By this time next year, Hillary Rodham Clinton may have concluded that supposed tough-guy Rudy Giuliani was a cream puff compared with a more aggressive and far more entertaining antagonist: the management and staff of the New York Post .
In recent weeks, the First Lady has been forced to spend far less energy fending off Mr. Giuliani than she has countering the gang at the Post . They include editorial page editor John Podhoretz, columnists Steve Dunleavy and Andrea Peyser, in-house pollster John Zogby, cartoonist Sean Delonas, Clinton confidant-turned- Post columnist Dick Morris and, of course, Post owner Rupert Murdoch.
With nearly a year remaining until Election Day, Mrs. Clinton’s ability to defend herself against the Post ‘s bludgeonings has emerged as a key test of her political mettle. Indeed, when Mrs. Clinton officially entered the race on Nov. 23, the declaration may have been a tacit acknowledgment of the power of Mr. Murdoch’s favorite American tabloid.
Mr. Giuliani, after all, certainly wasn’t among those clamoring for a decision from the First Lady. But in a relentless assault that was both comical and effective-and always readable-the Post conducted a full-throttle crusade seemingly designed to force Mrs. Clinton out of the race, particularly after the First Lady’s adventures in the Middle East. It was the power of the Post ‘s headlines-including one that read “NYers Tell Hillary: Don’t Run!”-that apparently inspired high-profile Democrats to demand that Mrs. Clinton either get in or get out. She got in. And the Post is primed and ready.
Love it or hate it, the Post occupies a role in New York politics that has no equivalent in America. Mr. Murdoch and his lieutenants delight in throwing the full weight of the paper’s news coverage behind a favorite candidate, usually of the conservative Republican mold, although moderate Democrats like former Mayor Edward Koch have also benefited from the paper’s editorial largess. In winning the paper’s support, candidates such as Alfonse D’Amato, George Pataki, Rudolph Giuliani and Mr. Koch have not only garnered favorable notice, but have had the pleasure of watching an opponent get savaged. The paper wields editorial tactics shunned by its competition: front-page editorials, hideously unflattering cartoons, mystically concocted polls.
Mrs. Clinton’s supporters tend to dismiss the paper’s influence, but they do so at their peril. The Post under Mr. Murdoch has a long history of overtly attempting to get favorite sons and daughters elected, and not-so-favorite sons and daughters humiliated. The Post ‘s pounding of Mayor David Dinkins in the early 1990’s was summed up in a single, memorable headline: “Dave: Do Something.” The headline referred to the Mayor’s perceived inaction in the face of a spiraling crime rate, but it seemed to capture the image of a befuddled politician unable to cope with a collapsing city. That headline, and the Post ‘s subsequent coverage of the 1993 mayoral election, helped set the stage for Mr. Giuliani’s election.
The paper’s no-holds-barred political coverage, reminiscent of the British press or, indeed, the tradition of partisan journalism into which the Post was born in 1801, has not always pleased the Post’s reporting staff. In 1977, the paper’s coverage was so outspokenly pro-Koch that about 50 reporters revolted, signing a petition of protest. In 1982, the paper embarrassed its staff by encouraging readers to clip out a coupon that urged Mr. Koch to run for Governor. Faced with this outburst of popular opinion, Mr. Koch had no choice but to declare his candidacy. He was promptly defeated in a Democratic Party primary by Mario Cuomo-who became a Post villain although, ironically enough, he helped save the paper when then-owner Peter Kalikow was trying to unload it in 1993. (Mr. Murdoch stepped in for a second term as the Post ‘s publisher after the paper was on the verge of closing.)
“If you’ve ever had the opportunity to have your brains battered in a boxing match, after a while you get kind of numb to it,” Mr. Cuomo recalled. “But I never got angry. Rupert Murdoch thought I was bad for the country. He told me very clearly that he didn’t intend to do anything but pursue the policy he thought was best for America.”
Rupert? Who’s Rupert?
Mr. Koch recalled paying Mr. Murdoch a visit in 1977 to ask for his support for Mayor. Mr. Murdoch’s main concern, Mr. Koch recalled, was how tough he would get with the city’s unions. Mr. Koch vowed to batter them into submission.
“A couple of days later, I got a call from Rupert,” Mr. Koch said. “It was 7 in the morning. A voice said, ‘Is Congressman Koch there?’ I said, ‘Speaking.’ He said, ‘This is Rupert.’ I thought to myself, I don’t know any Ruperts. Rupert isn’t a Jewish name.”
Mr. Koch soon realized he was talking to his new patron. “He said, ‘Congressman, we’re coming out for you today on the front page of the Post . We hope it will help you.’ I said, ‘It will do more than help me. I will win because of what you’re doing.'”
Mrs. Clinton’s supporters know they’re not going to get that kind of treatment from Mr. Murdoch. “The Post just goes for the jugular, and that’s that,” said Representative Charles Rangel, Democrat of Harlem. “There’s nothing that Hillary Clinton can do that would stop the New York Post from vilifying her. They are so locked into Giuliani that they could call it the City Hall Post .”
Consider the paper’s anti-Hillary campaign. Even before she had officially declared her candidacy, Mr. Morris had predicted in no less than four columns that she was either doomed or that she would quietly drop her senatorial ambitions. Post columnist Andrea Peyser opined that “the First Lady’s farcical non-campaign for the Senate-a taxpayer-funded exercise in wounded wifely vanity-is all but over, except for the whining.” And a Post poll, conducted by Mr. Zogby and heralded on page 1 on Nov. 21, asserted that a “stunning 53 percent” of New Yorkers didn’t want her to run for the Senate. The Post pollsters, wouldn’t you know, didn’t ask prospective voters if they wanted Mr. Giuliani to drop out of the race.
Perhaps thinking wishfully, Mrs. Clinton’s supporters insist that the Post ‘s hostility is a sign of the First Lady’s strength. “I think she should be flattered that [the paper’s attacks] have started so soon and so vehemently,” said Mr. Cuomo. “That suggests they think they have a heavier lift than usual in beating her.”
She’s Evil! Really Evil!
A recent Post poll identified Mrs. Clinton as the sixth most evil person of the millennium-ahead of the likes of Adolf Eichmann, Benito Mussolini, Ayatollah Khomeini and Vlad the Impaler. The poll was conducted on the Post ‘s Web site, allowing readers to cast their ballots on line or write in candidates. Mrs. Clinton was a write-in candidate. So was her husband. He finished second, beaten, for pure evil, by only Adolf Hitler. A few days later, one of Mr. Murdoch’s favorite whipping boys, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, was pictured in the paper at the helm of his boat looking like the Michelin man after a trip to the buffet table. The story cheerfully pointed out that the picture was taken before Mr. Kennedy’s family Thanksgiving feast.
Memo to Hillary: Choose your wardrobe with care.
“I think what the Post tries to do is to have as much fun as possible,” observed Post columnist Neal Travis. “It’s the old idea-you just shout rat shit at everybody.”
A blushing bridegroom for the third time, Mr. Murdoch these days is said to have little involvement in the paper’s day-to-day coverage. He certainly wasn’t supervising coverage of the Post ‘s poll of the millennium’s greatest evildoers. “Everyone knows his political philosophy,” said Howard Rubenstein, the Post ‘s spokesman. “But the reporters are given no instructions on how to cover a story other than to make it interesting.”
That said, some Post reporters privately are upset by the paper’s coverage of the Senate race-particularly its overt efforts to wound Mrs. Clinton among Jewish voters, who are crucial in a statewide race. A recent editorial assailed the First Lady for sitting quietly as Yasir Arafat’s wife accused Israel of gassing Palestinian children. The editorial carried the supercharged title, “Mrs. Clinton and the blood libel,” suggesting that she was silently complicit in crimes reminiscent of the original blood libel, which accuses Jewish people of the murder of non-Jewish children.
“It’s just incessant,” said one Post reporter. “Boom, boom, boom. It’s almost a joke: How are we going to bash Hillary this week?”
The editorial also noted that Mrs. Clinton was “stone-faced” as she watched Mrs. Arafat-implying cold and dispassionate assent. But other news accounts indicated that she was visibly uncomfortable.
“Blood libel on page 1 was just an attempt to cripple the Hillary Clinton campaign,” said Lars-Erik Nelson, a New York Daily News columnist. “I am willing to bet that next you’ll see a front page that says ‘Chelsea’s sexy romp.'”
The paper’s columnists have had a blast at the First Lady’s expense. Here, for example, is a sample of Ms. Peyser’s views: Mrs. Clinton is “a rejected wife, whose résumé contains not a single useful accomplishment”; she “has perpetrated a veritable crime wave in the White House.”
Not to be outdone, Mr. Dunleavy-an Australian immigrant-has written that “Hillary Clinton couldn’t find the Bronx unless she had a chauffeur-and couldn’t find Yankee Stadium with a seeing eye dog.”
“Is it too good to be true? Yes,” Mr. Dunleavy said of the First Lady’s candidacy. “They’re writing my stories for me.”
Mrs. Clinton’s defenders insist that the paper’s treatment of her is so over the top that it has lost its power to sway public opinion. “Its only redeeming quality is that it’s hard for any serious person to regard it as other than totally biased,” said Victor Kovner, a First Amendment lawyer who is one of Mrs. Clinton’s most prominent supporters. “It is so vicious that it’s probably counterproductive.”
Yet this viciousness is suffused with an undeniable sense of fun. The paper’s posture was captured perfectly in a random encounter with Mr. Dunleavy last fall. As it became clear on election night in 1998 that the Post ‘s favorite Senator, Alfonse D’Amato, was going to lose to Charles Schumer, The Observer asked Mr. Dunleavy for his opinion of the Senator-to-be. The columnist responded with a two-minute stream of vitriol, in which he invoked the names of Saddam Hussein and Hitler. (He forgot to mention Vlad the Impaler.) As he finished his lecture, he paused and winked, then took his leave. It was not meant to be taken seriously, of course.
Or was it?
Additional reporting by Carl Swanson.