Newsday's cheap shot

The Long Island newspaper digs up a case from Hillary Clinton's early law career, and creates a hit piece with little basis.

By Alex Koppelman
Published February 25, 2008 2:01PM (EST)

On Sunday, Long Island, N.Y.'s Newsday dropped a major story on Hillary Clinton that has been getting attention elsewhere, including on the Drudge Report, which is practically guaranteed to insert the story into the collective consciousness. In two potentially devastating paragraphs, reporter Glenn Thrush contrasts the common narrative about Clinton's life with a case she worked on as a young defense lawyer:

Hillary Rodham Clinton often invokes her "35 years of experience making change" on the campaign trail, recounting her work in the 1970s on behalf of battered and neglected children and impoverished legal-aid clients.

But there is a little-known episode Clinton doesn't mention in her standard campaign speech in which those two principles collided. In 1975, a 27-year-old Hillary Rodham, acting as a court-appointed attorney, attacked the credibility of a 12-year-old girl in mounting an aggressive defense for an indigent client accused of rape in Arkansas -- using her child development background to help the defendant.

This sounds awful, certainly. But things are not as simple as they seem. Reporter Thrush can't manage to muster a single legal expert to argue that Clinton acted at all improperly, and with good reason. As Thrush himself notes, "Rodham, legal and child welfare experts say, did nothing unethical by attacking the child's credibility -- although they consider her defense of Taylor to be aggressive." He quotes Andrew Schepard, director of Hofstra Law School's Center for Children, Families and the Law, as saying, "She was vigorously advocating for her client. What she did was appropriate ... He was lucky to have her as a lawyer ... In terms of what's good for the little girl? It would have been hell on the victim. But that wasn't Hillary's problem." And yet Thrush still wrote a story that suggests Clinton's conduct was in some way wrong, or at least not in keeping with her work on behalf of children.

This kind of thing is easy to make a story out of. (It's practically Bill O'Reilly's bread and butter, actually, at least when it comes to covering crime.) It's gripping, grabs us on a visceral level, because even the most enlightened among us can often feel somewhere deep inside that an accused child molester or child rapist should be thrown in some dank pit and forgotten based solely on the accusation. But, like it or not, even men accused of raping 12-year-olds deserve a fair trial and the best possible defense. Without that, our legal system and one of its foundations -- the principle that the accused are innocent until proven guilty -- are in serious danger. In this case, Clinton appears to have done her job and done it well, no matter how distasteful it may appear to have been. That Clinton mounted an aggressive defense on behalf of her client isn't something she should be attacked for, it's something she should be praised for. Though plenty of public defenders and court-appointed attorneys do heroic work on behalf of their clients, not enough do.

Thrush does make a legitimate point when examining how Clinton wrote about this case in her autobiography, "Living History," saying her account "leaves out a significant aspect of her defense strategy" by not touching on her attempts to undermine the credibility of the victim. But given the way Thrush and his paper manipulated the story, it's hard to blame her for doing that.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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