On June 1, The New York Times published a front-page article titled, ONE PLACE WHERE OBAMA GOES ELBOW TO ELBOW. The feature detailed Barack Obama's love for pickup basketball, his jersey-tugging style, even the time he hit a long game-winning shot after getting fouled.
The Obama camp clearly welcomed the humanizing glimpse at Obama's life; his rivals, probably not so much. In an ordinary campaign, that might have been it. But this is no ordinary campaign--not when Hillary Clinton is a candidate. And so, the Clinton team let Times reporter Patrick Healy, who covers the Hillary beat, know about their "annoyance" with the story, as Healy later put it.
If grumbling about a basketball story seems excessive, it's also typical of the Clinton media machine. Reporters who have covered the hyper-vigilant campaign say that no detail or editorial spin is too minor to draw a rebuke. Even seasoned political journalists describe reporting on Hillary as a torturous experience. Though few dare offer specifics for the record--"They're too smart," one furtively confides. "They'll figure out who I am"--privately, they recount excruciating battles to secure basic facts. Innocent queries are met with deep suspicion. Only surgically precise questioning yields relevant answers. Hillary's aides don't hesitate to use access as a blunt instrument, as when they killed off a negative GQ story on the campaign by threatening to stop cooperating with a separate Bill Clinton story the magazine had in the works. Reporters' jabs and errors are long remembered, and no hour is too odd for an angry phone call. Clinton aides are especially swift to bypass reporters and complain to top editors. "They're frightening!" says one reporter who has covered Clinton. "They don't see [reporting] as a healthy part of the process. They view this as a ruthless kill-or-be-killed game."
Despite all the grumbling, however, the press has showered Hillary with strikingly positive coverage. "It's one of the few times I've seen journalists respect someone for beating the hell out of them," says a veteran Democratic media operative. The media has paved a smooth road for signature campaign moments like Hillary's campaign launch and her health care plan rollout and has dutifully advanced campaign-promoted themes like Hillary's "experience" and expertise in military affairs. This is all the more striking in light of the press's past treatment of Clinton--particularly during her husband's White House years--including endless stories about her personal ethics, frostiness, and alleged Lady Macbeth persona.
It's enough to make you suspect that breeding fear and paranoia within the press corps is itself part of the Clinton campaign's strategy. And, if that sounds familiar, it may be because the Clinton machine, say reporters and pro-Hillary Democrats, is emulating nothing less than the model of the Bush White House, which has treated the press with thinly veiled contempt and minimal cooperation. "The Bush administration changed the rules," as one scribe puts it--and the Clintonites like the way they look. (To be sure, no one accuses the Clinton team of outright lying to the press, as the Bushies have done, or of crossing other ethical lines. And reporters say other press shops--notably those of Rudy Giuliani and John Edwards--are also highly combative.)
So far, the strategy has worked brilliantly. In the current climate, where the mainstream media is under attack from both conservatives and liberals, Clinton may have picked the right moment to get tough with the press. But, as the murmur of discontent among the fourth estate grows--and Hillary's coverage has taken a sharper tone since a widely panned debate performance late last month--even some Hillary supporters fear that the strategy may produce a dangerous backlash.
In January 1993, Hillary Clinton granted her first newspaper interview as First Lady. But, rather than agreeing to sit down with a national reporter to discuss issues of substance, Hillary would only meet with a food reporter from The New York Times--and then only to discuss her hostess duties. Later, other reporters who wanted to question her about policy were told to submit written questions. "Her ground-zero assumption is that [a reporter is] an asshole," a senior Hillary aide told her biographer, Carl Bernstein.
Clinton's wariness was forged by her husband's nightmarish experience on the 1992 campaign trail. Battered by stories about Bill's mistresses and financial dealings, Hillary seethed at the press and resolved to control their coverage. Bill disliked the press, too--but not with the loathing of his wife, who even tried to throw the press out of the White House itself. In January 1993, she and her friend Susan Thomases proposed to move the White House press room next door, to the sleepy Old Executive Office Building. When that scheme was deemed untenable, aides closed off a hallway connecting the press room to the West Wing. Outraged reporters pounced on press secretary George Stephanopoulos, who later recalled thinking, "I'm not your problem; Hillary is. ... [Bill] Clinton seems to be on my side. He asked me again this morning why we were closing the door. Um, have you talked to your wife about this, Mr. President?"
Hillary's first instinct was usually to stonewall the press. When New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth was first reporting on Whitewater in early 1992, rather than work with Gerth, Hillary insisted on giving him the figurative finger. Likewise, Hillary balked when The Washington Post asked to see private Whitewater documents in 1993. Bill Clinton favored compliance with the Post--but was overruled by Hillary, who implied she would rather "throw them all in the Potomac." Former Clinton White House adviser David Gergen has called the decision "the decisive turning point" that convinced Washington the Clintons had something to hide.
To be fair, when Hillary did engage the press, she often got burned. When she ruminated to the The New York Times Magazine's Michael Kelly about spirituality, he produced a mocking cover story titled "Saint Hillary." Hillary later wrote that she had been "raw with grief" over her dying father, implying that Kelly had exploited her emotional vulnerability. In 1994, with questions swirling about a big profit she turned selling cattle futures, she agreed to meet with a clamoring media. Donning a memorable pink suit, she endured an hour of harsh questioning. Afterward, according to Gerth and Don Van Natta's recent book Her Way, Hillary told her aides the exercise had been futile. "They're not going to let up. They're just going to keep coming at us, no matter what we do." The sordid Monica Lewinsky scandal only affirmed Hillary's firm belief that the "vast right-wing conspiracy" had immense power over mainstream media coverage.
When Hillary embarked on her 2000 run for Senate in New York, she brought her antipathy toward the press with her and set new standards for media control. After the campaign, AP reporter Beth Harpaz wrote a book about her experience in which she described feeling at various times "humiliated," "paranoid," and "so worn down and so exasperated by the lack of access and the lack of news in this campaign that I'd given up fighting." Once, when Hillary sent a candy basket to the press van, the downtrodden reporters were incredulous, Harpaz wrote: "[N]one of us could believe that Hillary was being so nice to us."
In July, Hillary's communications director, Howard Wolfson, appeared on MSNBC's "Hardball" with Barack Obama's chief strategist David Axelrod. Obama had said he would be willing to meet with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Wolfson pointedly noted that this would place Obama in the company of a "Holocaust denier," which compelled a flummoxed Axelrod to clarify that Obama does not, in fact, condone Holocaust denial. The show's host, Chris Matthews, declared Wolfson's tactic "brilliant politics" before later rebranding it "dirtball."
Many political reporters feel similarly conflicted about Wolfson, the public face of Hillary's press operation. But everyone agrees he is a fearsome operator. As communications director for the 1998 Senate campaign of New York Democrat Charles Schumer, Wolfson would fire up his aides by riffing on a famous line from The Untouchables: "If he uses a fist, you use a bat. If he uses a knife, you use a gun." During Hillary's 2006 reelection campaign, he constantly taunted her GOP opponent, John Spencer, for once joking that he'd like to kill a federal judge and a governor with whom he'd feuded.
Those flashes of sadism don't reflect the unexpectedly likeable character within, however. "Wooffie," as Hillary has been known to call him, is colorfully eccentric--afraid of flying, highly allergic, prone to weird accidents, and a proud indie-rock connoisseur. And, unlike many hard-assed Republican operatives, Wolfson socializes with some top D.C. political reporters.
A former reporter himself, Wolfson may actually feel some kinship with the reporters he spins. Not so other senior members of Hillary's team, including her chief pollster and guru, Mark Penn, whose recent book Microtrends derides media "elites" as out of touch and superficial. (Penn even name-checks The New York Times's Mark Leibovich for "filling front pages with personal impressions about candidates' personalities.") Moreover, working under Wolfson is a press team drawn from the killing fields of New York political media, where relentless tabloids drive the news and slow reaction equals death. Ironically, their godfather is Schumer, one of the most press-hungry politicians in history. The Clinton campaign's pugnacious press secretary, Phil Singer, spent several years as Schumer's spokesman. Clinton press aides Jay Carson and Blake Zeff are also ex-Schumer hands.
The defining quality of that machine is, simply, impenetrability. Reporting any story the Clintonites haven't specifically encouraged can be like wading through mud. "Their rule is never to volunteer information--ever," says one reporter who has experienced this. (Process stories are particularly verboten.) Another is a willingness to offer access to Clinton only under strictly controlled circumstances--as when she agreed to appear on the major TV networks the day her candidacy launched on the condition that the interviews be short and unedited, allowing precious little time for unrelated queries. In a testament to the enormous power of Hillary's celebrity, her single greatest point of leverage with the media, no one refused.
The Clintonites are also defined by their obsessive determination never to be caught off-guard by bad news. Whenever possible, they seek to release it on their own terms. In May, the campaign spoiled the summer rollout of two Clinton biographies, Gerth and Van Natta's Her Way and Bernstein's A Woman In Charge, by obtaining advance copies and leaking them to The Washington Post on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. Employing another signature technique--the dismissive put-down--Philippe Reines, Hillary's Senate spokesman, asked the Post, "Is it possible to be quoted yawning?" And long-time Clinton associate Taylor Branch, a key source for Her Way's newsiest anecdote--that the Clintons had a "20-year project" for Hillary to become president--came forward to deny the story. Scoring embargoed galleys is a Clinton specialty. Sally Bedell Smith, author of the recent Clinton biography For Love of Politics, says she was "thunderstruck" to learn from Clinton friend Terry McAuliffe, weeks before the book's release, that Bill Clinton had already read it. "It was unnerving that he could have gotten a copy at that stage," she says. (McAuliffe denies making this statement to Bedell Smith. A source close to him says he refutes the alleged comments from the "brief social conversation.")
Adding to the Clinton camp's reputation for fearsome omnipotence is its treatment of media figures who cross them. Wolfson first refined this technique in response to Sheehy's dishy 1999 book, Hillary's Choice, when his intense counteroffensive--Wolfson trashed her factual errors and even showed up at Sheehy's book events to spin reporters--made the author, and not Hillary, the story. Bedell Smith adds that, during her research, one Clintonite told her that her book was causing ulcers "because I was someone with a solid reputation who would be difficult to attack."
Many reporters also suspect the Clinton camp of employing outside proxies to attack troublemakers in the media. After Hillary's shaky debate performance late last month, the Drudge Report--whose author, Matt Drudge, the campaign has assiduously courted--quickly featured an unusual blind quote on its homepage in which an unnamed "top Hillary advisor" said debate moderator Tim Russert "bordered on the unprofessional." Joining in the attack on Russert was Media Matters, the liberal press-watching website founded by former Clinton-hater turned Clinton ally David Brock. Many in Washington believe the campaign feeds material to Brock's site, as when Media Matters went after New York Times reporter Anne Kornblut last July after Kornblut misrendered a quote that led to an erroneous story claiming Hillary had criticized fellow Democrats. Not only did Clinton aides fume to the paper's editors, but Media Matters pummeled Kornblut and the Times for several days. (A count of Media Matters stories from October found 39 headlines defending Clinton, compared to 15 for Obama and just one for John Edwards. A Media Matters spokesman strongly denied favoritism.)
Sometimes, Hillary even gets in the act. According to Gerth and Van Natta, Kornblut was just back from a planned vacation she took after her story appeared when she ran into Hillary in a hotel. Referring to Kornblut's casual attire, Hillary cracked, "Anne, I thought you left Barbados"--revealing an ominous awareness of the reporter's movements. "That's their imprimatur," says the Democratic strategist with presidential experience. "When there's a story they don't like, they seize on it and turn it back on the reporter, and make it about the reporter." (As First Lady, Hillary called for a public "frontal assault" against The Washington Post's lead Whitewater reporter, Susan Schmidt, according to the Post's Howard Kurtz, though the plan was never enacted.)
Several sources report hearing that the Clinton campaign has bragged about forcing one reporter at a major news organization from the Hillary beat. The boast, which one source heard from a senior Hillary aide, is incorrect. But the claim has become a part of insider Washington lore. Like the tale of the killed GQ story, it has only enhanced the dark mythology of the Hillary machine--a mythology the Clintonites don't dispel. "They brag about scalps that they take, " says a Democratic operative who has heard such tales.
Most Democrats in Washington agree that, had John Kerry responded more effectively to conservative "Swift Boat" attacks about his war record in the summer of 2004, he would be president today. And, if the Clinton campaign is overzealous, some say, it's because they are determined to avoid the alternative. "There's a Swift Boat around every corner," says one Democratic operative close to the campaign. "We'll be damned if we're going to let that happen again." Almost as important--in the Democratic primaries, at least--it is determined to show that it won't let that happen again. "They've cultivated this attack-machine image because they think that Democrats want that," says one political reporter. "They're pandering to the bloggers." This approach isn't without risks, however. Some people say a central problem for Al Gore in 2000 was the way the reporters covering him resented the lack of access and information they were afforded and (allegedly) punished him with negative coverage. Among Hillary's supporters, there are already fears of a repeat. According to one person who was present, the subject arose in a recent conversation among a group of former Clinton hands and loyalists, who fretted that the campaign's short-term press management success isn't sustainable--that its brute propaganda mentality will eventually taint Hillary's coverage. Some Clinton supporters describe a gradually harder edge, as evidenced by her post- debate coverage. One veteran Democratic strategist agrees: "Don't you think they're on the brink [of a backlash]?"
Perhaps not. Unfortunately for the beleaguered hacks covering Hillary Clinton, she remains the most reliable means of boosting ratings and selling papers in U.S. politics. And many of the strategists and reporters with whom I spoke were resigned to the idea that, in modern politics and media, nice guys finish last. After complaining about the Clinton machine for a spell, one political reporter fondly described how much easier dealing with the Obama campaign had been: "The Obama press office is nothing like this. They've got a very open and friendly press office." There was a pause. "But, then, he's losing."
Update: After this story appeared online a person close to Terry McAuliffe contacted TNR to convey McAuliffe's denial of the claim by Sally Bedell Smith that McAuliffe told her Bill Clinton had seen a pre-publication galley of her book. (See here for more.) Contacted again, Bedell Smith said she stands firmly by her account. "It is a vivid memory for me," she said.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.