If you did something productive with your Sunday — if you went to church, took a nature hike, composted leaves from the back yard, concocted an alibi for the cops — you may have seen only the headlines about Hillary Rodham Clinton's "Meet the Press" interview. According to those headlines, she dismissed the unkillable scandal over her use of a private e-mail server as a "conspiracy theory." A sample:
Politico: "Hillary Clinton: 'Another conspiracy theory' "
The Guardian: "Hillary Clinton dismisses 'conspiracy theory' amid email server controversy"
Townhall: "Hillary Laughs Again, Dismisses Email Scandal as a 'Conspiracy Theory' "
These headlines are true, insofar as how Clinton used the phrase "conspiracy theory" as she answered one of Chuck Todd's questions. "She is now blaming a ‘conspiracy theory’ for her sinking poll numbers," grumbled a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. The "conspiracy theory" quote was even quickly tweeted by the opposition research wizards at America Rising.
What hasn't been mentioned: Clinton was actually calling back to something Todd said at the start of the interview. "I know there's always conspiracy theories out there," he said knowingly, referring to rumors that Clinton had sat down with him only after some subjects were barred from discussion. He then made absolutely clear: "There are no limitations to this interview."
Clinton agreed — "as far as I know, that's true" — and plowed through seven e-mail questions. Todd wound up the eighth question by asking whether the Democratic presidential front-runner could "respond to an alternative explanation that has sort of been circulating." Only then did Clinton laugh: "Another conspiracy theory?"
None of this will matter when it comes to the way Clinton is covered, and I already have designated a section of my inbox for the complaints that I am carrying her water here. (Why don't I work for Media Matters? Indeed!) And that's the point. The media's willingness to believe the worst about Clinton, and the long political history it can draw from, has been the single toughest external problem for her campaign. Call it Clinton's Razor: In analyzing her answers, the media usually chooses the one that assumes the worst intentions.
I encountered this last week, after I wrote a People's History of the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and thus could not be president. In a typical "fact check" from the conservative Web site Breitbart, I was reminded that Clinton had been asked to knock down the rumor that Obama was a Muslim and chose not to. "During a March 2008 interview with CBS's "60 Minutes," Clinton was asked by interviewer Steve Kroft whether she believed Obama was Muslim," Breitbart reported. "Clinton replied: 'No, there is nothing to base that on, as far as I know.' "
But that was not the entire answer. As Bob Somerby pointed out, Kroft asked five times whether Obama was a Muslim. Clinton's first answer was "of course not." Kroft kept asking, and only then, as she searched for another way to say it, did she give the "as far as I know" answer.
KROFT: You don't believe that Senator Obama is a Muslim?
CLINTON: Of course not. I mean, that's — you know, there is no basis for that. You know, I take him on the basis of what he says. And, you know, there isn't any reason to doubt that.
KROFT: And you said you take Senator Obama at his word that he's not a Muslim.
CLINTON: Right. Right.
KROFT: You don't believe that he's a Muslim?
KROFT: Or implying?
CLINTON: No. Why would I? No, there is nothing to base that on, as far as I know.
KROFT: It's just scurrilous —
CLINTON: Look, I have been the target of so many ridiculous rumors. I have a great deal of sympathy for anybody who gets, you know, smeared with the kind of rumors that go on all the time.
This was masterful interrogating by Kroft, but had Clinton wanted to stoke an Obama rumor, she could have done what she did in her 1998 "Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy" interview and led with it. But at the time, coverage of Clinton as an inherent sleaze who would try to exploit Obama's weaknesses won out. Even the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza boiled down the "60 Minutes" interview to her "especially galling" remark "that Obama was not a Muslim 'as far as I know.' "
Clinton has often led with her chin on this stuff. In the 2008 and 2016 presidential contests, the fact that she has endured more scandals and brickbats that anyone else is meant to be a bonus for Democrats. (Her husband emphasized this in a separate weekend interview.) She would not enter the White House as a doe-eyed naif; she would enter it with a clear understanding of her enemies and how to beat them.
This primary season has suggested the existence of a tipping point for that argument. On one side: "She's tough enough to withstand anything." On the other: "Oh, no, do Democrats really want to suffer through four or eight more years or Clinton wars?"
Bernie Sanders's optimistic, democratic socialist campaign moved a lot of Democrats, but more were moved when that tipping point was reached. And if you want to understand the full-court press encouraging a run from Vice President Biden, there you go.