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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Hillary Fever? Might Be Something We Eight.

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2005; Page C01

The press is clearly rooting for another Clinton campaign.

Three years and eight months before the next presidential election, the Hillary buzz is growing louder.

Dan Rather says it is loyalty to co-workers that has kept him atypically quiet in the matter of CBS's discredited National Guard story. (John Paul Filo -- Cbs Via AP)

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There she is on the cover of New York magazine, taking the oath of office, with the headline: "President and Mr. Clinton." Journalists scrutinize her every utterance for 2008 implications. An absurdly early CNN/USA Today poll question has the New York senator crushing the Democratic field. Every reporter assumes she's feverishly plotting her return to the White House.

"It is a painful and ludicrous conceit of political reporting that you examine everything far too early," says Jennifer Senior, who wrote the New York story. "On the other hand, presidential races are painful and ludicrous things that require vast amounts of money and preparation." If Clinton is the Democratic nominee, says Senior, "she's going to need a lot of time to reformulate her image."

Clinton strategists are mostly bemused. "The next election seems an awfully long time away to begin speculating about who the next president is going to be," says Democratic consultant Howard Wolfson, who represents Clinton. "We're going to have this president for four years. But there is an online/cable chattering class that would rather speculate about the race in '08 than deal with policy today."

Now that is shocking.

The Hillary obsession reflects a broader journalistic impulse to debate and sometimes predict the future. The illness of Chief Justice William Rehnquist has triggered a surge of stories about who might be named to replace him, whether President Bush might elevate another justice to the chief's spot, how liberal groups are gearing up to oppose the nominee -- all before Rehnquist has said he would step down. As with long-range presidential politics, who will remember months or years from now if these stories turn out to be off the mark?

If you write about the actuarial calculations of Social Security or the degree to which the Iraqi army is ready to battle the terrorists, you can be wrong. But if you war-game a hypothetical matchup down the road, the worst that can happen is you're overtaken by events.

The Hillary Rodham Clinton saga contains an obvious degree of built-in drama. A former first lady seeking her husband's old job. A woman who would restore her family dynasty by succeeding the son who restored his father's dynasty. A polarizing figure whose candidacy would enable Republicans to recycle Whitewater, billing records, Monica and other 1990s controversies.

"She is one of the true superstars in American politics," says Roger Simon, the U.S. News & World Report columnist, who believes Clinton will make a White House bid. "Hillary running will be a great continuing story. The other Democrats will complain, to use the famous phrase, that she is sucking all the oxygen out of the room."

Presidential campaigning has become a nonstop endeavor, journalists say, and Clinton has fueled speculation about her moving toward the center with recent comments about finding common ground on abortion. She figures in the ongoing debate over whether the Democrats will nominate another Northeast liberal after John Kerry's defeat. And could she be burnishing her foreign policy credentials by meeting last week (along with John McCain, another '08 possibility) with Afghan President Hamid Karzai?

Although the 2008 question pops up in every interview, Clinton sticks to her standard line about focusing on her Senate reelection next year. "She's a building with no door," Senior says. "The fact that she speaks in bromides would be boring with anyone else, but with her you know there's a lot more going on."

Peggy Noonan, a Wall Street Journal columnist who has written a book on Clinton, says journalists are giving her "an easy ride. . . . The press is interested in -- maybe fascinated by -- her attempts to move herself, and her party, closer to the at least rhetorical center on issues like abortion." That is typical of "canny politicians," says Noonan, and "the press is reporting what she does without commentary. The commentary comes later, in 2006."

Smart conservatives should "not misunderestimate her potential strength and popularity," says the veteran Republican speechwriter, who has no doubt that Clinton is running. "The presidency is for her what it was for Bill: the self-actualizing fact that assuages all."

In the CNN/USA Today poll, 40 percent of Democrats and Democratic leaners favored Clinton, compared with 25 percent for Kerry and 17 percent for John Edwards. (A more recent Zogby poll had a similar spread.) Among Republicans, the winner was Rudy Giuliani with 34 percent, McCain at 29 percent and Jeb Bush with 12 percent. (Does anyone believe a pro-choice, gay-friendly former New York mayor is really the front-runner? The Florida governor, for his part, says he won't try to be the third Bush in the White House.)

But consider this Roper Center poll in early 2001. Democrats favored Al Gore with 25 percent, Hillary Clinton (14 percent), Bill Bradley (8 percent), Joe Lieberman (5 percent), Dick Gephardt (4 percent) and Gray Davis (3 percent). Gore and Bradley didn't run, and Davis couldn't run because he'd already been recalled as California governor. The landscape can shift dramatically in four years.

If Clinton runs, there is the clearly newsworthy reality that no woman has ever been in as strong a position to win a major-party presidential nomination. But she isn't the only female sparking speculation. There's already a Condoleezza Rice for President Web site, peddling buttons and bumper stickers.

Rather's Farewell

Why hasn't Dan Rather had much to say about the botched story on President Bush that, according to the New Yorker's Ken Auletta, hastened his retirement by a year? Loyalty to his colleagues.

"I worked with all of these people for a long while, and neither in my mind nor in my heart am I going to give them up," Rather tells the magazine. He was upset about the choice of former attorney general Dick Thornburgh, a Republican, to co-chair the outside probe of the story but said nothing.

In other interviews with the New Yorker, Walter Cronkite praised CBS President Les Moonves's handling of the situation but says he should have been more critical of Rather and CBS News President Andrew Heyward in his statement on the investigation.

As Rather prepares to step down next week, CBS research chief David Poltrack tells Auletta that the network has lost viewers to NBC because "the conservative part of this country . . . tends to speak more of Dan Rather" as representing "liberal bias." Veteran Mike Wallace says Rather is a superb reporter but hard to watch: "He's uptight and occasionally contrived."

Moonves, meanwhile, told Heyward, then-"60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt and other executives that CBS magazine shows should be going after Jennifer Lopez and other celebrities who kept sitting down with Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer. "Are you dead?" he wondered. When Moonves mentioned other celebrity names, including Justin Timberlake, Hewitt said: "Who's Justin Timberlake?"

Timeout for Talon

Talon News, the conservative Web site that had employed White House reporter Jeff Gannon, has temporarily shut down, blaming the negative publicity, "much of it malicious." Gannon, on his Web site, is vowing to "battle the Left," which he says wants him to "go over to the 'dark side' and expose the 'corrupt Bush administration.' " While declining to discuss his postings on gay escort sites, he says: "If I had been a liberal reporter with the salacious past now attributed to me, I would be the Grand Marshall of the next Gay Pride Parade as well as a media darling."

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