On January 20, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) announced the formation of her presidential exploratory committee. Yet despite the claim by conservative news outlets such as Fox News that the Washington press corps is "pulling for her," media reports and commentary are already rife with myths and falsehoods regarding her record, her motivations, and Americans' perceptions of her, as Media Matters for America documents below. Whether new or old, these erroneous claims reinforce the baseless and often demonstrably false characterizations of Clinton commonly perpetuated by the media -- that she is "calculating," "dishonest," "vicious," "ruthless," "unelectable," "unlikable," and even "unqualified."
Media frequently portray Clinton as "calculating" or overly ambitious, motivated by political considerations rather than conviction. These assertions are rarely accompanied by actual examples or support. For instance, on the January 29 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, Wall Street Journal national political editor John Harwood described Clinton as "very politically cautious and calculating." Similarly, Hardball host Chris Matthews has called her a "calculated politician." Conservative media figures have also joined in. On the January 31 edition of his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh said of Clinton's political tactics: "She'll lie. She'll change her mind. She'll say whatever she has to say." And in a February 1 column, National Review Online editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg claimed that "everyone understands that Clinton takes positions on issues based on political calculation."
In recent years, the media have also regularly described Clinton as repositioning herself to attract one set of voters or another. For instance, CNN has previously reported that there exist "two Senator Clintons" -- one that appeals to progressive Democrats and one that appeals to moderates.
This pervasive view of Clinton manifests itself in knee-jerk reactions to her actions, sometimes to the point of absurdity -- as in the case of Slate.com editor Jacob Weisberg, who analyzed the songs reportedly on her iPod and found that the playlist "suggests premeditation, if not actual poll-testing."
On the February 11 edition of NBC's Meet the Press, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz noted "the image that the many journalists have of Senator Clinton as being a kind of a cold and calculating and triangulating politician." In a February 5 post on his ABCNews.com weblog, ABC national correspondent Jake Tapper ridiculed this depiction of Clinton:
[Sen. Joseph R.] Biden [D-DE] shoots down the notion that he thinks Clinton is too calculating -- a meme that is emerging in this race, the notion that Clinton is a cool, calculating pol driven by a hunger for power. (As opposed to the other 300 politicians running for President, of course)
Following are examples of media claiming that Clinton has shifted her views on certain issues solely for political gain.
Clinton has moved to the center
One widespread characterization of Clinton is that of a presidential hopeful moderating her political and personal views in order to appeal to a broader swath of voters. On the January 22 edition of CNN Headline News' Glenn Beck, John Mercurio, senior editor of National Journal's "The Hotline," said: "[O]ver the past six years in the Senate, I think you've definitely seen her in a very calculated way move to the center." By contrast, in her column in the February 5 issue of Newsweek, Anna Quindlen identified this as one of the many myths that have surfaced regarding Clinton. "Today many of the contenders are enshrouded in the mists of myth," Quindlen wrote. "One is that Hillary Rodham Clinton is a flaming liberal ... It's laughable to talk about the senator moving toward the middle. She's been there for years."
Critics often cite Clinton's views on reproductive choice as an example of her repositioning. For instance, Chris Matthews has described Clinton as purportedly shifting her stance on abortion in a "transparent" effort to recover the so-called "values vote." He has also accused her of "trying to play it safe" on the issue by taking a "poll-tested path." Matthews has pointed to her assertion in a July 25, 2006, speech that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare" as an example of her changing position on the issue. But far from representing a point of departure from earlier statements, Clinton's remarks in July were consistent with those she made in a January 22, 1999, speech. While first lady, she said: "But all too often, generally because of the loudest voices, the American people don't hear explained the efforts that we're engaged in to continue to work with people from all different walks of life to make abortion safe, legal, and rare."
Other media figures, such as Fox News congressional correspondent Major Garrett, have claimed that in a January 24, 2005, speech, Clinton "appeared to soften her historically hard-line defense of current abortion law by praising the role that religious faith has played in promoting teen abstinence." But while Clinton did praise religion and teen abstinence in the speech, she at no point backed away from her defense of abortion rights and even reiterated her support for keeping abortion legal. Referring to the Putting Prevention First Act (H.R. 4192), Clinton said: "It provides a roadmap to the destination of fewer unwanted pregnancies -- to the day when abortion is truly safe, legal, and rare."
Clinton has moved to the left
In contrast to those claiming that Clinton has moved to the center are media figures who suggest that she only recently became critical of the Iraq war to purportedly appeal to "anti-war Democrats." For instance, in a January 18 article, Washington Post chief political reporter Dan Balz wrote that Clinton is "continuing her steady evolution from one of the war's staunchest supporters to one of the administration's most prominent critics" -- an assertion later echoed by CNN. And a February 8 Wall Street Journal editorial asserted that "as Mrs. Clinton bids to win the Democratic Presidential nomination, she is taking a marked turn to the left. Pressured by other candidates and by her party's left wing, she is walking back her hawkish statements and is now all but part of the antiwar camp."
But the claim that Clinton was once one of the "staunchest" backers" of the Iraq war does not withstand scrutiny -- nor does the claim that her criticism of the war is recent. While Clinton did vote in favor of the 2002 resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, less than seven months after the war began, she expressed doubt about President Bush's leadership in the war, saying in an October 17, 2003, floor statement, that her "yes" vote for an $87 billion supplemental appropriation "was a vote for our troops, it was a vote for our mission. ... [I]t was not a vote for our national leadership." During the same statement, Clinton accused the Bush administration of having "gilded the lily" on pre-war Iraq intelligence at "the cost of perhaps not being able to take actions in the future that are necessary to our well-being and our interests because we may look like the nation or at the least the administration that cried wolf."
In a December 7, 2003, appearance on ABC's This Week, Clinton said of the Bush administration's handling of the war: "[T]here were a lot of miscalculation and, frankly, inept planning that we're now living with the consequences." She went on to say, "I regret the way the president has used the authority" given to him by Congress.
Further, on the August 29, 2004, edition of CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, Clinton criticized the administration for taking the country to war on faulty premises. Referring to the Iraq war resolution -- which she voted for on October 10, 2002 -- Clinton said, "[I]f we had known then what we know now, there wouldn't have been a vote."
Clinton has refused to "come out against" the Iraq war
Some media figures have depicted Clinton as hesitant to oppose the war. For instance, on the February 8 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews said of Clinton, "I'm sick of what`s going on in Iraq. I wish she would come out against it." But as Bob Somerby noted on his blog, The Daily Howler, Clinton had clearly stated a week earlier that she would end the war if elected president. Indeed, in a February 2 speech, she said, "If we in Congress don't end this war before January 2009, as president, I will."
Further, Clinton co-sponsored and was one of 38 Democrats who voted in favor of a resolution by Democratic Sens. Carl Levin (MI) and Jack Reed (RI), introduced on June 19, 2006, calling on the Bush administration to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2006.
Along with the media's frequent characterization of Clinton as calculating is their propensity to question her honesty. In a particularly absurd example, then-New York Times reporter Anne E. Kornblut suggested on January 16 that Clinton had faked a cell phone call in order to avoid speaking to reporters.
Following are other examples of media figures baselessly attempting to depict Clinton as having lied or deceived the public.
Clinton lied about why she voted for 2002 Iraq war resolution
In a January 31 column, New York Daily News columnist Michael Goodwin claimed that Clinton has "lied about her reasons for" supporting the 2002 resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq. Goodwin highlighted Clinton's recent statements that Bush "said at the time he was going to the United Nations to put inspectors back into Iraq, to figure out whether they still had any WMD," and that he "took the authority that others and I gave him and he misused it." Asserting that this account is "not even within spitting distance of being true," Goodwin went on to claim that Clinton did not express any concern about the Bush administration's drive to war during the five months between the October 2002 vote and the March 2003 invasion. He noted that several members of Congress had "urged Bush to let weapons inspectors finish their work," adding that "Clinton was not recorded as being part of that effort."
In fact, during those five months, Clinton repeatedly expressed her support for further U.N. inspections. For instance, in a January 31, 2003, letter to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, she wrote:
If our words about supporting UN inspectors have any meaning and if we truly want the United Nations to be effective, we must act to support the UN arms inspectors and act to unite the UN Security Council behind the use of U2 aircraft in Iraq ... Additionally if we are truly serious about supporting the UN inspections we should increase our intelligence support to the inspectors.
Further, a March 3, 2003, Associated Press article quoted Clinton stating that she would prefer further inspections over military action. "It is preferable that we do this in a peaceful manner through coercive inspection," Clinton said. The AP went on to report that she "said the Bush administration still had work to do at convincing the American public and the rest of the world that Hussein presented a real threat that might require military action."
Clinton moved up '08 announcement because of Obama
Following Clinton's January 20 presidential exploratory announcement, numerous media figures suggested that she had accelerated the announcement in reaction to that of Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) four days earlier. But such claims ignored news accounts preceding Obama's entry into the race reporting that Clinton was expected to launch her presidential exploratory committee in January. Some media figures went so far as to portray Clinton as willfully covering up this purported change of plans. Chuck Todd, editor of National Journal's The Hotline, asserted that the allegation that Clinton changed her plans "certainly seems" to be true but her aides would "never admit" it.
Clinton taped her '08 announcement months ago
Some conservatives in the media -- including CNN Headline News host Glenn Beck, Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Steve Doocy, and Limbaugh -- pointed to the green foliage in the background of Clinton's announcement video in order to suggest that she had shot it months earlier. This attempt to cast Clinton as dishonest about the timing of her decision to run for president disintegrated, however, as The Washington Post and others confirmed that Clinton had shot the video on January 18 at her Washington, D.C., home. Regarding the foliage specifically, the Post reported: "Sources familiar with the landscaping have identified those plants as small azaleas and nandina shrubs, still vibrant because of last month's unusually mild temperatures."
Clinton won't admit that her "evil men" comment was directed at her husband
Most recently, media figures have taken to speculating about whom Clinton was referring to when, in response to a January 28 question about her ability to deal with dictators, she jokingly answered, "And what in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?" The hypotheses regarding the "men" Clinton had in mind have ranged from former President Bill Clinton to Osama bin Laden to former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, and so on, as Media Matters has noted. But media figures have also accused her in this context of dishonesty. Indeed, on January 30, when asked by Pat Buchanan why the media had latched on to Clinton's joke, Chris Matthews answered: "Because she won't honestly admit what she does. ... [S]he won't admit that was a joke about Bill."
Clinton planted Spencer plastic surgery story
During Clinton's 2006 re-election campaign, MSNBC host Tucker Carlson suggested that the senator had planted a story about a purported smear of her in order to garner sympathy among New York voters. On October 23, the New York Daily News reported that former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer, Clinton's Republican opponent, had said Clinton "used to be ugly -- and speculates she got 'millions of dollars' in plastic surgery" -- a comment Spencer later denied having made. Following the publication of the Daily News story, Carlson claimed that it "almost seems like a plant" by the Clinton campaign, because "that's how she wins in every case, when people think she's wronged."
"VICIOUS" and "RUTHLESS"
The repeated characterization of Clinton as calculating is also accompanied by the media's tendency to portray her as vicious and ruthless. For instance, Matthews has described her as a "sort of Madame Defarge of the left." Media figures such as MSNBC host Don Imus and conservative radio host Jay Severin have bashed her as a "buck-toothed witch," "Satan," and "the devil." Rush Limbaugh has repeatedly suggested that Clinton had then-deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster murdered while she was first lady.
In concert with this characterization, many in the media have predicted that she will ruthlessly attack her fellow Democratic candidates in the 2008 presidential race. Most recently, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank called Clinton's seat at Bush's January 23 State of the Union address the "perfect spot" because she sat directly behind Obama and "could have inserted the knife right there without even being detected."
Following are examples of media figures baselessly accusing Clinton of having either smeared her political opponents or viciously attacked a person or group of people for her own political advancement.
Clinton was behind madrassa smear against Obama
The concept of Clinton's no-holds-barred campaign strategy reached an apex following Obama's January 16 presidential exploratory announcement when a smear regarding his religious background circulated throughout the media. From Media Matters' recent examination of the manufactured scandal, which originated with a conservative website and was later debunked by CNN and others:
On January 17, InsightMag.com published an article claiming that "researchers connected to" Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) disclosed that Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) "spent at least four years in a so-called Madrassa, or Muslim seminary, in Indonesia." The story claimed that "sources close to [a] background check," which was supposedly "conducted by researchers connected to Senator Clinton," said that "[t]he idea is to show Obama as deceptive." These "sources" also speculated that the "the specific Madrassa Mr. Obama attended" might have taught "a Wahhabi doctrine that denies the rights of non-Muslims." The InsightMag.com story also noted that in each of his two books, Obama "mentions but does not expand on his Muslim background." The article cited only anonymous sources. By January 19, the story had been picked up by conservative media figures and given prominent play on major television networks, such as CNN Headline News and Fox News.
Conservative efforts to raise questions about Obama's Muslim heritage had, in fact, begun days earlier. Indeed, on January 9 -- a week before the InsightMag.com article -- Chicago Tribune metro columnist Eric Zorn wrote on the Tribune's Change of Subject weblog, "The crazies are sending around an e-mail that attempts to establish that Barack Obama is actually a Muslim who masquerades as a Christian for political advantage." But following the publication of the InsightMag.com article, numerous right-wing media figures repeated the entirely unsubstantiated accusation that Clinton's campaign staff was responsible for spreading the madrassa allegation against Obama. Several Fox News hosts repeated the claim that Clinton had "outed Obama's madrassa past." Rush Limbaugh declared, "This is Hillary's team doing this." And conservative radio host Melanie Morgan asserted that Clinton "is going to try to derail the [Obama] train before it gets out of the station." As recently as January 30, Fox News political analyst Dick Morris persisted in leveling this baseless accusation.
Clinton leaked Obama drug story
The recent attempts to tie Clinton to the madrassa story recall an earlier suggestion by Hannity and conservative columnist Robert D. Novak that Clinton was behind a supposed "leak" to the press about Obama's admitted past drug use. But Obama himself disclosed that he had used drugs in his 1995 memoir, Dreams of My Father, as Media Matters noted.
Clinton is anti-Semitic
Numerous conservative media figures have in recent years advanced discredited accusations suggesting that Clinton is anti-Semitic. For instance, right-wing radio host Debbie Schlussel claimed that Clinton, during a trip to the West Bank in 1999, did not make "a peep" when Suha Arafat, wife of former Palestinian National Authority president Yasir Arafat, stated that Israelis "poison Palestinian water and air and cause cancer for them." In fact, an October 6, 2000, New York Times article reported that Clinton disavowed Arafat's remarks after receiving an official translation "hours later."
More recently, conservative radio host Dennis Prager revived the allegation that Clinton made "private remarks that were anti-Semitic" more than three decades ago. But these allegations were originally advanced by former President Bill Clinton's 1974 congressional campaign manager, who has reportedly "admitted to leveling charges 'without factual foundation' against the Clintons in the past." Moreover, Sen. Clinton biographer Gail Sheehy, author of Hillary's Choice (Random House, 1999), told the Associated Press that she did not include the accusation because the source was "only moderately reliable" and "kind of flaky," and because "even he didn't back it up."
Perhaps the most frequent line of attack against Clinton's political prospects is the assertion that she is unelectable. Media figures have offered various rationales to support this claim -- that Democratic voters would never nominate her, that she could not win a general election, that female voters will not support her, that her association with former President Bill Clinton would prove too big a liability. But recent polling rebuts each of these arguments.
Clinton can't win the Democratic primary
A recent Newsweek article declared that Clinton's polling numbers "will need to change for Democratic primary voters -- now comfortable with assessing electability -- to move her way." But contrary to claims that Democratic voters are yet to "move her way," recent polls show her leading her potential primary opponents:
- A January 16-19 Washington Post/ABC News poll asked Democratic or Democratic-leaning respondents: "If the 2008 Democratic presidential primary or caucus in your state were being held today, and the candidates were: (Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Barack Obama, John Kerry, Al Gore, Wesley Clark, Tom Vilsack, Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich, or Mike Gravel), for whom would you vote?" Forty-one percent of respondents said they would vote for Clinton. Obama received the second-greatest amount of support, with 17 percent, followed by former Sen. John Edwards (NC) with 11 percent.
- A Time magazine poll released on January 25 found that Clinton led Obama among registered Democratic voters by a margin of 40 percent to 21 percent. Edwards came in third with 11 percent of Democratic respondents saying they would vote for him.
- A January 25-28 Gallup poll surveyed 504 Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters and found that 29 percent backed Clinton for the nomination, while 18 percent supported Obama, and 13 percent chose Edwards.
Clinton can't win the general election
On the December 29, 2006, edition of Hardball, Matthews claimed that Clinton would not "do so well" in "the center of the country, Ohio, Michigan, those kinds of states where people own guns and boats and have a certain attitude towards modern women." But recent polls conducted in both Ohio and Michigan found that Clinton leads in head-to-head matchups with the current Republican front-runners:
- A Quinnipiac University poll released January 30 found that, among Ohio voters, Clinton leads Arizona Sen. John McCain (46 percent to 42 percent), former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (46 percent to 43 percent), and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (52 percent to 31 percent).
- A Detroit Free Press poll released February 3 found that, among Michigan voters, Clinton leads McCain (46 percent to 43 percent) and Giuliani (46 percent to 42 percent).
Further undermining claims that Clinton could not win the general election are several recent polls showing her beating potential Republican opponents at the national level:
- The January 16-19 Post/ABC poll also found Clinton outpolling McCain (50 percent to 45 percent) and Giuliani (49 percent to 47 percent).
- A Newsweek poll conducted January 24-25, showed Clinton outpolling McCain (50 percent to 44 percent), Giuliani (49 percent to 46 percent), and Romney (56 percent to 37 percent).
Clinton can't win because of ambivalent female voters
In a January 28 Post opinion article, retired women's studies professor Linda Hirshman suggested that because "white, married women" are generally less engaged in politics than men -- and, thus, often consult their husbands when deciding on their vote -- they may not strongly support Clinton's candidacy. But recent polls appear to undermine Hirshman's theory, showing that Clinton currently derives much of her support from female voters:
- The Post/ABC poll found that "Clinton receives significantly higher support among women than men." Indeed, 49 percent of the Democratic or Democratic-leaning women surveyed said they would vote for Clinton over 12 other potential candidates from her party, while 29 percent of men supported her.
- An American Research Group (ARG) poll released February 3 found that, among females likely to vote Democratic in the 2008 Iowa caucus, 56 percent would support Clinton. As ARG president Richard Bennet said on the February 5 edition of MSNBC's Tucker, "[S]he owns the women's vote at the moment."
Clinton can't win because of her husband
Some in the media have suggested that Sen. Clinton's association with her husband, Bill Clinton, may represent a liability as she vies for the White House. For instance a December 17, 2006, Washington Post article reported that the former president "could be a massive and messy distraction" on the campaign trail. But as Media Matters noted, the Post offered no concrete evidence that he is anything but an asset to his wife. Moreover, a May 2006 Post/ABC poll found that a strong majority -- 60 percent -- of Americans think Bill Clinton has "about the right amount" of political influence on Hillary Clinton, while just 9 percent thought he has too much influence. The same poll found that 47 percent of respondents stated that the way Sen. Clinton handled the Monica Lewinsky controversy had "not much impact" on their level of respect for her, and 34 percent respected her more for her handling of the situation.
Conservative media figures are not shy in expressing their negative feelings toward Clinton. Time blogger Andrew Sullivan recently referred to her "cootie vibes" and declared, "I just can't stand her." MSNBC host Joe Scarborough described her as "very shrill." Glenn Beck previously labeled her the "Antichrist." But the expression of such views is not limited to conservatives. The Hotline's blog, On Call, posted excerpts from speeches by several Democratic hopefuls at the Democratic National Committee winter meeting. But, while Clinton was by no means the only speaker to raise her voice, she was the only one described by On Call as striking a "discordant note."
Many in the media believe that most Americans -- including many Democrats -- also harbor unfavorable opinions of her. For instance, Weekly Standard executive editor Fred Barnes claimed on the December 9 edition of Fox News' The Beltway Boys that, in the eyes of the "Democratic hordes," Clinton is "not very likable." And San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders said on the January 28 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources, "A lot of people don't think that she's very likable."
But recent polling data do not support these assumptions:
- The January 25 Time poll found that 58 percent of respondents viewed Clinton positively. The poll also found that more respondents would choose to have dinner with her than with any of the other 2008 presidential candidates. Indeed, 26 percent chose Clinton as a dinner companion, while 15 percent named Obama and 15 percent picked McCain.
- The recent Post/ABC poll similarly found that 54 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Clinton. (Nonetheless, media figures such as New York Times reporter Patrick Healy and National Public Radio's (NPR) Juan Williams misrepresented the poll results to claim that she received a favorability rating of 41 percent. Healy even reported that this figure had concerned "[s]everal New York and Hollywood donors.")
In discussing Clinton's presidential prospects, some media figures have baselessly called into question her qualifications for the job. Most common is the suggestion that Clinton could not have become a U.S. senator and a contender for the White House if it were not for her marriage to former President Bill Clinton. During a January 22 interview with Sen. Clinton, ABC News anchor Charles Gibson asked, "You are a strong, credible female candidate for president of the United States, and I mean no disrespect in this, but would you be in this position were it not for your husband?" Similarly, on the January 31 broadcast of his radio show, Limbaugh asserted, "She is not a brilliant woman. She's not the smartest woman in the world. She is a hack!" He went on to ask, "[I]f her name was Hillary Smith, would anybody be talking about her as a presidential candidate?"
Others, such as blogger Andrew Sullivan, have questioned whether Clinton possesses the political skills to win a presidential election. On the February 2 edition of NPR's The Diane Rehm Show, Sullivan asserted that when Clinton "gets up in front of an audience, by and large, she bombs. She is a terrible orator. She does not have her husband's capacity to wow a crowd. Up against Obama, it's almost excruciating how uncomfortable she is in public." Sullivan added: "I don't think she's a good public politician."
Recent polling, however, shows that Democrats have significant confidence in Clinton's abilities as both a candidate and a potential president:
- The January 31 Gallup poll found that 61 percent of Democratic and Democratic-leaning respondents picked Clinton over Obama and Edwards as the "most qualified to be president."
- Gallup also asked respondents to pick which of these three candidates would best handle the major issues facing the country. On nine of these 10 issues -- including health care, education, the economy, terrorism, and Iraq -- a plurality named Clinton as the most capable.
- A Fox News poll conducted January 30-31 found that when asked to choose which of seven potential Democratic and Republican candidates would be "toughest when it comes to terrorism," more respondents picked Clinton than any other.
Regarding her political abilities, the January 31 Gallup poll found that 57 percent of respondents thought Clinton would perform better than Edwards and Obama in debates. And 41 percent picked her as the best public speaker -- slightly less than Obama, whom 44 percent favored as an orator.
Claims that Clinton is not a capable candidate are also belied by the results of her two Senate victories in New York. In 2000, Clinton garnered 55 percent of the vote over her Republican opponent's 43 percent. And in 2006, Clinton made significant gains among New York voters, winning re-election with 67 percent of the vote and holding her GOP opponent to just 31 percent. Furthermore, Clinton's support was spread across the state, where she won in all but four counties, including many in the more conservative upstate region. As The New York Times reported on November 8, 2006, during her first term in the Senate, Clinton appeared to overcome New Yorkers' doubts about her abilities and intentions:
Six years ago, many voters, particularly upstate, were leery of her, and skeptical of what this woman from Arkansas, this former first lady with the outsized persona whose relationship with her husband had been the subject of endless scrutiny, wanted from New York.
After a full Senate term, even her opponents did not make an issue of her not being a native New Yorker. Her sizable victory reflected just how deftly Clinton had managed to balance her high profile with the day-to-day work of the Senate, winning the respect of even Republican colleagues who less than a decade ago were trying to impeach her husband, Bill Clinton.