Media

What’s Wrong With Hillary Clinton?

The Clinton so many people seem to distrust has been shaped in large part by the media who cover her – and the image she has had to create in self-defense.

What’s Wrong With Hillary Clinton?

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in San Diego, California, on June 2, where she delivered a major foreign-policy address. (Photo by David McNew/AFP/Getty Images)

We all know that Americans hate Hillary Clinton just about as much as they hate Donald Trump. From the perspective of Trump supporters, she is “Crooked Hillary,” who used her private email server to conduct State Department business (which, Trump believes, disqualifies her for the presidency) and who apparently helped kill Vincent Foster, among numerous other criminal acts.

From the perspective of Bernie Sanders’ forces, she gave speeches to fat cats, is a military hawk who voted for the Iraq War, grovels for money, gets counsel from squirrely Wall Street bankers and rigged the delegate selection.

This much we understand: To her detractors, Hillary Clinton is the devil incarnate.

But not so long ago, Clinton had a rosy favorability rating among most Americans, despite 25 years of getting bashed by the media. Yes, the constant harping on those damn emails — a scandal very few civilians really understand — drove down her ratings, and so obviously have the assaults by Sanders. Vehemence does have its benefits. Still, when you cut through all the politics, Clinton’s sins are fairly standard issue for a candidate who has been in public life as long as she has: mistakes, errors of judgment (some severe), hubris, associations with Big Money. In fact, when the press examines her appeal, the usual verdict is that the public doesn’t dislike what she has done or hopes to do so much as they dislike who she is.

So let me submit my own little bit of amateur psychologizing: Who Hillary Clinton is, the Hillary so many people seem to distrust, has been shaped in large part by the media who cover her — by which I mean not the media image of her, but the image she has purveyed of herself through the media and because of them.

That Clinton has a likability problem is pretty much beyond dispute, and has sent pundits to determine why. New York Times columnist David Brooks, no Clinton hater, concluded that she is too much of a policy wonk to win public affection. She seems to care too much about the nuts and bolts of governance and too little about the social graces (and inanities) that can make other candidates so appealing. It is the old “beer test” — would I want to have a beer with this person? Hillary isn’t the sort of person you would probably want to share a frosty mug with, but, lest you forget, George W. Bush passed the beer test with flying colors, and then horribly failed the presidency test. Barstool mate, yes. President? Hell no!

Brooks assumes that Hillary Clinton really is a bloodless policy automaton — a woman who is all work and no play. He doesn’t allow that Clinton might either have been made to behave that way or chose to behave that way, not because she doesn’t realize the deficits of doing so, but because she realizes the dangers of the alternative — any alternative.

And that is where the media come in. Hillary Clinton has always been under a media microscope. They assess her pantsuits, her hairdos, her gestures, her expressions, her “grating” voice. They assume that there is always some ulterior motive or calculation to everything she says and does — as if there isn’t for any presidential candidate. Whether you like Hillary Clinton or not, she labors under the media’s presumption of guilt.

Suppose Clinton, like Trump, hurled ad hominem insults at opponents. Trump seems to get away with it because it is just “Trump being Trump” — which is another media meme altogether. You pretty much know that if Clinton did so, the media would be calling her “desperate” or “mean” or “unladylike.” Suppose she got all teary-eyed, the way John Kasich used to do. You know the media would say that she is a “phony” or “too soft.” Suppose she parroted the same lines again and again, the way Rubio did. You know the media would call her “programmed.”

Some Clinton supporters have attributed this animus not to the media’s problem with her, but to the media’s woman problem. (Not at all incidentally, the biggest Hillary Clinton haters are white males.) Those supporters say that every female candidate is forced to walk a tightrope between strength and compassion, masculinity and femininity, policy and aesthetics that male candidates don’t have to walk, in part because testosterone is their birthright.

For example, she is accused of being too hawkish. But if she weren’t hawkish, she would be accused of being too passive — which is to say, too womanly. As Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, a Clinton supporter, put it on CBS’s Face the Nation, “If she was a man, all this stuff wouldn’t be at the same level.”

Of course, Trump fired back that she plays the “woman card,” and the media didn’t dare rebut it for fear, I suppose, of seeming to lend Trump proof.

And, by the way, it is not just the male reporters who seem to have a difficult time with Hillary Clinton. Female reporters can be just as bad, the same way that female bosses are often hardest on their female workers.

Twenty years ago, in The New Yorker, Henry Louis Gates quoted longtime Hillary Clinton advisor Ann Lewis as to possible reasons why. “There are women in the business of communications who are striving very hard by what they think of as impartial standards,” Lewis said, “and they prove that by being as hard on women who run for political office as the guys.” Actually harder.

But if Clinton is in some measure a victim of the media’s woman problem, she is also a victim of the media in two other ways — one obvious, the other less so. The obvious one is what I referred to several weeks back while discussing the Hillary Clinton narrative in the media and the way the press has battered her for 25 years for everything under the sun. One can question why the press has had this antipathy to the Clintons — and I mentioned some reasons in that earlier post — but there is one I didn’t mention: convenience. Bashing the Clintons is a handy way for the mainstream media to prove to angry conservatives that the press isn’t liberal after all.

The less obvious sense of Clinton’s victimhood follows from this unrelenting press scrutiny. When the press spends its time picking at every nit — and, let’s face it, just about all of her alleged sins, save for that Iraq War vote, are nits — it is naturally going to make the subject of that scrutiny wary. Hillary Clinton realizes that the press has a predisposition to analyze her while other candidates get away with comparative murder.

That is why what David Brooks identified as wonkishness when describing the disconnect between Hillary and the electorate, I would identify as wariness in the service of self-protection. She won’t let anything hang out because, frankly, the press would kill her for it if she did. Sticking to policy is the way to avoid the criticism — but also to invite other, and what she clearly believes is less fatal, criticism. She may not relax her defenses. She may not be all touchy-feely. She may not be aspirational. Abjuring those is just her prudent way to not give the press any more targets than they already have.

It was interesting, then, that Clinton gave her best-received speech of the campaign this week — a scathing takedown of Trump disguised as a foreign-policy address. Why the disguise? Because even when Hillary is in full campaign mode, she feels she needs the cover of policy so that the press won’t eviscerate her. Or put another way, she believes she has to be perceived as taking the high road even when she isn’t. We will see how long it takes the press to turn on this feisty Hillary they seem to like now. I prophesize it won’t take long.

Of course, you may see a post-modernist angle to this. The press has charged Hillary Clinton, above all, with being secretive, disingenuous, deceptive, defensive and self-controlled, which are among the things the public seem to most dislike about her. Indeed, the public may feel that, even after all these years, they don’t really know her. But what the press cannot say is that the chief reason she is secretive may be that the press virtually demands it. Her default posture is hunkering down, which make the secretiveness self-fulfilling. Because she is wary of the press, she won’t give the press access, and because they don’t get access, they cannot report on her honestly even if they wanted to, which, in fact, they don’t.

As Rebecca Traister wrote in a wonderful profile of Clinton in New York magazine this week, there is another, looser Hillary Clinton than the one we see, but it is one the press chooses not to report upon, and one that she seldom reveals to them.

Traister wrote:

“I saw her break into spontaneous dance with a 2-year-old who had been named after her, Big Hillary stamping her kitten heels and clapping her hands and making ‘Oooh-ooh-ooh’ noises. I heard her proclaim, with unself-conscious joy, from the pulpits of two black churches in Philadelphia, that ‘this is the day that the Lord has made!’ and watched the young campaign staff at her Brooklyn headquarters bounce up and down with the anticipation of getting to shake her hand.”

Every candidate tries to use the media in the way most beneficial to them. Trump baits it because he knows having the press as his enemy is a winner among his angry hordes. Sanders plays up his youth movement because he knows what an appealing narrative this is for the press. Who doesn’t love an idealistic youth movement? But Hillary Clinton seems to have no strategy for winning over the media because she knows that battle is already lost. You can certainly feel the glee when the press reports on the closing poll gap in California between Clinton and Sanders, and even the national gap between Hillary and Trump. And the media don’t even like Trump.

With no way to woo the media, Hillary can only plod along, cautiously, hoping that when it comes to sharing that beer, the public finally won’t want the loudest mouth in the bar.

Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, TIME magazine's non-fiction book of the year, USA Today's biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.