Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Hillary Clinton Rorschach Test

So let's say you are Michelle Cottle, a political writer for The New Republic. Let's say you have come up with a new angle on the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign--a story about Patti Solis Doyle, a longtime Clinton friend who now serves as her campaign manager. Doyle is interesting--relatively little known, and also the first Latina ever to run a major national campaign. Great! says your editor. Go for it!

So you do your reporting for the piece. You interview Doyle, a bunch of people who know her, and several people connected with the campaign. Unfortunately, you come up with very little. It turns out that Doyle, like any good campaign manager, wants to keep the spotlight on the candidate rather than herself. So while she is friendly enough, she doesn't give you the kind of juicy inside gossip that more accommodating (read: self-serving) managers might provide. She even asks others connected with the campaign to follow the same strategy. So you get a couple of cute stories and some general descriptions of Doyle's personality and her role in the Clinton entourage, but not much more.

You keep digging. It would be nice if you could at least get hints of some kind of dissension within the campaign. For example, suppose Hillary were some kind of control freak who won't tolerate varying views--and Doyle's job were to ruthlessly stifle any hints of disagreement! That would be a good story. But no. Turns out the campaign actually permits and even encourages open argument about policies. Of course, Hillary makes the final choices, but only after everyone has debated their positions vociferously. Ho-hum. Nothing exciting there.

Still, this is the campaign of Hillary Clinton, who everyone knows is the most divisive, disliked, widely-feared politician in America! There's got to be some way to turn this story into a source of controversy, or (better still) a feeding frenzy among the Hillary-haters on the Sunday talk shows.

Professional that you are, you bend to the task. Racking your brain, you remember an offhand exchange between Doyle and another member of the campaign staff about the last episode of The Sopranos. (They chatted about it just like sixty percent of the population of the United States.) Hmm--maybe something could be made out of that. You free-associate for a while: Tony Soprano . . . the Mafia . . . the Family . . . enforcers and hit men . . . That's it! Fired with inspiration, you sit down at your computer, and you begin to write:
There's something priceless about talking mob hits and snitches (even fictional ones) with Solis Doyle, who has served as Hillary's right-hand woman for the past 16 years. If the infamously close-knit, tight-lipped Clinton campaign is the Washington political equivalent of La Cosa Nostra, Patti, as she's known throughout Hillaryland, is the family's consigliere, its chief enforcer, and its most devoted member. She is also one of its least known. Like her boss, Patti places a high priority on privacy, discretion, and loyalty. Press-averse to the point of hostility, she scorns the Fourth Estate as an irritating distraction and shares her boss's distaste for aides and advisers who chat up reporters in the service of their own reputations. "I hate doing media," she asserts. "I just want to get my work done." . . .

Among Solis Doyle's trickier duties is refereeing the squabbles that staffers say erupt over everything from when to roll out a policy to how strong the language in a speech should be. ("Brothers and sisters fight and fight hard," she shrugs, bowing to the family analogy.) Within the core group on the seven-thirty strategy call each morning--Solis Doyle, Tanden, Ickes, Grunwald, Wolfson, Penn, and Henry--the talents are large, the egos larger, and the debates voluble. (While everyone on this campaign is brilliant, say insiders, not everyone is easy to love.) . . . And it is Solis Doyle's job, say staff, to keep all this self-expression from getting out of hand. For instance? Don't ask. While Team Hillary will discuss campaign business in generalities, requests for detail prompt wandering gazes, backpedaling, professions of bad memory, or flat refusals. Quizzed about Solis Doyle's oft-cited leadership savvy, senior adviser Capricia Marshall, a Hillary loyalist and Patti pal since the 1992 race, laughs. "I can think of a lot of good examples," she admits. "But I don't want to repeat any of them."
Now we're getting somewhere! You toss in a quote from Harold Ickes about how "Patti knows how to read Hillary's moods. She knows how to assess them--when to push certain issues, when to hold back"--which admittedly sounds like something every smart aide-de-camp does for a busy, over-stressed boss, but at least it's something. You add a couple more gratuitous references to the Mafia, slap on a title ("The Enforcer: Hillary Clinton's Consigliere Speaks"), and voila! You've made something out of nothing!

What's amazing is not so much the willingness of The New Republic to print Cottle's concoction as some of the online responses from readers of the piece. People predisposed to consider Hillary sinister, threatening, and evil apparently find confirmation of their views everywhere--even in a virtually fact-free melange of innuendo like Cottle's profile. A few samples:
No HRC-basher here but man, these people are repulsive. Gives you the CREEPs.

Hillary's penchant for secrecy bears an eerie and disquieting resemblance to that of our current incumbent. I've never quite gotten over the remarkable coincidence of the subpoened Rose law firm records magically appearing in the White House days after the Statute of Limitations expired on the alleged acts of misfeasance.

Great, another administration of self-obsessed, egotistical Machiavellians.

The kind of worldview that produces a mindset like the one on display in this Solis woman is not, shall we say, the best one for making wise policy judgments. If the #1 concern behind every single move is neutralizing one's (real or imagined) domestic political enemies, it's hard to see how these people will get out of their little hall of mirrors and see a complex world with clear eyes when it comes time to fix a strategy for Putin, Hu, Ahmadinejad, Pakistan, India, etc.

Good lord, it sounds like it must be a nightmare to work over there. It wasn't just the campaign manager but just how byzantine it sounds . . . look at this statement by Ickes, "Patti knows how to read Hillary's moods. She knows how to assess them--when to push certain issues, when to hold back. Some of the rest of us," Ickes notes wryly, "don't necessarily understand such nuances." This makes Hillary sound like Leona Helmsley. And we want this nightmare why?

("Brothers and sisters fight and fight hard," she shrugs, bowing to the family analogy.) Not when they become adults. I haven't fought with my brothers or sister for decades. Is the Hillary campaign full of arrested adolescents? (By the way, I am not talking about her fundraisers who are just arrested adults.)
I find this absolutely bizarre. A reporter desperate for an angle takes a collection of not-very-remarkable campaign anecdotes and tarts them up with totally irrelevant and unsupported allusions to the Mafia. In response, an array of readers not only seconds the analogy but adds further absurd twists of their own: The fact that Hillary has "moods" (unlike everyone else in the world, apparently) makes her the equivalent of Leona Helmsley. The fact that the policy wonks on Hillary's team argue among themselves makes them "arrested adolescents."

Where does this stuff come from?

It's becoming increasingly clear that, for the mainstream media, Hillary Clinton scarcely exists in her own right. She is solely an inkblot onto which reporters feel free to project whatever fantasies lurk in the most sordid corners of their unconscious. The results are then served up to the nation with the label of "political reporting." And a significant slice of the public is apparently ready to assume that any slurs, however fact-free, that fit the image they've absorbed after fifteen years of partisan Hillary-bashing must be accurate.

Imagine--fourteen more months of this to look forward to.

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