Clinton Coverage Reflects Tensions of Historic Bid

If it weren't for a man named Barack Obama, you would have heard much more from the media this year about the first female candidate in American history with a serious shot at the White House.

That would be New York Sen. Hillary Clinton — activist, first lady, twice-elected senator and, back in the misty past of 2007, the frontrunner for this year's Democratic presidential nomination. But her bid has been both pioneering and problematic, and her press coverage has reflected that tension.

No one interviewed for this story thought the media's coverage of Clinton's historic bid determined its outcome. They all pointed to her campaign's failure to anticipate and combat Obama's strength, particularly in states with early caucuses.

Have the Media Described Clinton Differently?

The record often shows journalists and pundits do constantly describe Clinton in different terms than they would her male rivals. In interviewing voters for a focus group on the air earlier this year, Fox News Channel consultant Frank Luntz sought to learn what kind of campaign they wanted Obama and Clinton to wage.

"How many of you want them to really argue," Luntz asked. "And, how many of you want them to make love to each other?"

Just try imagining him putting Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in that scenario. Or, consider whether conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh could sneak Joe Biden into this one:

"Mrs. Clinton's testicle lockbox is big enough for the entire Democrat hierarchy," Limbaugh told listeners, "not just some people in the media."

On the other side of the spectrum, MSNBC's Chris Mathews famously said Clinton was a senator and a plausible presidential candidate only because of her humiliation during her husband's presidency.

Historical Antecedents to Clinton's Image

Clinton supporter Susan Estrich was the campaign manager for Michael Dukakis back in 1988. She says Clinton's struggle with her image evokes women CEOs who strive to be feminine, but not too feminine, and capable, but not overly assertive. She says the role of a woman as the nation's leader hasn't yet been defined.

"I think that's why there's been so much attention to Hillary's clothes, and to Hillary's cleavage, and to Hillary's husband and to Hillary's marriage and her motherhood and her own daughter," Estrich says.

It's new terrain for both the country and the media. But there's another complicating truth, says Dee Dee Myers, the former White House spokesman for President Bill Clinton.

"We've never had a candidate whose spouse was president of the United States," says Myers, who has contributed to Clinton's campaign, but has not formally endorsed it. Her sister is a senior official for Obama's presidential bid.

"We've never had a candidate who was first lady. Some of that, you can't get away from the relationship between that and gender," she says.

But many women did respond directly to the historic nature of her campaign, like the young woman in New Hampshire who hollered enthusiastically at a Clinton rally, "First of all, I have to say, you go girl!"

To which the former first lady asked, "Will you go with me?"

But she often was understated about her status as the first credible female presidential candidate. In fact, as NBC political director Chuck Todd says, the press had to register Hillary Clinton's professed role as inheritor of the Clinton mantle.

"You only can cover the campaign that's in front of you," Todd says. "And the fact is, the campaign that was in front of us was one that was being presented as somebody who was running for Bill Clinton's third term."

Fair Game for Scrutiny

Because of the scandal that sprang from Bill Clinton's infidelity during his presidency, nearly everything that might be private about candidate Hillary Clinton has been considered fair game by the press.

Clinton has had a rough and tumble relationship with the press for nearly two decades. But NBC's Todd says it's wrong to think she gets a different kind of treatment from the media.

"The assumption is that all politicians are lying and all politicians are being inauthentic, until proven otherwise," Todd says.

But Dee Dee Myers, who also is a frequent commentator for NBC, says the media seem blind to their own behavior. Take the coverage of Clinton's so-called cackle.

"Have we had more male candidates with funny laughs? Almost certainly. Have they gotten as much attention? Absolutely not," Myers says. "But it just reflects a sexist strain in society that certain things are not acceptable in women."

"Her laugh became a pronounced part of her theatrical repertoire for awhile there — and therefore needed to be noted in some way," New York Times political editor Richard Stevenson says. In an interview, he calls Senator Clinton's ability to connect with others fair game for scrutiny as she seeks the presidency.

"We tried to do it in a way that didn't equate it with her position on Iraq," Stevenson says. "But this is part of the balancing act that we're all grappling with here. How do you write about somebody who in one essential way is different from anybody who's ever done this before?"

When Clinton showed emotion this winter, she earned the scorn of many media observers, such as the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol on Fox News, who remarked, "I don't believe it was genuine. I think no Clinton cries without calculating first."

Calculating. Many voters — women in particular — recoil at that word. Clinton herself has sought to recast herself as a champion of the working class — the underdog — as she battles on despite numbers that say she can't win. It's been a strategy thrust on her by circumstances — including the interplay between her ambitions and the media.

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