Clinton's real "hard choice": Bypass the media -- or learn to master it

From a tense NPR interview to her carefully crafted book, we learned this week about the major task that awaits her

By Joan Walsh
Published June 13, 2014 2:38PM (EDT)
  (AP/Jin Lee)
(AP/Jin Lee)

So there I was trying to write a sober piece on Hillary Clinton’s occasionally tedious but enlightening book “Hard Choices,” and what it tells us about the kind of president she would be if indeed she runs, when along comes the sort of controversy that derailed her 2008 campaign: her unnecessarily combative interview with a not entirely listening Terry Gross on whether Clinton’s “evolution” on marriage equality represented a true change of mind, or a recognition that it was finally politically safe to admit what she’d always believed.

Watching the controversy, and the unanimously anti-Clinton media coverage that followed, made this already belated review even later. But it reinforced something I was realizing while grappling with the book: Writing a memoir wasn’t necessarily the best preparation for running for president again, if indeed that’s what Clinton plans.

There are still plenty of reasons to have chosen to spend a year recuperating from the grinding pace of running the State Department by writing, with a supportive team. By her own admission, Clinton got to read and think and turn what must often have seemed like four years of global Red Rover into a coherent narrative of how she wove the multiple, sometimes contradictory strands of U.S. diplomacy into “smart power.”

But book-writing is by definition orderly (at some point) and within your control (mostly), while media campaigns are tumultuous, and presidential campaigns downright frenzied. Clinton’s sometimes rough week in the spotlight shows that the road to the White House in 2016 won’t be paved by a triumphal book tour in June 2014. But there’s a lot she can learn from her stumbles.

* * *

“Hard Choices” is bookended by anecdotes illustrating the development of Clinton’s surprising and eventually warm relationship with 2008 rival Barack Obama. It opens with the defeated candidate hiding in the back seat of a van, speeding to Dianne Feinstein’s house to meet the victor face to face on the eve of her withdrawal from the race. It closes with him affectionately asking “Where did Hillary go?” on the porch of Aung San Su Kyi’s home in Burma on their last overseas visit, as he prepared to publicly thank her for four years of service.

The book’s primary purpose seems to be to show their closeness. She tells us she visited the White House 700 times in four years. She shares their quiet moments in mosques and gardens before some of his major international speeches. We learn that he has called her for advice during several crises that erupted after she left State. Periodically, she refers to “our” administration or “our” time in office, in a way that felt proud and maybe a little proprietary.

But if you want details on how that fraught relationship got mended, beyond her dutiful service as secretary of state, you’ll be disappointed. In Feinstein’s living room, she says, she wrung an admission from Obama that “the preposterous charge of racism” against Bill Clinton was unfair, and got him to sympathize with the sexism she faced on the trail by talking about Michelle, Sasha and Malia (although she doesn’t specify what he or his team deserved responsibility for, and she doesn’t acknowledge some of her own missteps on racial issues.) It’s understandable but unsatisfying.

She set off to be the public face of U.S. “smart power” abroad while Obama cleaned up the messes of the Great Recession here at home. By all accounts, she did it ably (leaving the Benghazi controversy aside). You come away from the book thinking she’d be a moderately more hawkish president than Obama, as she pushes for a military “surge” in Afghanistan that was longer than the president outlined, backs joining the coalition to oust Libya’s Gadhafi militarily, and differs with the president over arming “moderate” Syrian rebels.

Obama supporter Rosa Brooks wrote a scathing piece in Foreign Policy this week, “Sorry, Hillary, I should have voted for you!” attacking the president for his insular and “rigid” governing style. But as someone who supported Clinton in 2008, I felt a flicker of the opposite, for just a moment, watching Obama reject her advice on Syria.

“I and others on the Obama national security team began exploring what it would take to stand up a carefully vetted and trained force of moderate Syrian rebels who could be trusted with American weapons,” she writes. “The key would be thoroughly vetting the rebel fighters to ensure we first weeded out the extremists and then maintained close intelligence sharing and operational coordination with all our partners.” There was one problem. “The President asked for examples of instances when the U.S. had backed an insurgency that could be considered a success,” Clinton recalls. There is silence, in the room and in this book. Watching Iraq unravel, while the roster of Syrian rebels fight among themselves, it’s hard to imagine that plan doing anything but bogging the U.S. down in another war.

Clinton admits she was slower to embrace the uprising in Cairo that toppled Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. “Those of us who favored the stodgy-sounding ‘orderly transition’ position,” she explains, “were concerned that the only organized forces after Mubarak were the Muslim Brotherhood and the military.” She sneaks in a little “I told you so” after a meeting with the disorganized Egyptian opposition following Mubarak’s fall. “I came away worried that they would end up handing the country to the Muslim Brotherhood or the military by default, which in the end is exactly what happened.”

But while she predictably defends the president’s controversial drone policy, she reveals that she didn’t always agree on individual strikes, sharing one case where she and her “good friend” Leon Panetta, who favored the strike in question, got into a shouting match.

* * *

Even against the backdrop of rising chaos in Iraq (or maybe especially against that backdrop), reading 620 pages of Clinton’s State Department career makes clear she is the only major candidate prepared to face the global challenges that would await her (except, perhaps, for Vice President Joe Biden). I can’t comfortably picture a President Rand Paul, or even President Martin O’Malley, being up to the task.

But the book also serves to underscore the downside of Clinton’s decision to accept Obama’s offer to make her his secretary of state: It took her away from domestic politics at a time when the administration grappled with not only the biggest crisis since the Great Depression, but how to address the structural, political and policy forces that had eroded American opportunity and equality over a 40-year period, not four.

Now, as Clinton mulls a presidential run in a party that is frankly split on the issue of economic populism and stymied, anyway, by an increasingly extremist GOP, we don’t know much about her position on a raft of issues: How to address the student loan crisis? Would she raise taxes on the rich to fund an expanded domestic agenda? Why is Wall Street riding high when Main Street is still dotted with closed businesses and foreclosed homes? What kind of banking regulations are still needed?  In a party emboldened by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, often mentioned as a challenger to Clinton though Warren denies it, her silence on such issues rings out from these pages.

And her inexperience grappling with domestic crises, as well as domestic political media, has shown on the first week of her book tour.  I now realize Clinton made a great diplomat because she’s enormously skilled and experienced at crafting vague, not-detailed answers, especially (in the case of our once-secret drone policy) when she’s not allowed to share national security secrets.  She’s taken some of that style out with her on the book tour, and it isn’t working.

When Diane Sawyer came at her on Benghazi, not with right-wing conspiracy theories about how Obama covered up the terrorist origins of the attack to win reelection 2012, but with genuine questions about security at the Benghazi compound, Clinton seemed defensive and unready. Yet in the book she explained the shortcomings identified in a thorough review, and the steps taken to correct them. Diane Sawyer is not Megyn Kelly. Clinton can swat away the Fox News bullies and Darrell Issas of the world; she shouldn’t employ the same strategy with reporters who are doing their job.

And when NPR’s Terry Gross left the warrens of Foggy Bottom and tried to yank Clinton back to the '90s, when she and her husband opposed gay marriage, and her husband signed the “Defense of Marriage Act,” Clinton missed an opportunity to do what, by her own admission, she failed to do six years ago on Iraq: say clearly how and why her position had changed over the years, if not a simple, “I was wrong.”

I have to argue here: I think Gross got distracted by Clinton’s surprising combativeness on the issue, and actually didn’t hear the former secretary of state admit, more than once, that she had actually changed her position. Over and over Gross asked, or insinuated, that Clinton had always supported marriage equality but hid it until it became less toxic politically. Take this exchange:

GROSS: So what's it like when you're in office and you have to do all these political calculations to not be able to support something like gay marriage that you actually believe in? And you obviously feel very committed to human rights and you obviously put gay rights as part of human rights, but in doing the calculus you decided you couldn't support it - correct me if I'm reading it wrong.

CLINTON: Well, I think you're reading it very wrong. I think that, as I said, just as the president has said, you know, just because you're a politician, doesn't mean you're not a thinking human being. And you gather information. You think through positions. You're not 100 percent set - thank goodness - you're constantly reevaluating where you stand. That was true for me. We talked earlier about Iraq, for goodness sakes. So, for me, marriage had always been a matter left to the states. And in many of the conversations that I and my colleagues and supporters had, I fully endorse the efforts by activists who work state-by-state and in fact that is what is working.

Gross comes back to it:

So just to clarify - just one more question on this - would you say your view evolved since the '90s or that the American public evolved allowing you to state your real view?

CLINTON: I think I'm an American. (Laughing) And I think we have all evolved and it's been one of the fastest most sweeping transformations.

GROSS: No, I understand, but a lot of people already believed in it back the '90s. A lot of people already supported gay marriage.

CLINTON: But not - to be fair, Terry, not that many. Yes, were there activists who were ahead of their time? Well, that was true in every human rights and civil rights movement, but the vast majority of Americans were just waking up to this issue and beginning to, you know, think about it and grasp it for the first time….

GROSS: I'm pretty sure you didn't answer my question about whether you evolved or it was the American public that changed (Laughing).

CLINTON: I said I'm an American, so we all evolved. And I think that that's a fair, you know, that's a fair conclusion.

GROSS: So you're saying your opinion on gay marriage changed as opposed to you - you just felt it was comfortable...

CLINTON: You know, somebody is always first, Terry. Somebody's always out front and thank goodness they are. But that doesn't mean that those who joined later in being publicly supportive or even privately accepting that there needs to be change are any less committed. You could not be having the sweep of marriage equality across our country if nobody changed their mind. And thank goodness so many of us have.

GROSS: So that's one for you changed your mind? (Laughing).

CLINTON: You know, I really - I have to say, I think you are very persistent, but you are playing with my words and playing with what is such an important issue.

GROSS: I am just trying to clarify so I can understand.

CLINTON: No, I don't think you are trying to clarify. I think you're trying to say that, you know, I used to be opposed and now I'm in favor and I did it for political reasons. And that's just flat wrong. So let me just state what I feel like you are implying and repudiate it. I have a strong record. I have a great commitment to this issue and I am proud of what I've done and the progress we're making.

GROSS: You know, I'm just saying - I'm sorry - I just want to clarify what I was saying - no, I was saying that you maybe really believed this all along, but - you know, believed in gay marriage all along, but felt for political reasons America wasn't ready yet and you couldn't say it. That's what I was thinking.

CLINTON: No. No, that is not true.


CLINTON: I did not grow up even imagining gay marriage and I don't think you probably did either. This was an incredibly new and important idea that people on the front lines of the gay rights movement began to talk about and slowly but surely convinced others of the rightness of that position. And when I was ready to say what I said, I said it.


If you can get beyond the tone of righteous defensiveness that Clinton employs, it’s pretty clear she is saying she did not believe in federally protected marriage equality in the 1990s. From arguing “Were there activists who were ahead of their time?” to “Somebody’s always first, Terry,” she signals that a relatively small vanguard of extraordinary people supported full marriage equality in the early 1990s, and she was not among them. And she’s right there: Of course there were activists who always wanted it, but many liberals thought an evolution through civil unions to state-by-state legalization was the way the issue would and should proceed.  Read this 1998 Salon interview with Andrew Sullivan, whose call for gay marriage was considered both vanguard and reactionary, to understand how times have changed.

And she insists the notion that she came out for it for political expediency is “just flat wrong,” getting increasingly irritated that Gross is trying to describe her conversion as cynical. The two women are talking past one another: Clinton feels like she’s being forced to “admit” she changed her position for political gain; Gross feels Clinton is refusing to acknowledge that she always supported marriage equality deep down (as it’s pretty clear Barack Obama did, having told Illinois supporters that back in 1996). But Clinton escalates the conflict rather than calming it down, and rushes to the worst interpretation of Gross’ motives. And then reporters, even liberals, rush to the worst interpretation of Clinton’s. It’s déjà vu all over again.

* * *

Karl Rove’s classless remarks about Clinton’s “serious brain injury” were supposed to be designed to rough her up and get her to rethink whether she wants to leave her lovely Chappaqua sunroom and the coming joy of being a grandmother for the cruelty of the vast right-wing conspiracy, yet again. I never thought that would work. Clinton herself told Diane Sawyer that the conscience-free scandal-mongering on the Benghazi issue makes her more likely to run, to fight the jackals seeking political advantage in the deaths of four Americans.

I’ve thought the only thing that might make Clinton think twice was a taste of the media hostility that awaits her. I remember in 2008 in New Hampshire, a lion of liberal media who’d covered the Clinton presidency told me the Clintons had had their turn, their time had passed, and he and the rest of the media world were sick to death of them. The unknown Obama, cool and mysterious yet media-friendly, was a much better story.

I was kind of horrified – Clinton should go away because political reporters were sick of covering her and her husband? Maybe veteran political reporters should go away and find new jobs, and let the American public choose their own leaders unobstructed by media bias or ennui.

Six years later, little has changed, in reporters’ approach to Clinton or hers to them. She has a funny line in “Hard Choices” about the contention that she, not Susan Rice, should have been on the Sunday shows the weekend after the Benghazi attack explaining what the administration had learned. She drolly rejects that notion: “Only in Washington is the definition of talking to Americans confined to 9 a.m. on Sunday mornings. The days and hours in between don’t count. I don’t buy that.” And she’s right. John McCain remains POTSS – President of the Sunday Shows – and she will never be the elder stateswoman there, treated deferentially.  That’s only for Republican men.

But she’s got to develop a strategy for the rest of the media. I quibbled with Joe Klein recently on “Hardball,” who said Clinton would have to learn to be unguarded and “spontaneous” with the media if she wanted to avoid the troubles of her 2008 run. I observed that here we were, putting this woman in a box, staring at her constantly, criticizing her every move – and then complaining when she isn’t “spontaneous.” You could argue that we saw the real, unguarded, “spontaneous” Hillary Clinton in her clash with Terry Gross. But it wasn’t received any better by the media than polished, practiced, scripted Hillary.

Clinton herself may be comfortable with that paradox. If she runs, she’s either got to figure out a way to bypass the doubting media to reach voters directly, or work on her tendency to feel mistreated and misunderstood. In Time, Eliana Doktorman argues that the conventional media wisdom – that Clinton lost her cool with Terry Gross – is wrong, and instead we got a look at a confident new Clinton. “The fact that she was bold enough to push back suggests that she’s more ready than she was in 2008.” We’ll find out which it is eventually.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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