Can Hillary Clinton Get Along With the Press?

Can the lion lie down with the lamb? She's going to try.

Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), speaks to reporters at the conclusion of the Senate Armed Services Committee open briefing on Dubai Ports World's proposed acquisition of P&O Steamship Navigation-run ports at the U.S. Capitol on February 23, 2006 in Washington, D.C.

Photographer: Chris Greenberg/Bloomberg News

Last week, I was speaking with a veteran Republican strategist for a likely presidential candidate about what factors would shape the 2016 race that weren’t already being obsessed over by the press. He replied, with grim satisfaction, that Hillary Clinton would have to endure more hostile press coverage than Barack Obama did and that this would redound to the GOP’s benefit. For this strategist, as for many Republicans, it has long been an article of deep, almost cult-like faith that Obama’s electoral success owed in no small part to the media’s fawning coverage of his campaigns—and that this supposed bias will not be extended to Clinton.

Evidently, Clinton agrees. In a blockbuster piece in Monday’s Politico, Mike Allen reports that a major component of Clinton’s soon-to-emerge presidential campaign is a new approach to dealing with the press, which “Hillaryland,” radiating the conviction of its principal, has generally abhorred and treated with hostile disdain. It seems those feelings haven’t changed. “Advisers know that Clinton doesn’t like or trust the press,” Allen reports. But he quotes one of them conceding that open hostility toward the press hasn’t been a successful strategy and that Clinton is ready to try something different. “You do see what works, and address what works the next time around,” the adviser tells Allen. “The default isn’t toward the pit-bull mentality.” The campaign is apparently even searching for someone who could play the role of “good cop.”

If anything, Allen undersells his scoop. Clinton’s relationship with the press isn’t some minor campaign detail along the lines of who’ll run Iowa or who’ll shoot her ads. It’s what’s shaped her as a politician. As Allen’s colleagues Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman detailed last summer, Clinton’s relationship with the press has been caustic throughout her career.

Over the 25 years Hillary Clinton has spent in the national spotlight, she’s been smeared and stereotyped, the subject of dozens of over-hyped or downright fictional stories and books alleging, among other things, that she is a lesbian, a Black Widow killer who offed Vincent Foster then led an unprecedented coverup, a pathological liar, a real estate swindler, a Commie, a harridan. Every aspect of her personal life has been ransacked; there’s no part of her 5-foot-7-inch body that hasn’t come under microscopic scrutiny, from her ankles to her neckline to her myopic blue eyes—not to mention the ever-changing parade of hairstyles that friends say reflects creative restlessness and enemies read as a symbol of somebody who doesn’t stand for anything.

This has instilled a resentment that her closest allies consider unshakeable. “Look, she hates you. Period,” a Clinton adviser tells Thrush and Haberman. “That’s never going to change.” Of course, these bad feelings toward the press are not entirely unjustified. In addition to the deranged and misogynistic attacks Thrush and Haberman lay out, Clinton has also been raked through the coals over more serious matters, such as Whitewater, that never merited such treatment and inflicted real damage. What both Clintons learned, and what eventually got her into trouble, was that attacking the press allowed them to survive scandals both real (Monica Lewinsky) and imagined (Whitewater). 

This bred a kind of paranoid hubris that was the hallmark of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. My own experience in the Clinton crosshairs stands as a good example of why her “old” approach to the press often backfired.

In 2007, I was writing a story for GQ on the inner workings of the Clinton campaign. The Clinton campaign was unhappy about this. At the time, Clinton was presumed (by herself and nearly everyone else) to be the inevitable Democratic nominee and likely future president. This gave her a great deal of power and the illusion that she could control how the press covered her. So a Clinton aide threatened to withdraw Bill Clinton’s cooperation to be the magazine’s “Man of the Year” cover model if GQ didn’t kill my piece. GQ killed my piece. (Full story here, via Ben Smith.)

The problem with this strategy, as anyone outside the Clinton bubble would easily recognize, is that it created more problems for her than it solved. Information wants to be free—especially juicy tales of Clinton campaign turmoil. When the story inevitably leaked, it drew far more attention than it otherwise would have, deepening the impressions of Clinton as imperious and entitled and her campaign staff as goonish extras from House of Cards. The stories they’d tried to squelch simply wound up in a different magazine  (here, for anyone interested).

Can Clinton really let bygones be bygones and try a new approach? It would make all the sense in the world, since the lack of competition in the Democratic primaries means she’ll have to contend with a bored and restless press corps. But it would also require her to willingly give up a measure of control at a time when she is even more powerful and inevitable-seeming than she was before. (For what it’s worth, I haven’t yet been invited to tea.)

That’s a pretty tall order. Allen doesn’t mention it, but a New York Times story last week raises some doubts. Amy Chozick and Michael Cieply report that Bill Clinton has broken off cooperation with a Martin Scorsese documentary for HBO that would have been released during his wife’s campaign. Clinton wanted to control the interview questions and the final cut of the film, according Chozick and Cieply, and Scorsese refused.

This doesn’t mean that Clinton’s desire to reset her relationship with the media isn’t sincere, or at least a sincere recognition of her self interest. Nor does it mean the effort is doomed. But it is a reminder that old habits die hard.

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