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The Crying Game

How the press saved Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire

Scott Olsen/Getty Images

Manchester, New Hampshire: The reporters covering Hillary Clinton first knew she would win the New Hampshire primary around 10:30 p.m. Tuesday night, when a beaming Terry McAuliffe walked into the press filing center in a Manchester gymnasium bearing the news. A few nights earlier, a very different McAuliffe had been standing on an Iowa stage just after it became clear Hillary would place third in the caucuses. Then he had looked strained and tired, casting worried glances at his BlackBerry. But, on Tuesday night, McAuliffe had the cocky glow of a quarterback who had just lobbed the winning touchdown pass. “My phone, the last hour, has been ringing off the hook,” he said with enough pleasure to suggest that, a few hours before, he hadn’t been sure if it would ever ring again.

McAuliffe wasn’t the only Clintonite to betray how grim Hillary’s prospects had been looking within the campaign. One aide joked that he had awoken that morning wondering if he would “take a bath in my own blood” by midnight. Now, Clintonites who hadn’t smiled in weeks wandered the crowded auditorium wearing expressions of almost post-coital bliss. But most striking of all was the easy rapport between Hillary’s press team and the flabbergasted reporters who had shown up that night expecting to write the candidate’s obituary. The Clintonites have had a long and tortured history with the press, which they fundamentally view as The Enemy. But that antipathy has never been expressed as bluntly--or as publicly--as it was in the late days of the Iowa and New Hampshire campaigns. Ironically, though, the Clinton team might also consider thanking the press: The same capricious media machine that drove Hillary to the brink of destruction also rescued her from her post-Iowa crisis at the last moment.

HILLARY’S NEAR-COLLAPSE did not begin in Iowa. It started in Philadelphia at a late-October debate, with her infamous non-answer about granting drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. After that, the tone of her largely favorable press coverage took a quick turn for the worse. Old storylines about the poll-tested calculations of the Clinton machine roared back with a vengeance. Bill Clinton, after a long role playing statesman, was suddenly recast as a gaffe-prone punchline. Even Matt Drudge, whom the campaign had tamed for much of 2007, returned to form, feeding the press buckets of negative Hillary stories, such as the (incorrect) report that her campaign had stiffed an Iowa restaurant waitress on her tip, and posting a gratuitous photo of the candidate looking especially wrinkled and old.

By the fall, some Democrats were already warning that they feared a press backlash because of the campaign’s famously heavy-handed tactics, epitomized when staffers appeared to extort GQ into killing a critical story by threatening to withhold access to Bill. To these Democrats, Hillary was finally reaping what she had sown.

Whatever the cause, the Clintonites were all too aware they had a problem. Hours after the Iowa caucuses, the campaign flew its press corps on a chartered jet from Des Moines to New Hampshire. On board, haggard-looking aides furiously sought to downplay the caucus results. But there was also a faintly confrontational air as they seemed to accuse the press of rooting against her and for Barack Obama. “I realize that some of you want it to be over in five days,” said press aide Jay Carson, referring to the short window before the New Hampshire vote. Also on the plane was Hillary’s top strategist and pollster, Mark Penn, whose disdain for the press is well-known. Suffering the crush of reporters in the aisle around him with a grimace, Penn hinted that they had failed to do their jobs properly. “Does everyone know everything they need to know about Barack Obama?” Penn asked. “She’s fully vetted, fully tested, and I don’t think that process has occurred with Barack Obama.”

Partly at the admonition of communications director Howard Wolfson, the campaign did make efforts to build bridges with its press corps. In Iowa, Hillary joined about 20 reporters for a round of drinks, and, the day before the caucuses, she made a 90-second appearance on her campaign’s press bus to pass out coffee and bagels to the hacks crammed inside. In New Hampshire, she held a rare press availability that culminated when she gave one of her harshest critics, “Hardball” host Chris Matthews, a gentle pat on the cheek.

But, on the ground in New Hampshire, both Hillary and Bill lashed out at the press with startling vehemence. Bill raged at “the breathtaking disadvantage in the information that’s coming to the voters” faced by Hillary, providing Obama with “the biggest fairy tale I have ever seen.” In one TV interview, Hillary complained that Obama and John Edwards have been “given pretty much a free ride. “ (“I guess now they’re complaining about the vast left-wing conspiracy,” an aide to a rival campaign chortled on primary day.) The frustration seemed somewhat validated when an NBC reporter confessed to anchor Brian Williams that “it’s infectious ... it’s almost hard to remain objective” while covering Obama.

With their backs to the wall, the Clintons also cried sexism in a way they never had before. In an interview with the entertainment show “Access Hollywood, “ Hillary lamented “the double standards that a woman running for president faces.” Meanwhile, a day before the primary, Bill issued his now-famous observation that “I can’t make her younger, taller, male.”

How strange, then, that the Clintons should have gone to bed on primary night thanking the press for its obsession with Hillary. After her New Hampshire win, Hillary’s aides argued that two episodes had shifted the momentum in her favor. One was a Saturday night debate in which Hillary showed a humanizing flash of temper and also a measure of hurt at the suggestion that she is unlikeable. The other was her near-teary moment in a Portsmouth cafe after one woman asked about her travails in public life.

Both episodes became media sensations for the very reasons that the Clintons had been cursing. The press is obsessed with Hillary’s inner life. And much of Hillary’s coverage does have a sexist bent. Her flashes of angry and teary frustration were thus ready-made for the msnbc-Drudge-YouTube complex. And it was their endless repetition and deconstruction that apparently did what all of Mark Penn’s microtargeting and sloganeering could not: convince voters—especially women—that Hillary is, as the candidate herself put it in one interview, “a real person.”

Even after New Hampshire, Clintonites insist that the press’s strange fascination with their candidate is more trouble than it’s worth. But it’s possible that Hillary won more than a primary here in New Hampshire. She may also have won respect from a media that, in ridiculing and dismissing her, clearly misjudged the unfathomable psychic effect she can have on voters.

That seemed possible late Tuesday night, when Wolfson climbed onto a TV riser for a live interview with Matthews. The contentious “Hardball” host had spent much of the past few days predicting Hillary’s ruin and marveling at Obama’s rise. But, as he wrapped up his segment with Wolfson, Matthews offered his guest an unusually solemn declaration: “I will never underestimate Hillary Clinton again.” It’s rare that anyone sees the gruff Wolfson crack a smile. But, when he climbed down from the riser, he allowed himself a satisfied grin.

This article appeared in the January 30, 2008 issue of the magazine.