Hillary Clinton Finally Takes Some Questions From The Press

Bill Whalen Research Fellow, Hoover Institution
Font Size:

Hell hasn’t frozen over, but there is a crack in the ice: after 28 days of ignoring the media, Hillary Clinton took six questions at an Iowa campaign event on Tuesday.

Why the sudden change in availability? Blame or credit it to the ordinary folks who wanted to know where the Democratic frontrunner stood on the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership. That, and a series of bad news stories Mrs. Clinton no longer could ignore: Benghazi; her State Department emails; longtime Clinton sycophant Sidney Blumenthal being called the former Secretary of State’s Libya whisperer.

So is this the beginning of a new “era of good feelings” between the candidate and the Fourth Estate? Don’t bet on it. Historically, both Clinton’s have had frosty relationships with the press. There’s little chance of Hillary’s Iowa “Scooby” van resembling John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express”, which featured a candidate whose open dialogue with the press was the closest we’ve come to HBO On Demand in a presidential election.

In fact, the question to ask isn’t when and where Mrs. Clinton will have a full-blown conference? It’s what the press will do should she embark on another month-long blackout.

Which she could do.

Figure it this way: at the heart of the Clinton campaign is this two-fold notion. First, as the candidate has no real competition in the Democratic primaries – no one breathing down her neck in the polls or gobbling up donations – there’s no need for earned media. It’s the polar opposite of the handful of second-tier Republicans scurrying for notice (that would include the only other women running for president, Carly Fiorina, who ironically is using Hillary’s black-out to draw attention to her long-shot candidacy)

Second, Mrs. Clinton can ignore the press because, regardless of whether she takes questions, she gets coverage – be it those innocuous “listening” roundtables, or her comings and going from closed-press fundraisers.

So what’s the media to so? Here’s a suggestion: the next time the Clinton campaign boycotts the press for a prolonged time, the press in turn should boycott the candidate. Not that it would transform Hillary from J.D. Salinger into Pierre Salinger, but it would send a message that, in the uneasy battle between media and political messengers over access and availability, there are limits as to how far a candidate can push.

A situation similar to this occurred over a decade ago, when George W. Bush was in the midst of a very controlled re-election campaign that included a steady diet of banal “Ask President Bush” events. Eventually, the presidential press corps revolted – not by ignoring Bush, but focusing on campaign mechanics rather than message.

And the other President Bush faced a media uprising during his 1992 re-elect. Then, the traveling press corps refused to deplane from Air Force One and attend yet another staged event.

Getting back to Mrs. Clinton, perhaps one day she’ll spark a media uprising. Meanwhile, she may have created a problem that will dog her campaign long-term: from reporters’ perspective, a question of her honesty and integrity.

It was only two months ago that Hillary Clinton stood before an audience of D.C. reporters, at an event honoring the late New York Times reporter Robin Toner, and uttered these apparently insincere words: “I am all about new beginnings. A new grandchild, another new hairstyle, a new e-mail account. The relationship with the press. So here goes: no more secrecy. No more zone of privacy. After all, what good did that do me?”

She added that, in 2016, “the stakes are really high” and thus a need for the media to “get us out of the echo chambers we all inhabit”.

If the actions speak louder than those hollow words, and the Clinton campaign’s MO from now through 2016 is to shield the candidate from the press, in retrospect it may prove to be a terrible blunder. Barack Obama benefitted from several political tailwinds in 2008, one being the joyride that reporters deemed his campaign to be. In theory, Hillary 2016 likewise should also be gleeful – a woman making presidential history.

Instead, Mrs. Clinton and her handlers may have poisoned the well with those chronicling the historical adventure.

And in 2017, Hillary might reflect on that as a fatal miscalculation.

That is, if she’s taking reporters’ questions.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow specializing in California and national politics.