The Odd Couple ’08

Hillary Clinton hasn’t had her Hayman Island moment. Yet.

Hayman is a resort off Queensland, Australia, to which Rupert Murdoch flew Tony Blair in 1995 for the annual conference of his right-of-center media megalith, News Corp.

It was a crucial step in the complex and surprising negotiation between the two men that would boost Labour’s Mr. Blair up the little stoop and through the door at 10 Downing Street two years later.

Now, the specter of an alliance between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Murdoch-two of the most powerful and guarded figures in the world-is beginning to whet the appetites of the chattering classes.

At the moment, the two speak of each other (through surrogates) in notably similar terms:

“Senator Clinton respects him and thinks he is smart and effective,” said a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton, Philippe Reines.

“Rupert has respect for her political skills and for the hard work that she’s done as a Senator,” said an executive vice president at News Corp., Gary Ginsberg.

Other evidence is still a bit lean. Lunch has been taken at News Corp.’s midtown headquarters, friendly noises have emanated from the New York Post’s editorial page, and Mr. Murdoch has retained a key advisor to Mrs. Clinton, Howard Wolfson.

But what a couple they’d make! For the 74-year-old native of Australia, an embrace of Mrs. Clinton would be only the latest in a long string of daring and (mostly) winning political plays. For New York’s junior Senator, it would be the perfection of an art that she and her husband have practiced for more than a decade: keeping your enemies close.

Mrs. Clinton has spent her time in the Senate working her way down a dance card full of ex-enemies. First there was Lindsay Graham, the former House impeachment manager who has become a Senate ally, and with whom Mrs. Clinton recently founded a Senate Manufacturing Caucus. Most recently, she debuted a health-care proposal at the side of her old nemesis, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Mr. Murdoch, too, has surprised his friends before. Alienated from John Major, Britain’s then Prime Minister, in 1997, he directed his Thatcherite British tabloid, The Sun, into an energetic campaign for the post–Hayman Island Mr. Blair. The paper helped deal the British Conservative Party a blow from which it has not yet recovered.

Some long-term observers of Mr. Murdoch see a logic to his flirtation with Mrs. Clinton.

“It makes perfect sense,” said Nicholas Wapshott, the long-time New York bureau chief for Mr. Murdoch’s Times of London, of the notion of an alliance between the two. “Although Rupert is widely assumed to be an ideological creature solely of the right, the fact is that he’s a businessman before he is an ideologist, and he likes to be with a winner.”

Credit Where It’s Due

Howard Dean, the Democratic Party chairman, has denounced Mr. Murdoch’s Fox News as “a propaganda outlet for the Republican Party.” Mrs. Clinton might have been expected to do the same. Fox News drove the Monica Lewinsky scandal and its more minor relatives relentlessly in the late 1990′s. The Post did its best to derail her run for Senate in 2000, bringing in spurned Clinton aide Dick Morris for regular fulminations on Mrs. Clinton’s true, radical nature and her complex political schemes.

The liberal journalist Michael Tomasky, who now edits The American Prospect, tallied 212 “negative” stories about Mrs. Clinton in the Post during the 2000 campaign, against a mere seven “positive” stories and 17 that he judged “neutral.”

Fox News remains a thorn in Mrs. Clinton’s side, though she has appeared twice on the network over the last year. But the Post has thawed since her victory in 2000. A reporter who until recently covered Mrs. Clinton in the Senate, Vince Morris, used a combination of diligence and generally respectful coverage to win access that is as good as any other member of the New York press corps, frustrating competitors with rare, exclusive quotes from Mrs. Clinton.

“She’s very realistic: She knew we were going to cover her whether she talked to us or not,” said Mr. Morris, who is now an aide to Washington Mayor Anthony Williams. “She worked with a lot of reporters at the Post.”

The Post’s feared gossip page, Page Six, has been a regular outlet for rumors about Bill Clinton’s private life and for unflattering tidbits about both Clintons. But last week the page landed a solid blow against the anti-Clinton right, eviscerating journalist Ed Klein’s new book, The Truth About Hillary, in a well-reported item that tracked down two women whom Mr. Klein suggested had had affairs with Mrs. Clinton. Page Six dismissed the rumor.

“The Page Six trashing of Ed Klein’s wretched little piece of sewage was a very interesting article,” said Sidney Blumenthal, a former Clinton aide and author. “We won’t know for a while whether or not it was assigned, but it appears that [Page Six] sought the story.”

Perhaps most important, over on the paper’s editorial page, a deeper change seems underway. During the 2000 campaign, the page warned that “to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton is to affirm double-dealing and deception.” Since then, while the editorial board hasn’t let up on Mrs. Clinton entirely, it has also offered regular praise. In February, a Post editorial stated: “Credit where it’s due: Sen. Hillary Clinton seems to have it about as right on Iraq as any Democrat with national political ambitions can be expected to at this stage of the electoral cycle.”

And last week, the editorial page directed its ire elsewhere, at one of Mrs. Clinton’s likely challengers next year, Richard Nixon’s son-in-law Edward Cox. It demanded an anti-union vote from Mr. Cox in his position on a state board, warning that a vote to allow the United Federation of Teachers to open a charter school would leave “an indelible mark” on his record.

And a Post editorial-board member, Robert George, fueled the speculation about a Clinton-Murdoch alliance on his personal blog (www.raggedthots.blogspot.com).

“That makes about as much sense as a Post editorial writer declaring that it was impossible to support George Bush,” wrote Mr. George, who did just that in 2004 in backing Senator John Kerry. “Oh, wait. Never mind.”

Nobody would suggest that the Post’s editorial writers-and Mr. Murdoch, who has a hand in their choices-has made up its mind for 2006, when Mrs. Clinton will run for re-election. But on a more personal level, the Clintons and Mr. Murdoch get along quite a bit better than the partisans on either side might expect.

One person familiar with the two recalled a “cordial” 2002 lunch between the mogul and the Senator at a private dining room in the News Corp. building in midtown.

And her husband-who appears sometimes to be acting as a kind of outsized operative on his wife’s behalf-has been energetic in courting Mr. Murdoch and his son, Lachlan, who runs the Post.

Mr. Clinton toured the Post’s newsroom in January 2003. He has lunched alone with the senior Murdoch, and this June he delivered a recorded tribute at the birthday party of the former Republican operative who runs Fox News, Roger Ailes.

“I know … you’re thinking somebody put the wrong video in the machine,” he reportedly began. “I am especially grateful that Roger didn’t work in the 1992 campaign. I mean, who knows how different history would have been if he had. I would have been spared all of his barbs in his later life as a media mogul, but I wouldn’t have had the chance to be President.”

This summer, Mr. Clinton announced a list of just 14 “distinguished attendees” at his Davos-style Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York this fall. The list includes the leaders of Britain, France, Nigeria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, along with United Nations chief Kofi Annan and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Only two corporate chiefs made the list: AOL Time Warner chief executive Richard Parsons, and Mr. Murdoch, who is given a glowing-and perhaps slightly mischievous-biography on Mr. Clinton’s Web site: “Mr. Murdoch is generally regarded as the most politically influential media proprietor in the world, and is regularly courted by politicians in the United States, Britain and Australia.”

Could his presence at the conference be part of a particularly high-stakes courtship?

If there’s little question that the Clintons would like to see Mr. Murdoch in their camp, the mogul’s motives and plans are much more in dispute. Certainly, he’s shown himself ideologically heterodox, allying himself at various times with the Australian Labor Party, Mrs. Thatcher, the British Labor Party and the Republican Party.

And even in the United States, where his top lieutenants include Republican partisans like Mr. Ailes and the editor of the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard, William Kristol, he’s kept ties to prominent Democrats. News Corp. retained Mr. Wolfson and his firm, the Glover Park Group, to run an ultimately unsuccessful campaign against a change in the Nielsen ratings system that would have hurt some Fox-produced television shows.

Mr. Ginsberg, a Democrat who worked in the Clinton administration, and Mr. Wolfson, still an advisor to Mrs. Clinton, created a campaign fronted by prominent minority politicians, including the Reverend Al Sharpton, to attack Nielsen as essentially racist. Glover Park “enlisted community activists and organizations across the country,” the consulting firm later bragged on its Web site.

Mrs. Clinton initially seemed inclined to support the campaign but was ultimately persuaded to back out, according to a BusinessWeek recap of the conflict.

While Mr. Murdoch’s personal ties to Democrats are stronger than some might expect, and the Post’s attitude toward Mrs. Clinton has become friendlier, Fox News remains a different story. The cable network is the stumbling block to any suggestion that Mr. Murdoch could really pivot toward Mrs. Clinton if she is the Democrats’ 2008 nominee. A huge profit center for News Corp., Fox’s hostility and suspicion toward Mrs. Clinton is a staple for loyal viewers. In April, the network brought on Mr. Morris-a regular commentator on the network-to speculate about what damaging material would emerge from Mr. Klein’s dirt-filled biography of Mrs. Clinton. But it may be worth noting that Fox News has had few mentions of the book, which has dominating the anti-Hillary sections of the Internet, since then. If this continues, it will be seen as further evidence of a Clinton-Murdoch nonaggression pact.

The question of whether Mr. Murdoch could really make the jump and swing the Post and Fox News into Mrs. Clinton’s camp in 2008, just as the Sun swung to Mr. Blair for the 1997 election, is a hard one. To some extent, it depends on your view of Mr. Murdoch.

If, like many of his most partisan critics, you consider Mr. Murdoch a hard-core ideological rightist, then his fundamental Republican loyalty is probably not in dispute. And to some of his Republican allies, it’s equally unthinkable.

But one ally who views Mr. Murdoch as a man of principle, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, said he sees a Murdoch endorsement of Mrs. Clinton as a distinct possibility.

“I don’t believe it’s far-fetched to think he would support her,” said Mr. Koch, testifying personally to the power of Mr. Murdoch’s backing. “I wouldn’t have won [in 1977] if the Post hadn’t support me.” (Then again, the Post actively backed Mr. Koch’s gubernatorial campaign in 1982, which ended in defeat at the hands of Mario Cuomo.)

But among critics and allies alike, there’s an alternate theory of Mr. Murdoch, holding that he is a businessman above all. It’s a position supported by the tycoon’s willingness to drop a book critical of the Chinese regime from his publishing house, HarperCollins, to ease his business dealings in China.

He seems to be, James Fallows wrote in a long Atlantic magazine profile in 2003, “a dealmaker and not a conservative purist.”

Liberal Spite?

But the hope on the left that Mr. Murdoch could swing in favor of Mrs. Clinton is heavily layered with spite.

“Murdoch now faces a situation doing business in New York where it’s likely Eliot Spitzer will be Governor, and Schumer and Hillary are the Senators,” said Mr. Blumenthal, noting that Mr. Murdoch’s alliances with former Senator Alfonse D’Amato and Governor George Pataki have run their course.

“The question is whether or not Murdoch’s deep-seated prejudices can be overcome by his deep-seated opportunism,” Mr. Blumenthal added.

To one executive in the Murdoch empire, however, the notion that backing Mrs. Clinton could be good for business is preposterous.

“This wouldn’t make either business sense or political sense to Murdoch, so it’s beyond far-fetched,” the executive said when asked about a potential Post endorsement of Mrs. Clinton if she runs for President in 2008.

Ultimately, though, politics at its highest level is often about personality and instinct. And that, said Mr. Wapshott, the former Times bureau chief, is where Mrs. Clinton may have an edge.

“They’re both probably about as canny as each other, and they’re about as inscrutable as each other,” said Mr. Wapshott, who was at The Times of London when Mr. Murdoch arrived in 1980. “They are very similar-both hard-nosed characters. They would understand each other perfectly. Absolutely perfectly.”