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If she doesnâ€™t run, the single biggest factor holding her back will be the media, according to an informal survey of three dozen friends, allies and former aides interviewed for this article. As much as anything else, her ambivalence about the race, they 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.
Clinton isnâ€™t insane, and sheâ€™s not stupid. â€œWhen you get beat up so often, you just get very cautious,â€ says Mike McCurry, her husbandâ€™s former press secretary, who joined the White House team to find a first lady traumatized by the coverage of her failed Hillarycare initiative. â€œShe [has] had a very practical view of the media. â€¦ â€˜I have to be careful, Iâ€™m playing with fire.â€™â€
And while the white-hot anger she once felt toward the media has since hardened into a pessimistic resignation (with a dash of self-pity), sheâ€™s convinced another campaign would inevitably invite more bruising scrutiny, as her recent comments suggest. Public life â€œgives you a sense of being kind of dehumanized as part of the experience,â€ she lamented a few weeks ago to a Portland, Ore., audience.
â€œYou really canâ€™t ever feel like youâ€™re just having a normal day.â€
When asked why Clinton hasnâ€™t done more to reach out to reporters over the years, one Clinton campaign veteran began to spin several theories. She was too busy, she was too prone to speaking her mind and the likeâ€”then abruptly cut to the chase:
â€œLook, she hates you. Period. Thatâ€™s never going to change.â€
Where does her hatred of the media comes from?
But consider this recent speech by one of the more improbable rising stars in Clintonworld: her tormentor-turned-defender David Brock, who exposed many of the ugliest Arkansas scandals of the Clinton years when he was a conservative investigative reporter in the 1990s. â€œFox has accused Hillary Clinton of murder, compared her to a murderer and suggested she commit suicide,â€ Brock told a crowd at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service in March, arguing that sheâ€™s the ultimate victim of â€œmisogyny.â€
At the time, my then colleague (and current business partner) Mark Fabiani and I were working at the White House as lawyers in the counselâ€™s office and began to receive calls from mainstream media outlets asking us to respond to various bizarre items related to the late Vince Foster, a fellow White House lawyer who had tragically taken his own life in the summer of 1993. At first, we ignored the calls, as there was nothing to the story beyond the terrible loss of one of the president and first ladyâ€™s friends. However, as the calls continued without letup, and the nature of the questions became even more bizarreâ€”to the point where we were asked to comment on alleged eyewitness sightings of Fosterâ€”we knew we had to get to the heart of the matter and began asking the reporters the basis for their questions.
All roads led to a mysterious sourceâ€”the newly exploding Internet.
One Saturday morning in the midst of an oppressively hot D.C. summer weekend, Mark and I found ourselves squirreled away in a stuffy room on the fourth floor of the Old Executive Office Building, where there was a bank of computers from which you could access the â€œWorld Wide Web.â€ Rememberâ€”this was the pre-Blackberry, pre-Google, dial-up world of 1995, when only around 10 percent of the public had Internet access and the White House had just barely launched its own web page.
Eight hours later, we emerged from our warren of cubicles having seemingly been transported to a parallel universe. Online we found early versions of chat rooms, postings and other information showing there was an entire cottage industry devoted to discussing conspiracy theories relating to Fosterâ€™s death, including numerous online reports of people claiming to have seen him. Those reports would be picked up by so-called news sources that most Americans at the time had never heard ofâ€”conservative outlets such as Eagle Publishingâ€™s Human Events or Richard Mellon Scaifeâ€™s the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. From there, the story would migrate to right-leaning outlets we were familiar with, such as the New York Post, the Washington Times and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journalâ€”all before eventually ending up in the mainstream press.
What we learned in those eight hours became the basis for our 332-page report, written so that those of us in Clinton White House responsible for fielding questions about these bizarre rumors could apprise mainstream reporters of what we called the â€œmedia food chainâ€â€”basically, so that we could show them how such a wacky conspiracy theory like the supposed murder of Vince Foster had even become a news â€œstoryâ€ at all. We would simply hand the memo to the reporter asking questions, tell him to review it and to come back to us with any remaining questions. Few did.
But we also realized that this was just the beginning. Like the scene in Bugsy where Warren Beatty, playing the mobster Bugsy Siegel, arrives in the Nevada desert and the sees the future of gambling (modern Las Vegas), those eight hours in the White House computer room were our eureka moment about the future of media and politics. We saw the transition from an electorate that passively consumed the information put before it (a joke at the time was that a political rally was a family watching a political commercial on television) to an electorate that could use technology to actively engage in the creation, distribution and self-selection of information.
(Of course, had we been just a little more business-savvy, we would have immediately relocated to Silicon Valley instead of writing that report.)