Wash. Post presented -- without evidence -- Bill Clinton as a campaign “distraction”

A Washington Post article speculated whether Bill Clinton will be the “biggest issue” in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's presumptive 2008 presidential candidacy. But nowhere does the article offer any concrete evidence that Bill Clinton is anything but an asset to his wife or that the public sees in him the “massive and messy distraction” the article suggests the “media-industrial complex” sees.

A December 17 Washington Post article by staff writer Lynn Duke devoted well over 2,400 words to exploring whether former President Bill Clinton will be the “biggest issue” in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D-NY) presumptive 2008 presidential candidacy. The article purported to present Bill Clinton as a double-edged sword: “Bill can deliver political superstardom. ... But there's the other Bill, the one who could be a massive and messy distraction,” and claimed that the Clintons' marriage “will be central to the race” because the “media-industrial complex will again feed like hungry hounds on the Clintons, their past and future; on the Clintons and their mysteries; on power and politics as the Clinton lifeblood propelling her run against all odds.” At no point, however, does the article offer any concrete evidence that Bill Clinton is anything but an asset to his wife, or that the public even sees in him the “massive and messy distraction” that it claims the “media-industrial complex” sees. Indeed, a poll the Post itself conducted indicated that Americans do not think Bill Clinton has any undue influence on Hillary Clinton, and that their past marital difficulties will not adversely affect a possible presidential bid.

As evidence of the alleged negative impact Bill Clinton may have on Sen. Clinton's presidential campaign, the Post offered only their respective favorability ratings; speculation from James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies; and ambiguous comments from former Clinton White House chief of staff Leon Panetta:

It's such a delicate subject that many people who know the Clintons well refuse to talk about it. If they do, they summon their most diplomatic selves when addressing it.

“I guess the best way to say this is that they're going to be watched very closely,” says Leon Panetta, Clinton's former White House chief of staff. “I think the press and everybody around him is going to be watching to make sure that the same mistakes aren't made.”

Discipline: That's the key. It was Clinton's struggle while in the White House, says Panetta -- to stay focused, to not respond to diversions or to provocations. That struggle is an essential aspect of Clinton's personality.

“Clearly, in someone who is probably the brightest and most capable that I've ever met in politics, that's the weak side,” Panetta says.


Could Bill's hunger for the spotlight pose problems? You bet, says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. Hillary will have to be careful not to be upstaged by him or lost in the glare of his global political stardom.

Thurber, called the issue of Bill “a central question to her candidacy.”

For starters, he said: “You have to be very careful in terms of Bill Clinton taking the headlines. So one way you do it is use him behind the scenes, to bring in money to your campaign through closed events. And in my opinion, you rarely have them appear on the stage together, and if you do, you don't have him speak.”

Her campaign strategists also have to be “very careful” about managing Bill because “he sucks up the air around everybody when he's there,” says Thurber. “And he needs to be loved. She is more self-assured, doesn't need as much adulation as he does. And that's trouble.”

There are “so many barriers for her, alone, and then add Bill in there and then add his infidelity to it,” says Thurber. “Well, she doesn't want to be looking over her shoulder and having questions asked by the media about it.”

The article also quoted former Clinton adviser James Carville purportedly in support of assertions by the reporter that “the subject of the marriage is too hot to handle,” and that “Bill Clinton could require special management by her campaign strategists, because of his political stature.” But the quote Duke attributed to Carville did not support the article's characterization of his view. Duke quoted Carville saying that "[y]ou could make a pretty persuasive argument that there's more good to come out of this than bad." If anything, according to Carville, Bill Clinton is a net positive for his wife in a possible presidential campaign.

Polling by The Washington Post itself provides little support for Duke's thesis that Bill Clinton might be a net liability for his wife. A May 11-15 ABC News/Washington Post 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 scandal had “not much impact” on their level of respect for her, and 34 percent respected her more for her handling of the situation.

Still, the Post was intent on bringing up Lewinsky:

If she runs, will voters focus too much on him? Will they remember too much of the national trauma known as “that woman” (Monica Lewinsky) -- and the presidential prevaricating, hair-splitting (what is “is,” anyway?) and impeachment that followed? Can voters look at Bill without thinking of sex? If they don't think of sex, they'll likely think the word: “president,” which may also not be such a good thing for the spouse who wants that title.

Far from “thinking of sex” when “voters look at Bill,” Democrats at least believe that voters look back wistfully on the Clinton years. While a Los Angeles Times article explaining the “Clinton nostalgia” phenomenon was published in March 2003, Duke offered nothing concrete in the December 17, 2006, article as evidence that voters are any less nostalgic now. The Los Angeles Times reported then:

With the country jittery over the possibility of war, the stock market slumping and the economy seemingly stuck in idle, Democrats are convinced the Clinton era is looking better by the day. And they have not shied from boasting about the jobs created, the budgets balanced or the heights that Wall Street hit during the 1990s -- even if former Vice President Al Gore once seemed reluctant to do so.

Wouldn't it, then, have been equally plausible for the Post to ask: Can voters look at Bill without thinking of job creation? Balanced budgets? Economic growth?

Also, Duke wrote of Clinton: “He is prone to pop up in the press for even the smallest of curiosities, like being spotted at dinner with another woman -- bad news for an ex-president already infamous for marital infidelity.” She later referenced Clinton's “periodic meetings with a Canadian auto-parts magnate turned politician, Belinda Stronach, adding: ” Both have characterized themselves as just friends since they met in 2001 at a fundraiser. But tongues wagged nonetheless, because of the baggage." As Media Matters for America noted, unsubstantiated rumors about Clinton's and Stronach's relationship were played up in several tabloid newspapers -- and The New York Times -- after a photograph was taken of Clinton leaving a Manhattan steakhouse after dining with a group of people that included Stronach.

Notably, during a December 18 online discussion on washingtonpost.com, Duke was asked: “Do you sense that Hillary Clinton still loathes the media?” Duke responded, in part: “I wouldn't know if she loathes the media. She had reason, back in the White House years, when she and Bill were on the receiving end of all manner of probing and poking and analysing by the media. I think anyone would find that distasteful. Yes, even I, a media person, can see that.” Duke failed to explain, however, what separated the “distasteful” media treatment from the 1990s ( “all manner of probing and poking and analysing” ) from her article in the Post's Style section from the previous day.

Duke was not the first to pen an article speculating on how Bill Clinton and the Clintons' marriage might affect Sen. Clinton's presumed presidential bid. As noted above, the May 23 New York Times featured a front-page, above-the-fold article that examined how much time the Clintons spend together each month and conducted “a review of their respective activities,” and revived unsubstantiated rumors of an affair between Bill Clinton and Stronach.