Clintons K.O. Favorite Foe: The Media

  • Share
  • Read Later
Justin Sullivan / Getty

Democratic presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton talks with reporters aboard her press plane before taking off.

It's a simple fact of Clinton family politics: they do better in a scrape. Combat brings them to the balls of their feet. They spring their leaks in calm seas — whether it's Bill botching his first term as governor of Arkansas, or Hillary's failure to pass health care reform even with a Democratic Congress — and shine the brightest when bailing frantically for survival.

Hillary Clinton survived primary night — taking Rhode Island, Ohio and Texas. Naturally, she did it by picking a few fights. She bludgeoned Barack Obama with a ringing phone and repeated questions about toughness, but saved her biggest punches for her most dependable sparring partner: The media.

Press critics can decide how much truth is in Clinton's claims that the media put its thumb on the scale for Obama. But taking the fight on purely political terms, the verdict is clear: Clinton's jabs at the media gave her a focus and energy she lacked through Obama's long string of February victories. The battle fired up her supporters, it offered an explanation for her losses, and it may have inspired some journalists to turn up the heat on her opponent to prove their fairness. (It didn't help that in the days before Texas and Ohio, he responded to that heat with a surprising lack of aplomb.) Obama stopped rising in the polls. Clinton stopped falling. The latest Gallup tracking poll once again has the race a dead heat.

The question is: What took her so long? Biographers have traced Hillary Clinton's beefs about press bias back more than 30 years, to Bill Clinton's first, failed, campaign for Congress, when reporters could have been more diligent in knocking down false rumors about Clinton's anti-Vietnam activities. Yet, while her husband has been grousing about the media's coverage of Obama for months, the candidate was passing out chocolate hearts to her press corps as recently as Valentine's Day. This, too, is part of the saga: since the early 1980s, Hillary Clinton has tried charming the press in between denunciations — they way you might say "good doggie" to a growling cur while reaching for the pepper spray.

Seeing Clinton scold NBC's Brian Williams and Tim Russert for giving her the first question at a recent debate, I couldn't help remembering a night almost exactly 16 years earlier. It was snowy in New Hampshire, and Bill Clinton's promising campaign for the presidency appeared on the verge of collapse. A checkout-stand weekly, the Star, was reporting that a woman named Gennifer Flowers was talking about her affair with Bill Clinton. There was no road map for surviving something like that, but the Clintons reacted boldly. They sent a young adviser named Mandy Grunwald to appear on Nightline, which was then at the peak of its influence. Host Ted Koppel was known as a master interrogator — but as soon as he opened the interview, Grunwald sprang to the attack. Why was Koppel letting "a trashy supermarket tabloid" set the agenda?

That was the nation's first look at what has become a signature of Clinton family politics: When trouble comes, jab the media. Deep as their resentments are of the "vast right-wing conspiracy," as Hillary Clinton dubbed their political foes, the family's opinion of the press is even lower. "All reporters do is observe and criticize," Clinton biographer John F. Harris wrote, summarizing their views. "They don't do anything." Political enemies at least stand for something. As polls routinely show, much of the American public shares this low regard, which makes the media an ideal enemy for a politician to take on in a tight campaign.

The downside: Battling the press is a short-term tactic, not a long-term strategy. You blast away for weeks, the smoke settles...and the press is still there. After Clinton's strong showing Tuesday, the limelight is likely to swing back her way. She won't look as much like an abused underdog, and her coverage will feel less elegiac. Nothing dims the glow of sympathy like success.

Meanwhile, holding the people who cover you in such low regard makes it more difficult for the Clintons to persuade fair-minded journalists of just about anything. If the press isn't worthy of any respect, then there's no reason not to manipulate it with impunity — but no important journalist wants to be manipulated. You can scold Ted Koppel for chasing trash — once — but you pay a price when the "trash" turns out to be true. No one likes being played for a chump.

"Play" may be the operative word. On Monday, the press corps following Hillary Clinton through Texas arrived at a campaign event to find that the media facilities were located in a men's room. Literally. Urinals on the walls. It was a gesture so wildly over the top that it wasn't even politics any more — it was pure show business. After battling the media over the Flowers scandal, and the White House travel office firings, and the health care fiasco, and cattle futures, and the Lewinsky crisis and so on, backwards into Arkansas history and all the way up to the rise of Barack Obama, the the Clintons are almost inconceivable minus their favorite foes. But having survived March 4 by beating the press like the Globetrotters whupping the Washington Generals, the question over the next seven weeks is, can they take Barack Obama one-on-one?