Karl Rove spoke here recently. I’d like to tell you what he said, but the session was off the record. This was a pity because I wanted him to expound on his statement that Hillary Clinton was possibly hiding a serious medical condition. In this case, no news is not good news. It’s merely no news.
You will recall that this month Rove suggested — off the cuff, it seems — that Clinton had likely suffered a serious brain injury from a fall in December 2012. He said that the then-secretary of state had to be hospitalized for 30 days and, when she emerged, she was “wearing glasses that are only for people who have traumatic brain injury.”
There were a couple of things wrong with Rove’s assertions. Clinton had been hospitalized for three days, not 30 (what’s a digit in the grand scheme of things?), and her injury had not been all that traumatic — although she did suffer a concussion. I saw her months later — had a nice chat — and found her to be ebullient and downright charming. Rove should have such trauma.
What was Rove up to? Various theories were advanced. Maybe he was softening her up in advance of a presidential campaign and echoing what has become a trope on the far right. As Ken Auletta points out in the current New Yorker, several right-wing savants, including the always-punctilious Rush Limbaugh, have been suggesting that something is wrong with Clinton. “There’s a whisper campaign, folks, that Mrs. Clinton is sick, that she will not run for the presidency because she is sick,” Limbaugh said.
The Drudge Report suggested something similar — “Is She Sick?” it asked. And one right-wing blogger, Robert Morrow, commendably blunt if somewhat tasteless, said Clinton “probably has brain cancer.” In this way, Rove seems the soul of both wit and probity.
Rove, however, was on to something. He exposed a Clinton weakness that has nothing to do with her brain and everything to do with her skin. It is too thin. She despises the media and trusts us not at all. This is a theme of the Auletta piece and a similar one by Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman of Politico. One veteran of Clinton’s campaigns put it this way to them: “Look, she hates you. Period. That’s never going to change.”
I suppose she’s entitled. The press has investigated her, pummeled her, poked into her personal life, questioned her sexual orientation, accused her of adultery, said she had thrown a White House lamp at her husband (I wonder why?) and is responsible in some fuzzy way for the four deaths at Benghazi. Presumably, her link to the VA scandal has yet to be uncovered.
At the same time, Mrs. Clinton has had to deal with Mr. Clinton. She was forever mopping up — responding, rebutting, retorting, reacting. She was never allowed to live her own life, to be the person she wanted to be and to have the marriage she wanted others to think she had. She lacked what the European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship has memorably called “the right to be forgotten.” This is a marvelous term, based on French law (the “right of oblivion”) and as ephemeral and concrete as our “pursuit of happiness,” to which it has to be linked.
Hillary Clinton has never enjoyed such a right. Maybe it’s her own fault, but whatever the case, I can fully understand why she is chary with the media. She has never had control over her own image. At the same time, some of her right-wing critics are rabid ideologues, and some women hate her for not drawing a “red line” with her husband: Get out! In their view, she sets a nice table but a bad example.
What gave Rove’s speculation legs was Clinton’s penchant to roll into a defensive ball and act as if she’s hiding something. Had she a reputation for openness and candor, no one could possibly think she has suffered a grievous head injury. It was this allergic reaction to the press that hurt her so much when she lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. If she runs in 2016, it will hurt her if she does not get over it.
I am not a knee-jerk defender of the press. Some of the coverage of Hillary Clinton has indeed been unfair. But Clinton has to deal with it. Until she does, the press will not be her worst enemy. She’ll be.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.