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Channeling Ron Ziegler

Jennifer Palmieri speaking at George Washington University
Jennifer Palmieri in 2010. Photo courtesy the Center for American Progress.

Watching Jennifer Palmieri struggle through her interview on Bloomberg’s “With All Due Respect” last week, I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for her, in the same way I once felt a little sorry for Ron Ziegler a long time ago.

Ziegler’s job as press secretary was to put a brave face on all the nasty news that was coming out about his boss, Richard Nixon, at the height of the Watergate affair. No sane person would have asked for such a job, but Ziegler tried to make what he could of it, dutifully describing early reports of the break-in as “a third-rate burglary” and dismissing Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the early part of their investigation. When it became clear that he was defending the indefensible, Ziegler was obliged to publicly apologize to Woodward, Bernstein and the Post. He left the White House with Nixon in 1974.

While many might argue that Ziegler made his own bed by covering up bad behavior, it was hard not to sympathize at least a little all the same. As a comedy routine from the time made clear, Ziegler’s inability to comment in any straightforward way on the Watergate investigations reached a point of absurdity, despite his later instance that he never said anything he knew at the time to be untrue. His boss certainly didn’t hesitate to put Ziegler in intensely uncomfortable positions. At one point in 1973, Nixon physically pushed Ziegler between himself and reporters, an incident caught on camera.

Palmieri’s job today is not much more enviable than Ziegler’s job was then. Her task, as the communications director for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign, is to talk up how nicely her boss is doing in dealing with the steady stream of revelations about the email server she established in her Westchester, New York, home as a repository for all her communications, those regarding the public’s business among the rest, during her service as Barack Obama’s secretary of state. Palmieri seems to be making a game attempt but, like Ziegler, the reality of the situation means that this is an uphill slog.

You and I might have thought Clinton was being condescending and sarcastic when she answered a reporter’s question about whether she had wiped the aforementioned server with a shrug and a plaintive, “What, like with a cloth or something?” But according to Palmieri during her Bloomberg interview, this response was all in good humor, part of the Clinton campaign’s effort to present their candidate as personable and accessible.

There was something pathetic in the way Palmieri, a seasoned pro who formerly worked in Obama’s White House press shop, allowed herself to be frog-marched by Bloomberg’s John Heilemann into eventually admitting that Clinton “didn’t really think it through” when she decided that the best place to keep any sensitive communications she received as the nation’s top diplomat was a private computer in her Westchester dwelling. (Full disclosure: My daughter, Ali Elkin, works with Heilemann on “With All Due Respect.”) No press person ever wants to admit that the candidate she claims is best suited to lead the country is prone to not think something like that through.

But as the interview continued, it became clear that Palmieri was stuck trying to laugh off serious questions about Clinton’s judgment, as when Heilemann pressed her to admit that there was a difference between simply deleting an email and asking a technology professional to ensure that all traces of that message had been eradicated. Palmieri grew visibly flustered as her attempts to frame the situation as a simple misunderstanding fell flat, likely even to her own ears.

This interview came about a week after Palmieri sent an email to Clinton supporters dismissing scrutiny of Clinton’s emails as “nonsense” that “comes with the territory of running for president.” The lengthy message was timed to coincide with the news that Clinton would hand over her email server to the Justice Department for examination. The Clinton campaign party line continues to be that Clinton has done nothing wrong and that her opponents are making a scandal out of whole cloth.

Yet ultimately the campaign’s best bet, as Palmieri surely knows, will be to change the conversation away from this topic as quickly as possible. To that end, she has held fast to Clinton’s own claim that the average voter doesn’t care about the email controversy, in contrast to continued scrutiny from the press. “During her time in New Hampshire and Iowa and doing a lot of town halls, she’s actually never gotten one question about it,” Palmieri told MSNBC. Yet as Palmieri’s own struggles to respond to questions demonstrate, along with concerns from political allies, the email server incident is an area in which making Clinton look good will rely on deflection and obfuscation.

What happened to Palmieri on “With All Due Respect” looked very much like what happened to Ziegler, who told the story he was told to tell through the first months of the Watergate case before finally announcing that his previous statements were “inoperative.” Ziegler became the punchline of a joke. Palmieri is headed down the same path.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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