Oct
01
1992

The Media Factor Behind the 'Hillary Factor'

Hillary Clinton has become one of the most hotly debated subjects in this year's presidential campaign. The media have eagerly focused on the battle of insults, images and "values" that she symbolizes, often characterizing her as a "lightning rod" of criticism. At the Democratic National Convention, a "new" Hillary Clinton was unveiled to much media fanfare. At the Republican National Convention, attacks on the would-be First Lady reached a fever pitch when she was derided as a "radical feminist," as "anti-family" and as unduly influential in her husband's career. She has become one of the most charged issues in the "cultural war" declared by the Republicans, a role the media have significantly helped to create.

Hillary Clinton has been victimized by social expectations and political traditions that are still remarkably sexist in their prescription of what women (and especially wives) can and cannot do. While to a certain extent journalists have simply reflected the prejudiced assumptions and actions of the Clinton and Bush campaigns, and of the public, the sexist biases of news organizations have also helped to create and fuel this phenomenon. These biases are expressed in the fixation on a few anecdotes and quotes about Hillary Clinton's views about marriage and domestic work, and the traditional and often conservative vocabulary used to discuss these issues.

It all started, of course, with the Tammy Wynette incident. During an interview with both Clintons on the rumors of Bill Clinton's marital infidelity (1/26/92), Hillary Clinton told CBS's 60 Minutes that she was not "some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette." Before anyone had a chance to gauge whether country and western fans, or others, were offended by the remark, news outlets all over the country jumped on it, rebroadcasting and reprinting it regularly for weeks.

Similarly, reporters instantly seized upon Clinton's comment in mid-March that she "could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas" instead of pursuing a career. That remark had been made in response to Jerry Brown's accusation of conflicts of interest arising from the state of Arkansas's relations with Hillary Clinton's law firm, but it was consistently represented by the media as an affront to homemakers.

In both cases, the press immediately characterized Clinton's remarks as "gaffes" and "mistakes," a categorization that helped ensure they were perceived that way.

The Cookie Connection

Cookies have become a pivotal symbol in the portrayal of Hillary Clinton. In addition to the oft-repeated tea-and-cookies line, cookies have figured heavily in the "new" Hillary Clinton, the one that entered her chocolate chip recipe in a bake-off with Barbara Bush. "A Conflict for the Governor? Have a Cookie" was the Los Angeles Times headline on a April 5 column. In an article on Clinton's commencement address to Wellesley graduates (5/30/92), the L.A. Times's opening quote was her remark that women can help America "by making policy or making cookies."

A New York Newsday July 13 article on the "new" Hillary Clinton mentioned cookies no less than five times. "Mrs. Clinton, a lawyer, talks these days about her cookie recipe" is the featured pull-out quote from the same day's New York Times. It got to the point where the L.A. Times' reference to Mrs. Clinton as "one smart, determined cookie" in January (1/29/92) began to seem like an uncanny foreshadowing of the dominant imagery of the campaign.

The cookie obsession works to keep the issue of women's roles as homemakers up front. Whether the campaigns are projecting Hillary Clinton as "superwife" or arguing that she is not domestic enough, the cookie is the symbol of Hillary Clinton's fitness as a woman. As such, it has framed debate about her in the terms preferred by the Republicans. The result has been that many substantive issues, both advantageous and disadvantageous for the Clintons (e.g., her work on education reform, or the alleged conflict of interest caused by her position in Arkansas's biggest law firm) have simply not been explored.

By late March, Hillary Clinton's "controversial" remarks had been transformed into an "issue" in the campaign. "Will Hillary Hurt or Help?" was the tide of a March 30 Newsweek piece, echoed by U.S. News & World Report's April 27 cover story, "Hillary Clinton: Does She Help or Hurt?" In the introduction, the article said, "For some, she's an inspiring mother-attorney. Others see in her the overbearing yuppie wife from hell—a sentiment that led GOP media guru Roger Ailes to quip that 'Hillary Clinton in an apron is like Michael Dukakis in a tank."'

The Ailes line has been frequently repeated, and the yuppie wife comment was subsequently also quoted in several other publications. By summer, everyone knew what Newsweek meant when it put "the Hillary Factor" on its cover (7/20/92), or when the New York Times (8/24/92) headlined an item "the Hillary Clinton Issue."

As Barbara Ehrenreich wrote (Newsday, 7/15/92) of the "Hillary: Asset or Liability?" stories: "Of course, to ask the question, in bold black headlines, is simultaneously to provide the answer."

She's Come a Long Way, Baby

For Hillary Clinton, the process of assimilating more to the profile of the so-called "traditional wife" began over a decade ago, when she abandoned her name and her wire frame glasses. By the time of the Democratic National Convention this July, the headband, the shoulder pads and any mention of her advisory role had gone the same way. The “new” Hillary was splashed all over the front pages, cookies and all.

New York Newsday's July 13 cover story announced, "She's Come a Long Way,” a phrase unmistakably reminiscent of the sexist Virginia Slims ad slogan. The article spoke of her new soft pastel image in contrast to her former “acerbic observations,” “take-no-prisoners style” and “hard edges.”

The New York Times (7/13/92) introduced the make-over with the headline "A Softer Image for Hillary Clinton." It focused on the political calculus of the new image, but nonetheless relied on a set of words and expectations that have been traditionally used to circumscribe women's roles. It spoke, for instance, of Mrs. Clinton's "forceful" speaking style, and implied that her "fugues into technocratic prose" were off-putting. As an example of the latter, the Times quoted Clinton saying her husband had decided to run because "the country was trending in the wrong direction on so many indicators." Evidently the Times thinks that economic jargon is not lady-like, and should be left to the paper's economic writers.

News stories have used other types of loaded language to describe Clinton. She is often characterized as "ambitious," "aggressive" and "interfering"—words that have long been considered pejorative in reference to women. U.S. News (4/27/ 92) went so far as to say, "Much has been made of Hillary's ambition—and rightly so." By contrast, the new Hillary is most often described with the word "softer," a description that again relies on long-standing gender stereotypes of women's appropriate behavior.

The sexism inherent in the role carved out for Hillary Clinton is perhaps best captured by a New York Times vignette from the first Clinton campaign bus tour (7/23/92): "Each day, Mrs. Gore and Mrs. Clinton—arms linked around each other's waists—waved at crowds and then stepped into the background to gaze adoringly while their husbands spoke." While this description dutifully reflects a carefully choreographed (sexist) appeal constructed by the campaign, the Times' assertion that the women gazed "adoringly" at the men gives the image a sort of happy, nothing's-wrong-with-this-picture spin that serves to reinforce rather than challenge its prejudice.

Hillary-bashing was a major sport at the Republican National Convention, so much so that Nightline did a report on it, and asked whether it was fair or appropriate (8/18/92). In fact, some of the media's critiques of Republican attempts to paint Clinton as a radical feminist and turn her into a symbol of "anti-family values" have been hard-hitting and accurate. The New York Times (8/24/92) ran a well-researched article entitled "Legal Scholars See Distortion in Attacks on Hilary Clinton," and a New York Newsday report (8/21/92) bluntly asserted, "A key problem is that the Republican charges don't hold up."

But in many ways, the media's response to Republican distortions of Clinton's views is an exercise in biting their own tails. Their coverage helped create "The Hillary Factor," even if they recoil from the way it's been exploited by the Republicans.

Dorothee Benz is a freelance writer and the director of communications for the Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) Local 23-25. Research assistance was provided by Richard Cheung.