Alex Massie

The Small, Quiet Tragedy of Hillary Clinton

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Fine Peggy Noonan column today:

Many in the press get it, to their dismay, and it makes them uncomfortable, for it sours life to have a person whose character you feel you cannot admire play such a large daily role in your work. But I think it's fair to say of the establishment media at this point that it is well populated by people who feel such a lack of faith in Mrs. Clinton's words and ways that it amounts to an aversion. They are offended by how she and her staff operate. They try hard to be fair. They constantly have to police themselves.

Not that her staff isn't policing them too. Mrs. Clinton's people are heavy-handed in that area, letting producers and correspondents know they're watching, weighing, may have to take this higher. There's too much of this in politics, but Hillary's campaign takes it to a new level.

Others are better placed than I to comment on this, but it rings true to me. My own (limited) experience has been that the extent of her staff's paranoia about the press knows no bounds. I can recall the futility of even trying to make small talk about the campaign with Clinton staffers at Washington dinner parties. Even in relaxed, private moments their hostility to the press knew no bounds. On the campaign trail, of course, it's worse as any reporter who's spent much time on the road can tell you.

This has consequences. It builds a culture of resentment that, eventually, calcifies into loathing. Operating on the assumption that the press can't be trusted and is irrevocably hostile to you breeds a contempt for the media that, in time, is matched by the media's contempt for the candidate herself. You may win early victories, perhaps you may even leave reporters in awe of your press operation's skill and ruthlessness. But it can't - and doesn't last. Eventually the media tires of the bullying and the abuse and the lying and rebels. Once the process of rebellion has started it has an all-but unstoppable momentum of its own. Mrs Clinton isn't the only person to have discovered this. She could have looked to Tony Blair (and Gordon Brown's) experience. For years the media gave New Labour the benefit of the doubt. Barring a few remaining true believers that no longer applies.

(And of course there's an irony here too: Blair's people studied Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign closely - Philip Gould was present for most of the campaign - and learnt much of their subsequent media-handling style from the 1992 "War Room". Hillary would perhaps have been well-advised to look across the Atlantic and learn, in turn, from her husband's followers. Hillary's press operation, like Labour's doesn't seem to have adapted to the "new media" world.)

Now part of all this is simply the passing of time: the media grows bored and needs new carrion to pick at (and Hillary, of course, has been a public figure for a long time). But part of it is also the fact that this sort of rigid, cautious, none-too-human style of campaign is, I think, past its sell-by date.

It didn't have to be this way. Hillary could have learnt from John McCain. We all know that McCain's breezy style on the campaign trail has been his greatest asset. By charming reporters - an granting them access of course - he helps compensate for weaknesses in other areas. Say whatever else you will about McCain but reporters are more likely to enjoy themselves following him and, in the long-run, this clearly has an impact upon coverage.

But Hillary can't do that. It's as though she's so afraid of seeming vulnerable or human or acting in a spontaneous manner - for fear, perhaps, that any slip of the tongue or off-colour joke might be turned against her - that she risks coming across as a cold fish whose very move is calculated and whose every utterance is carefully parsed before its shared with the general public. Ironically this too causes difficulties. John McCain can plunder the Beach Boys for his "bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" riff and sensible people know (or assume!) he's joking; folk would assume Hillary was serious if she did the same.

Perhaps that's unfair and, in its own way, it's rather tragic. But it leads to situations in which every Clinton statement is analysed to death since it's assumed to be part of some grand political strategy. Thus her comment that Barack Obama isn't a muslim "as far as I know" is interpreted as a deliberate strike against Obama. This too can lead to absuridties such as her claim that she was "sleep-deprived" and "misspoke" in her own prepared remarks about her now-infamous trip to Tuzla. This sort of nonsense insults everyone's intelligence and invites mockery. Candidates can withstand criticism but mockery kills them.

Does Obama get something of a pass? Yes. Is that unfair? Probably. But he gets it because he's offering something new and fresh. Even if you accept that some of the grander claims about Obama's candidacy are inextricably wrapped up in the idea that Obama, simply by virtue of being the man and colour he is, can solve America's problems it remains the case that Obama's person - and its symbolism - stands and is perceived to stand for something bigger, ultimately, than what he is himself. No wonder that's an appealing, powerful message.

Hillary's campaign by contrast too often seems to stand for little more than the greater glory of Hillary Clinton herself. This is a problem she shares, incidentally, with Gordon Brown. What are they actually for? The answer is too opaque, too wrapped up in considerations of their own ambition and, yes, unfortunately apparent sense of entitlement. Brown deserved to be Prime Minister because, well, because he'd waited for it for a long time; Hillary deserves to be President because, well, because it's her turn. This too, alas, breeds resentment from a press corps that believes it has the right to referee these matters itself.

When you have a reputation, fair or not, for being a charmless, humourless control freak it's a mistake to run a campaign that exacerbates rather than discourages that impression or reputation. When politics becomes a soap opera character and humanity matters; simply being an efficient, knowledgable technocrat or policy wonk is not enough. Equally, it's never wise to be caught on the wrong side of the Future vs Past divide. David Cameron's devastating taunt to Tony Bliar that "You were the future once" could just as easily be used by Obama to Clinton.

Hillary's campaign to "undo" the Bush years and roll back the clock could have worked in other circumstances and with another opponent. But Obama, right now, doesn't merely promise the idea of the United States taking a mulligan but of actually moving "beyond" the Bush era. Is it any surprise that this is a more appealing message?

(Gordon Brown's predicament is even more acute, mind you, since he's essentially asking voters to grant Labour a mulligan after a decade in which Brown was himself Chancellor of the Exchequer. I don't believe that this is a hand that, absent some monstrous bluffing, can win.)

One final thought: Hillary's rigid, top-down campaign is ill-constructed for the modern age. In an era in which public cyncicism is, not without reason, rampant it's not wise to present yourself as some kind of omniscient, error-free robot. The public craves humanity (which requires admissions of failure or weakness) as the price of trust. Hillary hasn't delivered that. Equally, her campaign and candidacy seem ill-fitted to an open source world in which all manner of corporate and hierarchical structures are collapsing. Her comparative reliance on traditional big-box donors compared to Obama's army of in ternet activists is but one telling indicator of the difference between their candidacies. Incidentally, it will be interesting to see if McCain's proposed "regional" strategy for the general elecion - devolving much greater responsibility to local campaign chiefs and distributing power away from the official campaign headquarters will work. I have a hunch it may do better than many experts in Washington suspect.

Trust is earned by transparency - a lesson Hillary seems not to have learnt if her continued reluctance to release her tax returns is any admission. With a different opponent or in a different era Hillary Clinton might have been a compelling candidate. Her misfortune is that the moment is now and she's facing Barack Obama.

What's her campaign for? That's a question she's never really answered satisfactorily and everything we know about the way her campaign has been run aupports the suspicion that it's not something she actually has an answer for.

She could have been the future once, but she isn't now.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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