In 2000, aides to Hillary Clinton talked about running against two opponents. One was Rick Lazio, the Republican candidate for Senate. The other was the New York Post, New York's leading practitioner of politics-as-blood sport. And, while Lazio didn't turn out to have much behind his punches, the Post came at Clinton from all directions. The editorial page thundered that "to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton is to affirm double-dealing and deception." The front page--"the wood," in tabloid-speak--featured unflattering photographs of Clinton and highly charged, boldface headlines like "blood money" in reference to a Clinton donor alleged to have terrorist sympathies. Then there were a series of exclusive surveys from John Zogby that contradicted most other public polling and produced this drumbeat of Post headlines in the final weeks of the race: "LAZIO IS PULLING AHEAD," "RICK UP BY FIVE POINTS," "THEY'RE NECK AND NECK AT THE FINISH LINE."
"We beat the shit out of her," one person involved in the coverage sums up. Michael Tomasky, now editor of The American Prospect, counted among the Post's signed and unsigned opinion pieces about Clinton "seven positive pieces, seventeen neutral ones--and 212 negative ones." So, after Clinton's victory, her aides and everyone else in town expected six hard years from the lively, money-losing tabloid and its owner, the conservative media baron Rupert Murdoch. After all, Murdoch's Fox News, born at the start of Bill Clinton's second term, had served as the main publicity arm of the "vast right-wing conspiracy."
But instead, to the surprise of both Clinton's supporters and her critics, the Post has embraced Clinton and helped champion many of the political victories of her first Senate term. As the New York Observer, my newspaper, first reported last summer, the Post's newfound respect for Clinton is one of several signs of a budding alliance between the Clintons and Murdoch. And Clinton's strategy for winning over the Post and her former nemesis suggests she has developed the skills to mute her bitterest critics as she looks toward the White House in 2008.
Clinton's approach to the Post has been a courtship of small steps, starting with straightforward agreements on policy. How the Post and Clinton found ideological middle ground is no mystery: The politics of September 11 and Iraq put the apparently hawkish Clinton on, from the editors' point of view, the right side of World War Three. "The thing that changed was 9/11," says Bob McManus, who runs the paper's editorial page. "She began to exhibit some leadership qualities that we didn't see that were there."
Clinton fought for federal resources for New York and backed--unreservedly--the Bush administration's response to the attacks, its invasion of Afghanistan. Her statement on the Senate floor on September 12, 2001, was a tough with-us-or-against-us line that now sounds like the Bush doctrine avant la lettre. She expressed her support for the president "not only to seek out an exact punishment on the perpetrators, but to make very clear that not only those who harbor terrorists, but those who in any way aid or comfort them whatsoever, will now face the wrath of our country."
It was hard for the Post to find fault with that, and, two days after Christmas 2001, the editorial board made a rare admission of error. "Hillary Rodham Clinton has been in the United States Senate for a year, less five days, and the world hasn't come to an end," said the editorial. "OK, so we were wrong. More than that, we're pleasantly surprised in many respects by the former first lady's performance so far." Their praise for Clinton's position on the decision to go to war, which she voted to authorize, and for expanding the military, culminated in an editorial last July headlined "hillary clinton: the unlikely warrior."
But Clinton's foreign policy is only part of the story. The other part has been an active courtship on Clinton's part--including access for Post reporters. Unlike some politicians brutalized by the Post--notably this year's Democratic mayoral nominee, Fernando Ferrer--she and her staff never cut off the paper, however shrill it got. Her top campaign communications aide, Howard Wolfson, had arrived with a respect and understanding for the tabloid's power from his time with Westchester Representative Nita Lowey, whom he helped engineer into an unlikely Post favorite. Clinton's courtship of the paper has ranged from her warm relations with the paper's Capitol Hill staff--one former reporter, Vince Morris, was a particular favorite--to her keen awareness of some of the paper's favorite crusades. Unlike Senator Charles Schumer and other prominent politicians from both parties, she has not sought the support of the Independence Party, a New York state outfit whose most prominent member, Lenora Fulani, is a regular Post target for her views on Jews. And, last year, when the paper was wrapped up in an all-out assault on the International Freedom Center, a planned museum at Ground Zero that the Post warned would be a "monster" and "a forum for America-bashing," Clinton joined in. Already under heavy fire, the project died--people involved say--the day Clinton came out against it in an interview with the Post. She got the wood, and an editorial labeled the move "hillary's home run."
The distance from the devious carpetbagger the Post portrayed in 2000 to the serious junior senator who, for the most part, occupies its pages today is hard to match in America's political press. (Comparing The New York Times' coverage of John McCain in his Keating Five days with today might get you close, but that didn't happen in a single term.) Both sides, though, insist this is journalism as usual. "With any politician, we treat them issue by issue," says the Post's current editor, Col Allan, through a spokesman. Clinton's spokesman, Philippe Reines, takes a similar line: "The New York Post and other media outlets," he begins--as though the Post were of the same species as the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle--"are just reflecting the reality that Senator Clinton has worked tirelessly and done a good job for New York."
Beyond these bromides is a realization by both Clinton and Murdoch that their relationship can be mutually beneficial. Murdoch's history with Prime Minister Tony Blair offers the blueprint: After then-candidate Blair flew to Australia's Hayman Island to address executives of Murdoch's News Corporation, Murdoch's British papers abandoned the Tories to support him. Murdoch would go on to benefit from Blair's media deregulation. Murdoch's career has featured such episodes of putting business interests ahead of ideology, as when a publishing company under his control dropped a memoir critical of the Chinese government. "It's a lot about Rupert," says a former Post editor, Lou Colasuonno, about the changes at his old paper. "He's smart about where he thinks he needs to be, and his ideology is often less important than his business."
What Murdoch wants directly from Clinton isn't entirely clear, though Ted Kennedy taught him a lesson in angering U.S. senators in 1988, when Kennedy's ban on cross-ownership of media forced him to sell the Post. (He repurchased it, with the support of a placated Kennedy, five years later.) But Clinton isn't just any junior senator: News Corp has sprawling regulatory interests, and every corporate chief could use a favor from a woman who just might be the next president of the United States.
For her part, Clinton hasn't been to Hayman Island yet, but she did lunch with Murdoch--a man who did as much as anyone to drive the sex scandal that almost undid her husband--at his company's Midtown tower, according to one person who was at the meeting. "Senator Clinton respects [Murdoch] and thinks he is smart and effective," Reines said last summer. Personal diplomacy, however, is the true calling of the senator's husband, who has done everything from touring the Post's newsroom to recording a birthday tribute to Fox News chief Roger Ailes. He also recruited Murdoch as one of the small handful of business executives participating in his "Global Initiative," a sui generis foreign policy conference in New York in September. Seated in a set of low white armchairs, the former president interviewed Murdoch, along with Sony's Sir Howard Stringer and Time Warner's Richard Parsons, about the future of global media. After the panel ended (late, of course), Clinton and Murdoch chatted in a corner, one's hand on the other's arm, while admirers, including a largely ignored Brad Pitt, tried to get close to the two men.
For all these reasons--Clinton's hawkishness, her courtship of the paper, and her and her husband's courtship of its proprietor--the Post is no longer Clinton's enemy. The shift has reshaped New York politics and made it exponentially more difficult for a challenger to unseat Clinton later this year. "If a statewide Republican candidate doesn't have the New York Post beating the hell out of Hillary every day, it's going to be hard to find another outlet where you're going to see a wedge for really sharp-edged and vitriolic attacks pushing in," says Republican media consultant Rick Wilson, who is best known for producing a controversial ad attacking Vietnam veteran and Georgia Senator Max Cleland in 2002.
And so the Republican establishment's choice to challenge Clinton, the flashy Westchester County district attorney, Jeanine Pirro, lost her best platform before the race even began. Things have come so far this election cycle that, as veterans of Clinton's 2000 staff watch in astonishment, the Post's favorite target emerged not as Clinton but as the "bumbling" Pirro, who abandoned her Senate attempt on December 21.
There is little evidence, however, that the tabloid's altered view of Clinton has been adopted by its more conservative readers. While the Post is accustomed to shrugging off high-minded censure from the left, its Clinton cheerleading has brought "a lot of criticism" from a different quarter, as McManus, the editorial page editor, acknowledges. "There's people out there who think she's, if not the devil incarnate, certainly the spawn of the devil," he says. "We do something that surprises them, and we're going to hear about it."
That the Post is being attacked for its Hillary coverage from the right is testament to the evolution of Clinton's political skills. Before she ran for Senate, she wasn't known for placating her critics. "This is a battle," she declared during that famous 1998 "Today" show interview when she coined the "vast right-wing conspiracy." But her courtship of the Post indicates that the senator has mastered some of the political skills her husband was apparently born with. She has steeled herself to build a relationship with a newspaper that tried to defeat her in 2000. She has even allowed the paper to dictate elements of her agenda, as at Ground Zero. And she and her husband have personally wooed a man whom many of her allies hate with the kind of passion that the right used to reserve for Hillary.
That said, Clinton has hardly co-opted the tendentious tabloid, which still runs columns by Clinton apostate Dick Morris. As she edges away from her support for Bush's war, she has taken some serious, though mostly respectful, fire from the Post's editorial page. But those who wonder whether she can tack as adroitly on the national scene as her husband did in his own quest for the White House should know: She has been practicing such triangulation here in her adopted home state. And, in the process, she has turned a killer tabloid into an ordinary hometown paper.
Ben Smith is a political reporter for New York's Daily News.
By Ben Smith