Secret memos reveal efforts to shape Hillary Rodham Clinton’s political image


Hillary Rodham Clinton blows out the candle on the 48th birthday cake presented to her by CBS host Paula Zahn, center, and Patricia Duff, president of the Revlon Foundation, in 1995. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

In July 1999, Hillary Rodham Clinton trekked to Upstate New York to join retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan at his farm and officially launch her campaign to replace him. On the eve of the big kickoff, adviser Mandy Grunwald wrote the first lady a memo offering her “a few style pointers.”

Keep your tone conversational, Grunwald wrote, “chatty, intimate, informal.” Find moments for humor. Don’t be defensive and don’t raise your voice. For years, you’ve been saying, “My husband did X,” but this moment is about you, so talk about what you’ve done. “Be careful to ‘be real.’ ”

The Grunwald memo is part of a cache of confidential communications among Clinton and her political image-makers released to the public Friday, detailing the strategic machinations behind her evolution from a political spouse to a political leader in her own right. The secret memos open a rare window into the meticulous and intense efforts to manage Clinton’s public image during her and President Bill Clinton’s tumultuous eight years in office.

They describe attempts to cultivate influential journalists who could become “fans” or “Clinton surrogates.” They also detail a push to leverage the first lady’s official travel and agenda to generate positive news media coverage, softening her image in the run-up to Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign.

The documents are part of nearly 4,000 pages of internal communications released Friday by the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Ark., which also include new details about White House decisions on health-care policy and an array of national security issues.

Read the memos


Read the full documents here.

The records show that in 1993, Clinton said at a private meeting of Democratic lawmakers that a GOP proposal for an individual health insurance mandate — a general approach that she would later embrace — would send “shock waves” through the public. An adviser also worried in a 1994 memo that the administration was “over-promising” by telling people they would be able to pick the doctor and health-care plan of their choice, an issue that has flared anew during the implementation of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Friday’s release was the first of several batches of Clinton records — totaling about 25,000 pages — expected to be made public in the next two weeks. An additional 7,000 to 8,000 pages could be released in coming months. The National Archives and Records Administration, which oversees the library, said it had withheld the documents for the first 12 years after Clinton left office because they had been exempt from disclosure under the Presidential Records Act.

Since her years as first lady, Clinton has served as a U.S. senator from New York and as Obama’s first secretary of state, both prominent positions that have dramatically remade her image. She is now the leading contender to be the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, with strong approval ratings among the public.

But during the 1990s, Clinton was a highly divisive figure, eliciting sharp criticism from Republicans who saw her as being too involved in policymaking on health care and other issues. The new documents show that her handlers at the time were keenly focused on shaping, and improving, her public image since the earliest years of her husband’s administration.

In 1995, for example, Clinton’s press secretary, Lisa Caputo, wrote that the Clintons’ 20th wedding anniversary that year provided “a wonderful opportunity for Hillary” to bolster her political standing. She suggested throwing “a big party” and releasing a photo spread of the occasion for People magazine, which could later be used as part of “a nice mail piece” for voters.

Caputo was a central figure in “Hillaryland” — the first lady’s inner circle of aides — and was a senior adviser on Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. She appears frequently in the documents as the first lady’s top image maven.

In August 1995, Caputo wrote a six-page memo to Maggie Williams, the first lady’s chief of staff, with 16 suggestions to rehabilitate their boss’s image. It was a political low point for the Clintons following the Republican takeover of Congress and the defeat of health-care reform.

One idea was for Clinton to appear in an episode of “Home Improvement,” ABC’s hit family sitcom featuring Tim Allen. “Although I have some concerns that it diminishes the role of First Lady by going on a tv sitcom, it is probably worth weighing it against what we believe we might be able to gain by such an appearance politically and image-wise,” Caputo wrote.

Caputo also said that Clinton should harness the Internet — then in its infancy as a widespread medium and referenced by Caputo as only “Internet,” without “the.”

Caputo detailed plans to feature Clinton in historical contexts to help soften her image, including by celebrating the birthday of Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Clinton considered a personal hero. This strategy, Caputo wrote, could make Clinton “seem less extreme.”

Clinton has long had an aversion to the Washington press corps, and her advisers developed strategies to overcome that. One idea was for Clinton to meet monthly with the editors of women’s magazines, which could “turn the editors into Clinton surrogates.”

Caputo suggested that senior aides take White House correspondents to lunch or dinner and share “wonderful Hillary anecdotes” and disabuse them of the notion of “Hillary being in a bunker mentality.” For example, Caputo wrote, adviser Lissa Muscatine liked telling reporters that Clinton loves when Muscatine’s twin children visit the office.

Caputo endorsed a proposal from another adviser, Sidney Blumenthal, for Clinton to host off-the-record dinners with “opinion makers” who are not part of the “mainstream New York media” but rather are “people whom the New York Times respects intellectually.” The objective was to “help inoculate or diffuse any negatives that may arise in the mainstream press.” Among those suggested were Robert S. Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books; Victor Navasky, then the editor of the Nation; and Francis FitzGerald, a prominent writer.

Clinton’s advisers also looked for ways to use the first lady’s official travels for political gain. In preparation for a 1995 women’s conference in Beijing, Caputo briefed Clinton on the journalists traveling with the first lady, describing which ones she considered “fans,” “fair” or “aggressive.” Caputo also wrote that the event would give Clinton “good political mileage”; to this day, Clinton regularly refers to the address she gave at the historic conference.

In 1999, as Clinton prepared to step out from her husband’s shadow and face the New York press corps as a first-time candidate, Grunwald dashed off a memo with eight “style pointers.”

“The press is obviously watching to see if they can make you uncomfortable or testy,” Grunwald wrote. “Even on the annoying questions, give relaxed answers.”

She advised Clinton to be prepared for two questions: how her record on health care — “which was a fiasco” — stacked up against her likely opponent, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R), and, “Have you ever used drugs?”

Grunwald reminded Clinton to try to steer the discussion to the message she wants to deliver. “You have a tendency to answer just the question asked,” she wrote. “That’s good manners, but bad politics.”

Aaron Blake contributed to this report.

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