September 24, 2013
The Clinton family. (Jin Lee/Bloomberg)
The Clinton family. (Jin Lee/Bloomberg)

Third in a massive series on the media’s treatment of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Alec MacGillis’ exhaustive portrait in the New Republic of longtime Bill Clinton aide Doug Band documents a number of things: The perks of serving as “body man” to the leader of the free world; the many weaknesses of Bill Clinton; the complicated internal family politics of the Clintons; greed; and the near impossibility of writing about what MacGillis terms “Clintonland” without relying on anonymous sources to an insane degree.

Two illustrative examples from the otherwise outstanding story:

1) In explaining what a difficult job Band had in guiding President Clinton through his daily White House appointments, the story relies upon anonymity to make this point: “[Clinton] just loves being around people,” says the former staff member. “That would cause challenges, but it also feeds him as a human being, having those interactions.” Couldn’t the “former staff member” put something that obvious on the record?

2) According to a source, Band had a “canny method” of getting tables at various hot spots — by calling in a reservation under “President Clinton,” only to show up with some friends and no white-haired eminence. Great stuff, except for the lack of specificity:

The owner of one downtown restaurant eventually barred Band from its “love list” for pulling this stunt one too many times. “[The owner] comes and says, ‘[Expletive deleted], Doug keeps making reservations under Clinton’s name, and half the time Doug shows up with his friends,’ ” says the former White House colleague. “They were like, life’s too short, and wouldn’t take his reservation anymore.”

Couldn’t we at least get the name of the restaurant?

No, not really, comes the reply from MacGillis, who worked for nine months on the story. Though he declined to address specifically the reasons for keeping the name of the restaurant shrouded, MacGillis did address the larger pressures bearing on his sourcing. Anonymity, he claims, is “simply unavoidable in a world that’s as locked down as Clintonland is now. It has always been a tough world to penetrate and it’s more locked down than ever before. … There’s a premium on not causing any drama and not giving any window to any tensions that might be still there under the surface,” he says. And if you think that the piece overuses unaccountable quotations, you have no idea what’s in MacGillis’s notebook: “There were a lot of unattributed quotes that I could have used that were far more personal or ad hominem, like so and so is such and such — and I really steered clear of using those sorts of quotes,” he says.

The Band piece is massive, and there is on-the-record and public-record material to space out all the testimony from the Clintonland inhabitants. A word of caution from MacGillis, however: Don’t interpret the ubiquity of anonymous quotes as evidence that Clintonland pushed to get this story in print. “We started working on this piece completely on our own instigation. … The piece would not have taken months and months and months to report if I had been getting motivated guidance along the way. It was pulling teeth,” he attests.

Previously in this series:

No. 1: Commentator on MSNBC: White guy can’t ‘appreciate’ Hillary Clinton’s historic-ness

No. 2: Hillary Clinton Profile Whitewashes Benghazi.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.