The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Clinton team is following reporters to the bathroom. Here’s why that matters.

The Clintons. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

Amy Chozick is the reporter tasked with covering the Clintons -- and the runup to the now-almost-inevitable Hillary Clinton presidential bid -- for the New York Times. Sounds like a plum gig, right? Until, that is, a press aide for the Clinton Global Initiative follows you into the bathroom.

Chozick describes a "friendly 20-something press aide who the Clinton Global Initiative tasked with escorting me to the restroom," adding: "She waited outside the stall in the ladies’ room at the Sheraton Hotel, where the conference is held each year."

Yes, this may be an extreme example. And, yes, the press strictures at the Clinton Global Initiative are the stuff of legend. But, the episode also reflects the dark and, frankly, paranoid view the Clintons have toward the national media. Put simply: Neither Hillary nor Bill Clinton likes the media or, increasingly, sees any positive use for them.

“If a policymaker is a political leader and is covered primarily by the political press, there is a craving that borders on addictive to have a storyline," Bill Clinton said in a speech at Georgetown University back in April. "And then once people settle on the storyline, there is a craving that borders on blindness to shoehorn every fact, every development, every thing that happens into the story line, even if it’s not the story.”

That view, according to a terrific story by Politico's Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman over the summer, informs and impacts the Clintons' thinking on a 2016 bid.  Write the duo: "As much as anything else, her ambivalence about the race, [Clinton sources] told us, reflects her distaste for and apprehension of a rapacious, shallow and sometimes outright sexist national political press corps acting as enablers for her enemies on the right."

It also colors how the media is treated during the long runup to Clinton's now-expected bid. While Chozick's experience may be on the extreme end of the spectrum, reporters who have spent any amount of time on the trail with the Clintons -- including during their recent trip to Sen. Tom Harkin's Steak Fry -- describe a candidate and an operation that always assumes the worst of the press horde and acts accordingly.

In theory, Clinton is, of course, a candidate -- assuming she is a candidate -- who needs the political press as little as any person seeking the presidency in modern memory. Clinton is known by much of the electorate -- for good and bad -- and, thanks to her massive national network and the spate of technological innovations over the last decade, can almost entirely avoid the media filter when she wants to communicate with supporters.  The media's ability to cover lesser-known candidates in ways that can make them more appealing to a broader swath of the electorate means nothing then to Clinton. The media -- as viewed by the Clintons -- is, at best, a neutral factor and, much more often, a negative.

And yet, any objective analysis of the 2008 primary campaign would conclude that the remarkably adversarial relationship between the Clinton campaign and the media hurt her chances. To be clear: The media and its relationship with Clinton was far from determinative in the nomination fight. Barack Obama's superior understanding of delegate allocation was the determining factor. But, it's hard to deny that the friction between Clinton, her campaign and the media didn't help. Access to the candidate was nonexistent. Simple questions were routinely ignored or, on the other extreme, treated as adversarial. That is not to say that reporters were entirely innocent in the whole thing; Clinton was the story and as the story she had far more reporters poking and prodding her campaign than anyone else -- including Barack Obama -- in the race. And, even in 2008, the world of online news and social media was beginning to kick into high gear -- leaving the Clinton campaign hopelessly unable to handle the sheer volume of incoming they were receiving every day and deeply cynical about reporters' true motives.

(Worth noting: The Obama team was not exactly press friendly. And, as he grew into a bigger and bigger phenomenon, they had less and less use for the media. That continued into Obama's presidency, particularly the first few years. But, once Obama's popularity began to flag and with it his ability to drive his preferred message to an increasingly skeptical public, his lack of relationship with the media caught up with him.)

Regardless of who was to blame, by the end of the campaign, reporters -- including me -- and the Clinton operation were at each others' throats daily and often more than daily. In the wake of that campaign -- particularly as it became clear that Clinton was, in fact, interested in running again -- some of those in Clintonworld promised a different approach to the press in 2016. No, Clinton would never be John McCain in the back of the straight Talk Express in 2000 but neither would she or her campaign repeat the mistakes of their dealings with the press in 2008. They understood, they insisted, that while Clinton was very well defined to most voters, there was an entire generation of younger people -- who, not for nothing, were a pillar of Obama's electoral success -- who knew little about the former Secretary of State other than her famous name and would use the media coverage of her to form their opinions.

The early returns on those pledges don't look promising. How a campaign deals with the media is a direct result of how the candidate views the media.  And the Clintons have as dim a view of the political press as any modern politicians. So you can imagine what a Clinton 2016 campaign will think of those tasked with covering it.