photo by Marc Nozell
Anyone who pursues a career in the public eye has to get comfortable with being the object of attention, but some are choosier than others about the sort of attention they encourage.
Hillary Clinton and those around her, for example, seem determined to exert as much control as possible over the way the former First Lady, former senator and former secretary of state is presented. Their effort to erect a protective bubble around the former (and possible future) presidential candidate is not especially surprising, since there are many politicians who, like Clinton, vocally dislike the way the media sometimes depicts them.
But no politician in memory, and few public figures of any kind - with the possible exceptions of Greta Garbo and Howard Hughes - have compiled a record comparable to that of Clinton and her entourage of trying to control when, how and by whom they are portrayed to the American public.
In 2007, Clinton and her supporters dismissed and attempted to discredit a biography that, among other things, claimed Clinton and her husband had long planned a two-decade path that would put both of them in the White House. Another biography, released simultaneously, received an equally frosty reaction from the Clinton camp. The same year, Politico reported that GQ’s editorial staff pulled an article about the former first lady’s 2008 presidential campaign under the threat of losing access to her husband ahead of a planned “man of the year” cover story. Carl Bernstein, who wrote the Clinton biography “A Woman In Charge,” recently said of Mrs. Clinton, “She’s someone who tries to write her own narrative.”
Her authorial bent has cropped up again - this time in the news that CNN and NBC have both scrapped plans for programs featuring Mrs. Clinton.
Clinton’s low esteem for her critics goes back a long way. She famously asserted that her husband, and by extension she herself, was the object of “a vast right-wing conspiracy” that led to his impeachment in 1998. (She made the comment after Bill had lied to her, along with others, about the nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.) Clinton is also open to potential attacks from the political left for her initial support of the Iraq war, among other alleged failings.
Yet the degree to which she is unwilling to allow coverage that she does not shape is unusual. Charles Ferguson, the documentary filmmaker who had planned to direct CNN’s planned Clinton film, wrote candidly of his decision to abandon the project, describing opposition from both Clinton’s opponents and her supporters. “[…] I discovered that nobody, and I mean nobody, was interested in helping me make this film,” he said, noting that of the more than 100 people he had approached, only two who had ever dealt with Mrs. Clinton in person agreed to on-camera interviews.
Most people believe Mrs. Clinton is the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. She has not yet said whether she even plans to run. As she learned painfully in the 2008 campaign, being an acknowledged candidate and front-runner just gives other people a greater chance to undermine and overtake your position.
She and Bill gave a young Senate candidate from Illinois named Barack Obama a platform at the 2004 Democratic convention. Four years later, he used that platform to wrest the nomination from her. The longer Clinton waits to announce her plans, the longer she can freeze the rest of the field - and the more effectively she can suppress third-party examination of her work and her persona. In essence, the longer she keeps her plans uncertain, the more she can hope to tell her own story in her own words.
It is hardly surprising that Clinton decided to embrace Twitter; perhaps it is more surprising that it took her until this year.
I understand why Clinton wants to tell her story herself, but I don’t especially see the point in attempting to silence everyone else. Every American adult is old enough to remember, at a minimum, Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign against Obama and her subsequent work in his administration - culminating with a shrill outburst, just after she left office, at a congressional hearing over Benghazi. Almost everyone has an opinion, whether pro, con or mixed, about her. Very little could now come out that would be likely to change any of those minds.
Republicans don’t do their image any favors by working to suppress documentaries or miniseries about Clinton. Democrats don’t make themselves look good when they appear to be afraid to talk about the woman and her public record, especially when most Democrats heartily approve of the majority of her views and actions.
Most of all, Clinton doesn’t do herself any favors by taking a page from Lord Voldemort’s book, effectively styling herself as “she who must not be named.” Harry Potter fans know that Voldemort was really just Tom Riddle - once a front-runner for power himself, but one who eventually lost.