This week’s publication of a new Hillary Clinton biography by the respected political reporters Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes brings into stark relief just how much Clinton’s theoretical, but expected presidential campaign affects political press coverage two and a half years out from Election Day. When I wrote last month about how Clinton finally seemed to bestow on us a legitimately perpetual campaign, I had noted only in passing the media dimension, such as Maggie Haberman’s profile in which she wrote that Clinton’s “legacy as the most powerful woman in the history of American politics is already secure”–a claim seemingly dashed off casually but which is not true.
That claim encapsulates the two major flaws of Hillary’s media coverage: reporters are tossing out declarations of world-historical status almost in habit, which is itself a problem, and the claims are also quite often not true–a more obvious, but still prevalent, problem. What it amounts to is worshipful coverage, all the more so because Clinton hasn’t actually declared her candidacy yet. Reporters are jostling for and rewarding access, but since there are no real campaign stories to run yet we’re stuck with the scene-setting pieces. Jonathan Karl’s review, in today’s Wall Street Journal, of the latest book on Hillary leaves the impression it’s a book-length version of the problematic stories:
There is some new reporting, but it’s buried in mixed metaphors and cliché-ridden praise of Mrs. Clinton’s brilliance.
Mr. Allen and Ms. Parnes appear to have fallen in love with their subject. “Hillary knows one gear: overdrive,” they write, adding that she is “like a veteran hitter who remains even-keeled under pressure, her steadiness is born of her experience.” She is “a woman who got up every time the world knocked her down” and is “unwavering in her support of the 21st century statecraft concept.” This is the kind of stuff that would make Mrs. Clinton’s image mavens blush.
Even those around her are described in almost heroic terms. One Hillary confidant is called “tough as a trident missile.” Long-time aide Huma Abedin, referred to throughout the book merely as “Huma,” is described as a “South Asian beauty with political smarts and an uncommonly subtle grace.”
The authors seem to question nothing they are told by the guardians of Mrs. Clinton’s image.
Later in the review, Karl touches on a subject that shows why these hagiographic scene-setting articles–and this case, a book–are so necessary to Clinton’s non-campaign campaign. He writes about how the authors mostly work to absolve Clinton of the blame for the Benghazi attacks. “She was responsible, but not to blame,” Karl quotes the book explaining. It’s a weak exoneration, to be sure, but also a terrible argument for giving someone with her record far more power: either she is neglectful in her executive oversight, or in charge but incompetent.
Nonetheless, Karl notes the authors’ recounting of Hillary’s successes:
They run through some of her more meaningful accomplishments: helping negotiate an end to military rule in Burma, building a coalition to support military intervention in Libya. But they seem almost as impressed with the iconic photograph of Mrs. Clinton wearing sunglasses and sitting in the middle of a C-17 reading her BlackBerry. The photo ended up on a Tumblr page called “Texts From Hillary” that—with its amusingly imagined messages from Hillary imposed over the iconic photo—the authors call “one of the most memorable, and politically valuable, episodes of Hillary’s four years at State.” Not the kind of thing that wins you a Nobel Peace Prize.
No, it isn’t. Burma was helpful, but it’s got a long way to go and there may in fact be ethnic cleansing taking place in parts of the country. But the point of the preceding paragraph is that for someone without any real accomplishments–and without question, Hillary Clinton is such a candidate–there is nothing left to run on but image.
Americans have seen this play before. In 2008, Barack Obama had no accomplishments, so he ran one of the most vapid and intellectually shallow campaigns in memory. Rather than serious arguments, voters were given a poster and told to repeat the word “hope” in cultish devotion. Clinton appears ready to run her version of the Obama poster: the image that forms the basis of a Tumblr page called “Texts from Hillary.” And the recent media coverage of Clinton shows that the Democratic candidate won’t be the only one repeating the campaign of 2008.