By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 24, 2007
On the evening of Nov. 16, Phil Singer, a spokesman for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, got a tip from a journalist about a Robert D. Novak column that would be published the next day.
At 11:40 the following morning, when Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) put out a statement on the thinly sourced item -- which charged that the Democratic senator from New York was sitting on "scandalous" information about her rival -- the Clinton team was ready.
"Once again Senator Obama is echoing Republican talking points, this time from Bob Novak," Clinton communications chief Howard Wolfson e-mailed reporters.
After another statement from Obama, who demanded that Clinton refute the charge, Wolfson fired again: "It's telling that the Obama campaign would rather spend the day throwing mud in Bob Novak's sandbox than talking about the issues." And for good measure, the campaign recycled some of its greatest hits against Obama on a newly launched Web site dubbed "The Fact Hub."
Every presidential campaign finds itself dealing with allegations, exaggerations and rumors that require a quick response. But journalists say that Clinton campaign officials are the fastest and fiercest at pushing back against media accounts that they regard as unfair or inaccurate.
"We live in a minute-to-minute media culture," Wolfson said. "What may seem like a small story one day could snowball into a larger story the next day. Left unchecked, false stories can take on a life of their own."
Obama has also been the subject of unsubstantiated reports, such as a claim by a conservative Web site that he had not put his hand on his heart in Iowa during a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. The Obama camp explained that a Time photo of the event -- which showed Clinton and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) with hands on their hearts -- was taken during the singing of the national anthem.
"Untrue rumors need to be beaten back," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton. "Often the media spend too much time focusing on the superfluous."
Strategists for Obama believe that Clinton could have defused the three-paragraph Novak item by notifying Obama's staff to say that it was untrue. "I think we pretty effectively took this issue head-on and were able to put it to bed," Burton said.
Bill Clinton honed the art of rapid response in his 1992 campaign, as memorialized in the movie "The War Room." President Bush's campaigns were known for even swifter reactions to criticism, as blast faxes gave way to BlackBerry messages and technology fostered a nonstop news cycle.
As a former first lady who lived through numerous scandals in her husband's White House, Hillary Clinton seems determined to avoid the fate of Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the 2004 Democratic nominee, who later admitted he was too slow to respond to attacks on his Vietnam War record by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
"One of the greatest strengths of the Clinton campaign is they've internalized and updated the lessons of 1992 for the new media era," said Dan Schnur, a Republican campaign veteran. "When it comes to rapid response, you can't be too fast, but you can certainly be too hysterical. It's important to get information into reporters' hands as quickly as possible, but you don't want to be the deputy press secretary who cried wolf. . . . You want to save Defcon 5 for when you really need it."
The Clinton camp unleashed the heavy artillery on Nov. 8. Singer was driving to the Arlington headquarters that morning when he heard part of a National Public Radio report on two women whose lives had been touched by the campaign. At the office, Singer learned that he had missed an interview with a waitress at a Maid-Rite sandwich shop in Toledo, Iowa, who said that "nobody got left a tip" after Clinton ate a loose-meat sandwich at the lunch counter.
As the tale, powered by a link on the Drudge Report, ricocheted across the Internet, Clinton staffers tracked down those who were at the restaurant, including the aide who paid the bill with his credit card.
"The Clinton campaign was upset that we hadn't called them to talk about the tip," said NPR reporter David Greene, who acknowledged that he should have checked further. "We weren't trying to do gotcha journalism."
Singer sent off an e-mail to NPR: "The campaign spent $157 and left a $100 tip at the Maid-Rite Restaurant. Wish you had checked in with us beforehand." As the Republican National Committee began e-mailing the NPR report to the press, Clinton staffers contacted reporters and got their denials onto blogs at the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and the New York Times and other media outlets. An aide was also dispatched to hand the waitress $20.
"The first version of a story is incorrect, it gets pounced on, your opponents jump on it, and trying to get the toothpaste back in the tube is almost impossible," said Jay Carson, Clinton's traveling press secretary. "All of a sudden you have reputable news organizations chasing it." With the tip yarn, he said, "you're in the middle of a full-fledged controversy over something that didn't really happen."
The Clinton campaign isn't reticent about challenging news reports that turn on interpretation, either, and critics have likened its aggressive tactics to those of the Bush White House, which has had tense relations with the press corps.
"Reporters who have covered the hyper-vigilant campaign say that no detail or editorial spin is too minor to draw a rebuke," the New Republic says.
Clinton aides know they run the risk of highlighting small items that might otherwise receive scant attention but have concluded that, most of the time, that is an acceptable risk. "Vigilance is very important," Wolfson said. "I think Democratic voters expect a nominee's campaign to know how to correct the record."