The gaffe police were on vigilant patrol last week, keenly monitoring Hillary Clinton's book release media tour and pronouncing much of it to be a failure.
The former first lady, senator, and secretary of state sat for a series of lengthy interviews that covered an array of topics, from the Iraq War to transgender rights, and spoke for hours to some the country's leading journalists during long-form Q&A's. (So much for the claim that Clinton shields herself away from the news media.)
By setting aside the substance and parsing Clinton's words in search of stumbles, the press announced Clinton suffered a "rough week" because of two alleged miscues: She spoke accurately about the state of her personal finances in early 2001 when she and her husband Bill Clinton were “broke.” And she pushed back against National Public Radio's Terry Gross when she repeatedly tried to pigeonhole Clinton on the sensitive and personal issue of gay marriage. (i.e. Hillary got “testy” according to the GOP operatives who circulated the audio and much of the media who reported on it).
Those were the “gaffes” that earned her a mostly thumbs down review from the theater critics who pass as Beltway political pundits and who declared her performance was “rusty”; that Clinton had become "rattled" and emotional, according to Maureen Dowd. (Texas Governor Rick Perry last week likening homosexuality to alcoholism? That wasn't really treated as a major political gaffe for a possible 2016 candidate.)
Bloomberg's Albert Hunt summed up the agreed-upon conventional wisdom nicely when he wrote that Clinton suffered a “rough rollout for her new book” because the week contained “gaffes” and “awkward answers.”
Well, at least she didn't cackle.
Note that the “broke” “gaffe” consisted of Clinton repeating commonly known facts about her at-times precarious finances more than a decade ago; facts that have been reported many times in the press. The Clintons, the New York Times noted on September 19, 1999, “are the least prosperous couple to live in the White House in many years.” The Times noted “the Clintons have slightly more than $1 million in assets, but are still saddled by a $5 million legal debt.” (In 2001, The New Yorker pegged the Clinton's legal bills at “eleven or twelve million dollars.”)
The press seemed especially judgmental following the NPR interview with Gross who created the false impression that Clinton had stonewalled and dodged over the issue of marriage equality, despite the fact Clinton repeatedly answered Gross' question. What's a politician supposed to do when an interviewer repeatedly tries to assign cynical motivations for a policy shift if the politician insists that motivation isn't accurate? Should the politician simply go along with the allegation or should she push back and clarify, even as the interviewer again and again clings to the same position?
Clinton response was to push back a bit on NPR: “I think you're reading it very wrong.” And “That's just flat wrong.”
But apparently she was supposed to roll over. Because by standing up for herself (while never raising her voice), Clinton was breathlessly tagged as combative and unnerved in the wake of a mildly contentious back-and-forth:
Instapundit called her "testy," as did MSNBC, and New York Magazine does, too, also writing that "Hillary won't say she evolved on gay marriage." The Wall Street Journal also picks up the “testy” line, while the New York Daily News prefers “lashes out” in a “tense” interview. Mediaite says she “snaps” at NPR's interviewer. Oh, and Politico prefers “testy.”
The media message to Clinton was clear last week: You can't lose your cool when dealing with the press. You can't try to intimidate reporters. And you certainly can't try to bluster them off tough questions. Those are the guidelines established for Clinton if she plans to run to become the country's first woman president.
Who is allowed to do all those things? Chris Christie, for one.
Prior to the eruption of his lane-closing controversy in January, the Republican governor of New Jersey and presidential hopeful had spent four years basking in the Beltway media glow specifically because of his eagerness to unleash combative, insulting bromides, including some against the press. It showed he was authentic!
Here's Christie deriding a reporter who dared to ask an “off topic” question at a press conference for being “stupid” and an “idiot.” And here's Christie belittling a media questioner as “the thinnest-skinned guy in America.”
Let's face it, if Hillary Clinton had opted either of those maneuvers last week, there would have been massive seizures inside newsrooms up and down the Acela corridor. Why? “Any emotion that Hillary Clinton shows has always been used against her,” Jessica Valenti wrote in The Guardian this month.
Let's also stipulate that last week confirmed almost everything that's wrong with the often unfair way the press covers Hillary Clinton: The coverage is built around theater criticism, it can be trivial, catty, devoid of substance and infatuated with gotchas.
And people wonder why she might not like the press?
Does anyone really think even a single potential vote for a would-be election nearly 900 days from now was won or lost over Clinton's “broke” comment or her “testy” exchange with Gross. I certainly don't.
But once again with Clinton and the press last week, there seemed to be something oddly personal about how journalists searched out a bad-news narratives for her. Recall that in 2008, during the Democratic primary season, The Washington Post's Milbank noted, “The press will savage [Clinton] no matter what.”
That same one-way hostility has been apparent recently. National Journal used the book tour to push the idea last week that Clinton's popularly was slipping to such dangerous new depths that a possible White House run might called off. “As things get even worse, Clinton may ask herself if another run is really worth it,” the Journal asked. Its bad-news proof? A new Gallup poll showed that Hillary's favorable rating had slipped to 54 percent.
According to National Journal, that was very bad news. Missing from the article? The fact that possible Republican contenders such as Jeb Bush and Chris Christie currently have underwater favorable ratings that hover around 33 percent, or 21 points lower than Clinton. But National Journal left that part out. National Journal also didn't quote a single Democrat in its article about Clinton's supposedly perilous favorable rating. But it did quote a Republican National Committee spokesman, which kind of gave away the game.
Note that during the part of her NPR last week that that almost no one paid attention to, Clinton leveled this criticism of her constant foes in the partisan conservative media:
There's a difference between fair game and playing games. And it is unfortunately too common in today's political environment that people want to play games that divert attention from the real issues that affect our country and its future.
The disturbing part? Clinton's critique perfectly applies to the mainstream media, too.