By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2008
It was 15 degrees outside on a wind-whipped Pennsylvania Avenue as Hillary Clinton, smile firmly fixed in place, made an early-morning stop for a primary she didn't have a prayer of winning.
Inside the high-ceilinged office of the National Council of Negro Women, as 20 journalists looked on, Sen. Clinton sounded almost wistful last Monday as she noted the racial and gender aspect of her contest against Barack Obama. "One of us will go on to make history," she said, before adding that she believed she would be the one to make it.
Left unspoken -- but very much on the minds of the modest press contingent -- was that she had just lost four states to Obama, had been forced to lend her operation $5 million and had dumped her campaign manager. And no upbeat talk by the candidate was going to change that story line.
The media floodgates opened after Obama swept last week's primaries in the District, Maryland and Virginia. Never mind that the two Democratic candidates remain close in the delegate count, or that Clinton has been described as doomed once before, in New Hampshire. She is drowning in a sea of negative coverage.
The New York Daily News said "the once-mighty Clinton campaign is beginning to feel like the last days of Pompeii." The New York Times quoted an unnamed superdelegate backing Clinton as saying that if she doesn't win Ohio and Texas next month, "she's out." The Washington Post said "even many of her supporters worry" that the nomination "could soon begin slipping out of her reach." Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Dick Polman likened her campaign to the Titanic. A Slate headline put it starkly: "So, Is She Doomed?"
Clinton spokesman Doug Hattaway, citing the back-and-forth nature of the contest, says the campaign isn't worried about the spate of Hillary-in-trouble pieces. "That may emerge as a national story line, but we don't think it influences voters on the ground," he says. "The 'momentum' story is just not all that real. People aren't led around by the nose by the national media narrative." Of course, voters in primary states also watch the networks and read national news online.
Fueling the sense that the former first lady is sinking is increasingly sharp criticism from liberal columnists who are embracing Obama, while few pundits are firmly in Clinton's corner. The Nation, the country's largest liberal magazine, has endorsed Obama. Markos "Kos" Moulitsas, the most prominent liberal blogger, voted for Obama in the California primary and has been ridiculing Clinton's campaign.
New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote that the Clinton machine is "ruthless" and the candidate "crippled by poll-tested corporate packaging that markets her as a synthetic product leeched of most human qualities."
Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen said Clinton has "an inability to admit fault or lousy judgment" and made an "ugly lurch to the political right" in backing a 2005 bill that would have made flag burning illegal (which, as he later noted, Obama also endorsed).
Arianna Huffington, one of the Net's leading Clinton-bashers, has written of "Hillary's hypocrisy running neck and neck with her cynicism." New Republic Editor-in-Chief Marty Peretz posted an essay last week titled "The End of BillaryLand Is on Its Way. Rejoice!"
For much of the campaign, Clinton, who seemed wary of the press during her eight years in the White House, limited her contact with reporters. She would go days without taking media questions. But since losing Iowa she has become far more accessible, in the tradition of trailing candidates who suddenly realize they need the exposure.
Her campaign can still be inconsiderate toward reporters, sometimes not sending out the next day's schedule until 2 a.m., making it impossible even to plan what time to get up. But tensions have eased as Clinton has held more frequent news conferences.
"She's very comfortable dealing with the media and is perfectly willing to take questions," Hattaway says. "It's got its pluses and minuses. There are those who say it's pushing you off your message of the day. But, by and large, it's good to be accessible, and she's good at it."
On her campaign plane, Clinton started coming back to the press section for off-the-record chats, usually harmless but sometimes including comments that contradicted what she was saying publicly, according to participants. Two weeks ago part of the media contingent revolted, saying the conversations did them no good if they couldn't use the information. Since then, although she walked the aisle with a tray of chocolates to hand out on Valentine's Day, the airborne sessions have dwindled.
When the campaign offered to send Chelsea Clinton -- who never grants interviews -- to the back of the plane, some journalists objected to the off-the-record restriction, and the candidate's daughter bagged the idea.
Accessibility, though, doesn't necessarily translate into candor. And examining the way Clinton answers media questions helps explain why she is portrayed as a conventional politician pitted against a cultural phenomenon.
Last Monday, when ABC's Jake Tapper asked about the obvious problems in her campaign, Clinton said she'd had a "great night" on Feb. 5, Super Tuesday, an "enormous response" from donors after lending her campaign money, and that the replacement of campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle was "Patti's decision" -- granting not a glimmer of recognition that anything was less than perfect.
On Tuesday night, when she was swamped in the Potomac primaries, Clinton gave a speech in Texas that made no mention of the results. Reporters were incredulous the next day when she stuck to her everything's-fine stance at a media availability: "Some weeks one of us is up, and the other's down, and then we reverse it." What about Obama pulling ahead in delegates? "That's what I always thought would happen."
A similar dynamic was on display in a "60 Minutes" interview, when Katie Couric couldn't get her to acknowledge that she ever contemplates losing the nomination. "You have to believe you're going to win," Clinton insisted.
At an MSNBC debate last month, when Tim Russert asked the candidates to name their greatest weakness, Obama made the minor admission that he has trouble keeping track of paperwork. And Clinton's confession? She gets "impatient" and "really frustrated when people don't seem to understand that we can do so much more to help each other."
By late last week, some pundits were conjuring up scenarios for a Clinton comeback, if only to find something new to say. But she was still depicted as a mathematical long shot.
A national figure since 1992, Clinton is a disciplined and detail-oriented candidate, with a style that produces few sparks, while Obama is filling basketball arenas with thunderous oratory. That is why her choking up in a New Hampshire coffee shop became such a huge story -- because we rarely get a peek behind the steely exterior.
By contrast, there is little question that some journalists have gotten swept up in the Obama excitement. After Obama's victory speech Tuesday, MSNBC's Chris Matthews said he "felt this thrill going up my leg." Some reporters have brought their kids to Obama events, while others have danced to the music played at the rallies.
Obama has defied the laws of journalistic gravity, somehow avoiding the usual scrutiny applied to front-runners. A few attempts to examine his life and record -- such as a Times piece on Obama's pattern of voting "present" in the Illinois legislature, and another on Obama watering down a bill affecting a nuclear power company that contributed to his campaign -- barely caused a ripple. Now Obama's wife, Michelle, who did interviews with Larry King and Couric last week, is getting the treatment, drawing mostly soft-focus questions. A Newsweek cover story out today calls her "direct and plain-spoken, with an edgy sense of humor . . . she can be tough, and even a little steely." She is "outspoken, strong-willed, funny, gutsy, and sometimes sarcastic," cutting "an athletic and authoritative figure," a front-page Times profile declared.
A handful of columnists, such as Time's Joe Klein, have questioned whether the Obama campaign has cultish qualities, but they are in the minority. It took a British magazine, the Economist, to carry the cover headline last week: "But could he deliver?"
While few in the media world will say so out loud, a Hillary collapse ("The Fall of the House of Clinton," as a Weekly Standard cover put it last month) is a more dramatic outcome than a win by the woman originally depicted as inevitable. But there is considerable danger in writing that story prematurely.Howzat?
"Top Officials See Bleaker Outlook for the Economy" -- Friday's New York Times
"Bernanke Forecasts Growth" -- Friday's Washington Post