First Lady Boxes With N.Y. Press
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 20, 1999; Page A4
NEW YORK, April 19 Bill Clinton was riding high when he arrived in New York for the 1992 Democratic primary. Then he told WCBS-TV reporter Marcia Kramer he had smoked marijuana at Oxford, while insisting he had never inhaled. Oops. "Slick Willie for Once Can't Blow Smoke," blared a headline in the Daily News. "ON THE S-POT," screamed the New York Post. Pretty soon, Clinton was complaining that "I have been trashed in the tabloids here from day one."
Now Hillary Rodham Clinton is considering a race for Senate, and the punditocracy is abuzz with warnings about the in-your-face gotcha games of the brutal New York media. But the first lady boxed with the local press today for the first time since the Hillary-for-Senate chatter began, and no one laid a glove on her. This may be a tough town, the media capital of America, but some of its veteran newsmen -- and some of their targets -- say it could be a lot tougher.
"Tough? I don't think it's tough at all," groused the legendary New York columnist Jimmy Breslin of Newsday. "That myth is way, way overblown," said Harold Ickes, a transplanted New Yorker who is the first lady's top political adviser. "To be honest, I think the Washington media is a lot worse," said ex-mayor Ed Koch, who now writes a column for the Daily News. "After everything she's been through, this should be a breeze."
Clinton's friends say she is trying to decide whether senator is the right job for her, or whether she can make more of a difference from another perch. She is also trying to envision how she would run for office in New York while her husband leads a war effort in Washington. And she is trying to gauge the depth of the support for a carpetbagger candidacy; a Marist Institute for Public Opinion poll released today found her lead in a potential race against New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) has dwindled to one percentage point.
If Clinton does decide to run, she will also have to subject herself to the scoop-driven media crowd that bruised her husband here seven years ago; no one seems to think she can win with a Rose Garden strategy. And while her friends insist she won't be cowed by bad publicity, she already has had a frosty relationship with much of the national press.
"It's been up and down," said Clinton adviser Mandy Grunwald. "But she's an amazing person. When people in the press get to see her up close, they realize that."
During her husband's first term, Clinton didn't even let reporters accompany her on domestic flights, and she was routinely battered over issues such as Whitewater, the White House travel office, the health care reform fiasco, even her changing hairdos. The bad press had subsided as her public policy role seemed to diminish, but ever since her humiliation during her husband's impeachment proceedings, she has again kept the media at arm's length.
Still, her advisers promise that she will open up if she runs for public office, and today seemed an awful lot like a campaign dry run. She had eight events crammed into her public schedule, including a speech about heritage trails in Central Park, an education speech at Columbia University, a party for a Jewish child care group on Wall Street, a fund-raiser for Upper West Side liberal Rep. Jerrold Nadler, even a luncheon for the broadcasting industry at which she gave an award to NBC anchorwoman Katie Couric. And after the first event of her busy day -- a meeting at the United Nations about Kosovo relief where she said she plans to go to Albania and Macedonia to meet with refugees -- she did the unthinkable.
She took questions. Five of them, to be precise.
"I don't even remember the last time she's done this in New York," said Kramer, chief political correspondent for WCBS-TV. "They usually keep us 80 feet away. The last time she was here, she wouldn't have been able to hear our questions if we used bullhorns."
Before she arrived, a group of reporters had plotted questions about sensitive topics -- the disappearance of her Whitewater billing records, her position on the death penalty -- but none of those came up. There were two questions about Kosovo. Clinton was asked whether she had made up her mind about the Senate race -- no, she hasn't. She was asked whether this was a political trip -- no, it wasn't, for the most part. And she was asked why she is considering New York even though she's never lived here.
"New York is truly a microcosm of America," Clinton replied. "It's got everything from our biggest, most dynamic city to rural areas that produce some crops you might be surprised are grown right here in New York. We have everything in New York that we have in America."
Then she rushed out the door behind a phalanx of Secret Service officers, ignoring a shouted question about when she would make up her mind. The media was left behind to snicker about her agricultural comments and wonder why she referred to New Yorkers as "we."
New York Press Club president Gabe Pressman, a reporter in New York for 50 years, says the death of newspapers such as the old World-Journal-Telegram -- itself an amalgamation of seven papers -- has melted away some of the scrappiness of the local press. New York is still the undisputed nerve center of the nation's magazine and television industries, and a cable station called New York One now covers the city 24 hours a day. But local newspaper coverage has always set the agenda here, and now the dignified Times, the scrappy Daily News and the guilty-pleasure Post are the only major papers left.
"It's still a freewheeling media town, but it's less freewheeling than it was," Pressman said. "We're still irreverent. But the competition just isn't what it used to be."
New York's proud tradition of aggressive journalism dates back to the 1735 trial of publisher John Peter Zenger, who was jailed for seditious libel after a crusade against a corrupt British governor. On the other hand, it was the vicious competition between William Hearst's New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer's New York Sun that launched the Spanish-American War -- and the phrase "yellow journalism."
New York's tabloids are still aggressive about dishing dirt on celebrities, but they have been relatively reticent about discussing, for example, the obvious tensions between Giuliani and his wife, Donna Hanover, who no longer appears with him in public. And widespread rumors that Giuliani had an affair with his communications director were published first in Vanity Fair, of all places. Giuliani vigorously denies the rumors.
Then again, Clinton shouldn't expect to be treated kindly, especially if she ends up facing a bare-knuckled brawler such as Giuliani. Rupert Murdoch's unabashedly conservative New York Post recently ran the front-page headline "CHILLARY," a reference to unfounded rumors that the First Marriage was on the rocks. Already, one Post columnist has started calling the first lady "Monica Lewinsky's ex-boyfriend's wife," and the Post recently quoted former president George Bush's brother Jonathan as saying that the New York media would "have a field day."
"This is still a pretty tough town, and the tabloids set the tone," said New York writer Pete Hamill, former editor of the Daily News. "The first time she goes to the Carnegie Deli and orders a pastrami sandwich with a glass of milk, she'll be in a lot of trouble."
Ex-governor Mario M. Cuomo (D) recalled that he intervened to help save the Post from financial ruin on three separate occasions. His reward? "They slaughtered me," Cuomo said. "But that's New York. For a New Yorker, any day without a really good fight is a lost opportunity."
Take Breslin. He may think the New York media have gone soft, but he also thinks the Washington media are soft because they stand up when the president enters the room. He calls the first lady "the candidate from the cathouse," and refers to the president as "that sex-sick SOB."
When it comes to assessing toughness, he's got pretty high standards. "I call these people the Pekinese of the press; I think they're pathetic," Breslin said. "But what can I say. I've been around a long time."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company