Feb 7 1999

Dissecting The Media Hype On Hillary

Let me acknowledge my bias up front: I subscribe to the old-fashioned notion that party activists and voters — not the mass media — should be the main players in nominating political candidates.

As for Hillary Rodham Clinton, her New York Senate candidacy — launched by political reporters left dangerously idle by the closing of Monica-gate — rocketed through the studios of Crossfire and Nightline to the covers of Newsweek and Time. A real grassroots mobilization of the media elite. It wasn’t until the candidacy was already in orbit that the candidate herself had time to seriously consider her candidacy.

“Let’s admit right from the outset,” declared Chris Wallace in opening a Feb. 17 Nightline show on Hillary and the Senate race, “that what we’re indulging in tonight may be one of the better examples of hype.”

And indulge they did. What’s happened is that many in the media have grown too bored or self-important to cover politicians. Nowadays, they prefer covering celebrities.

No sooner had Sen. Daniel Moynihan announced his retirement than political reporters began bandying names of “viable” Democratic candidates that sounded more like a celebrity A-list. There was a Cuomo and a Kennedy. And now a Clinton.

Lest the public become suspicious that the media pundits see themselves as too important to cover a run-of-the-mill politician, the conventional wisdom is served up that only a supercandidate can win — only a star like Hillary could defeat likely GOP candidate, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Yet it wasn’t too long ago that conventional wisdom in New York held that only a celebrity with national stature — namely, Geraldine Ferraro — could knock off powerful incumbent Sen. Al D’Amato. Along came non-celebrity politician Charles Schumer, who beat Ferraro 2-to-1 in the primary and then handily retired D’Amato, who’s fittingly now a TV pundit.

What’s also frustrating about Hillary hypery is how sloppy some of the reporting is. Repeatedly, the First Lady has been identified as a “liberal” — “a true liberal,” proclaimed Nightline‘s Chris Wallace — who will galvanize left-leaning constituencies among Democratic voters.

It’s of course possible that Hillary Clinton, campaigning on her own for herself, might develop into a progressive Democrat. But her history — often misunderstood by mainstream media — suggests a different story.

Return to the March 1992 Illinois presidential primary, when Bill Clinton’s campaign was rocked by charges (from the Washington Post and candidate Jerry Brown) of unethically close relations between Bill’s Arkansas administration and Hillary’s law firm, which represented corporations regulated by the state, including the failed Madison S&L.

Many will remember — since it dominated campaign news for days — how Hillary used a feminist appeal to fend off attacks on her husband: “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was pursue my profession?”

Hardly noticed was her revealing response that day about her representation of Madison: “For goodness sakes,” she answered, “you can’t be a lawyer if you don’t represent banks.”

The fact is that most lawyers — from Arkansas to New York and beyond — don’t represent banks, while many do represent the activist constituencies that Hillary, we are told, will be galvanizing during next year’s campaign: unions, consumer and civil rights groups, environmentalists and the like.

These other lawyers are the kind who battle corporations like Wal-Mart (with its anti-labor record) or Lafarge Corp. (with its controversial environmental practices), companies whose boards Hillary Clinton sat on.

It’s probably unfair to hold Hillary Clinton responsible for policies of her husband that anger progressive activists. But while it’s rare for a First Spouse to object to a White House policy, it’s not unheard of: Barbara Bush, for example, let it be known that she opposed her husband’s anti-choice stance on abortion.

Yet when President Clinton pushed through the NAFTA trade deal over the opposition of unions, consumer and environmental groups, Hillary didn’t speak out. When President Clinton signed the Republican welfare bill over the protests of liberal groups, Hillary did speak out– in support of the signing.

The one Clinton initiative for which Hillary can be held directly responsible is health care reform — a fiasco that many activists attribute not to Hillary being a “true liberal” but a compromised pro-corporate politician. Her “managed competition” proposal was a convoluted, bureaucratic measure whose main goal seemed to be the survival of a handful of giant insurance companies.

While Hillary Clinton’s proposal was savaged by Republicans as “socialism” and by smaller insurance firms in the “Harry and Louise” ads, the Big Five insurers — Aetna, Cigna, Metropolitan Live, Prudential and Travelers — did not oppose the plan. In fact, they helped draft it.

Meanwhile, supporters of “single payer” national health insurance (a streamlined proposal to provide universal coverage by cutting bureaucracy) were organizing one of the biggest national grassroots movements of the decade. Single payer was endorsed by labor unions, Consumers Union, Public Citizen and 100 members of Congress, including 80% of House Democrats from New York State. It was an army in need of a general, but Hillary was off fighting a different war.

There’s one aspect of Hillary media hype that is indisputably true: She will be a “formidable fundraiser” — in part because of her celebrity, but also because of her corporate-friendly background.

As for the scenario that hordes of left-liberal activists breathlessly await candidate Hillary so they can storm the voting booths on behalf of her and their mutual causes, that’s largely fantasy on the part of an out-of-touch pundit elite. Many activists still harbor real doubts about her.

A major theme of the media hype has been speculation that in running for Senate, Hillary Rodham Clinton will gain independence from her husband and shore up her feminist credentials. Only if she also declares independence from her husband’s corporate-centrist policies will she begin to resemble the “true liberal” portrait that some in the media have painted.

A version of this column appeared in the Baltimore Sun.