Media Buzz

Hillary’s media advice: Taming the beast while appearing ‘real’

Hillary Clinton continues to travel speaking to large gatherings fueling further speculation about the field of presidential contenders in 2016.The release of the Clinton docs come  more than a year after the documents were supposed to have been released.


Man, that Hillaryland is devious.

Imagine trying to manipulate the media!

Now we finally have the black-and-white proof — along with some great doodles — that Clinton advisers secretly plotted to get her good press.

And plant stories about how she was, well, human.

And figure out which reporters were the most sympathetic.

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I devoured the thousands of pages of documents released by the Clinton Presidential Library, which provide a fascinating — and often stultifying — snapshot of what staff members said in the 1990s.

But there was no smoking memo. Whether you like Hillary or can’t stand her, these are the ruminations and suggestions of aides and advisers.

There is certainly the clear impression that Hillary was wary of the national media. But that was clear back in 1993, and again in 2008.

Every politician has people dishing advice on grappling with the media and softening their image. Those who don’t should probably find another line of work.

These strategists tend to say, as Mandy Grunwald did before a 1999 trip to kick off her Senate campaign, telling her to “be real”:

“Don't be defensive. Look like you want the questions. The press is obviously watching to see if they can make you uncomfortable or testy. Even on the annoying questions, give relaxed answers.”

A touch of paranoia? Maybe. But even paranoids have enemies.

Grunwald also tells HRC not just to answer the question but pivot to the point she wants to make, which is Politics 101. (Hint: Even pundits do that!)

In 1995, press secretary Lisa Caputo tells Hillary’s chief of staff, Maggie Williams, that they should try to soften the boss’ image:

“[W]e can all tell wonderful Hillary anecdotes that humanize her and show the press the good person that she is. (For example, Lissa [Muscatine] always tells the anecdote about Hillary loving to have her twins come to the office.) I believe if we were all out there consistently, we would erode the notion in the press that sometimes exists of Hillary being in a bunker mentality.”

By the way, 1995 is pre-Monica, but post-Whitewater, Travelgate and so on.

The Hillary team knew who they wanted to play ball with. To wit, in the same memo:

“Rick Kaplan brought to my attention that Home Improvement would very much like to have Hillary make a guest appearance on its show.”

Kaplan, then an ABC producer and Friend of Bill, went on to become president of CNN and MSNBC.

Another Caputo memo suggests ways to circumvent the dreaded national press corps — as Hillary’s husband did by appearing on shows like Larry King.

“We were so successful during the 1992 campaign in implementing this strategy. I think it is now time to return to this strategy to reacquaint people…with Hillary Clinton. Hillary is comfortable with the local reporters and enjoys speaking with them. This will help us get around her aversion to the national Washington media and serve to counter the tone of the national media.”

There was also advice, before a U.N. women’s conference in Beijing, to do an interview with Dan Rather (to show these were not “soft” issues), as well as with “Good Morning America,” Regis, People and women’s magazine editors. And suggestions that the newfangled “Internet” would be a good way to connect with women.

Finally, Caputo offered her boss a rundown on reporters accompanying the first lady on the trip to China:

Terry Hunt, AP: “He is a fan of yours.”

Larry McQuillen, Reuters: “He interviewed you last winter about your work on behalf of the Gulf War veterans and wrote a very positive story.”

Andrea Mitchell, NBC: “She is a very aggressive and a very good reporter.”

Claire Shipman, CNN: “She is very fair and very positive toward you.” (Shipman, now with ABC, is married to Jay Carney.)

Ann Compton, ABC: “I believe we made her a Hillary fan on the South Asia trip.”

In fairness, these are just an aide’s impressions. If the press corps contained many Hillary fans, that certainly wasn’t how Clinton saw it.

Her “aversion” to the national media hurt her presidential campaign, as she generally kept journalists at arm’s length and was relentlessly cautious. This trove of documents is a reminder that if Hillary runs again, she needs to overcome her innate wariness toward the press—perhaps without a phalanx of advisers urging her to do so.

Slate’s John Dickerson ruminates about reality:

“Asking a candidate to ‘be real’ in a campaign is like asking someone to put on a happy face during dental surgery. It’s just not the venue for that kind of thing. Campaigns are phony by design. Candidates inhabit multiple personalities every day as they switch from one audience to the next audience. They bury complexity in favor of soothing bromides and though they are human, they are never allowed to admit mistakes or say the wrong thing. Still there is a demand that candidates “be real,” because voters can make their decisions based on their heart, not their head. Or if it’s not what governs their final decision, your authenticity is what may at least get you a hearing. Grunwald puts ‘be real’ in quotes because she and Clinton know she is not talking about actual reality. She’s talking about what the political press and voters think is ‘real’ in the context of the intense scrutiny Clinton faces.” 

And Maureen Dowd:

 “Hillary may have had a point when she said in 1993, after criticism of the maladroit firing of the veteran White House travel office staff, that the press ‘has big egos and no brains.’ But it speaks to her titanic battles and battle scars.

“Hillary has spent so much time searching for the right identity, listening to others tell her who to be, resisting and following advice on being ‘real,’ that it leaves us with the same question we had when she first came on the stage in 1992.

“Who is she?” 

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.