demand for quick answers far exceeds the Clinton staff’s ability to provide them.

“The media is setting up their expectations—and not just the media, by the way—but other people who would apply their analysis to the performance of a team that doesn’t exist yet,” said McLean, an adviser to Hillary’s 2008 campaign and another former communications director of the DNC.

“You and I both know that a story isn’t fully formed in its first day, and there are a lot of contributing factors,” McLean said, explaining why Hillary seemed so slow in pushing back on the email flap. “One was a news vacuum right after CPAC [the headline-generating Conservative Political Action Conference], while the Republicans had all gone home that week. Vacuums have to be filled, and the media is frequently happy to have Hillary be the filler. That’s not a positive or a negative. That’s just the way it is. Nobody’s complaining.”