PORTSMOUTH, N.H.—It was the day before the New Hampshire primary, and reporters on the Clinton beat were venting.
“Putting an emotional and physical distance between us and her can harden the heart,” one reporter, who covers Hillary Clinton for a major daily newspaper, said to a few colleagues over coffee and notebooks in a coffee shop, where Mrs. Clinton was about to make an appearance.
After the crushing loss in the Iowa caucuses, the Clinton campaign has tried to improve relations with its discontented press corps by rationing out more access to the candidate.
It’s not clear that it’s working.
“We’re talking about how the press team has been increasingly charming,” one of the younger reporters told a veteran journalist who had just joined the conversation, which was taking place just minutes before the exhaustively reported incident in which Mrs. Clinton appeared to well up with tears in the middle of answering a routine-sounding question.
“Have they been charming?” asked the skeptical veteran, who has covered previous presidential campaigns. “What have they done?”
The point was well taken. There is close to a consensus, not only among reporters, but among people close to the Clinton campaign, that the Clinton media strategy of restricted access and aggressive tactics has not been an effective one.
The one-on-one interviews sprinkled out after campaign events, the coffee hand-delivered by Mrs. Clinton onto the press bus and the decreasingly rare press conferences were all evidence of a post-Iowa thaw in her campaign’s infamously controlling and standoffish relationship with the media.
In the last week, she has taken to patting reporters’ faces like an Italian grandmother, squeezing their arms and calling them “sweetie.”
AS THE CANDIDATE herself tries to make up for lost time with suspicious, beaten-down reporters, campaign aides are debating about what went wrong in the first place. But it’s not entirely a lost cause. The new tack has seemed to get Mrs. Clinton, if nothing else, some sympathy.
There was a consensus among the journalists in the Portsmouth diner that Mrs. Clinton’s dismay was genuine when she choked up, and some of them said they felt closer to her for seeing it. After all, her voice cracked precisely as she started talking about how Web sites and media commentators seemed to latch onto her worst moments.
But, as one of the reporters said, “It’s very, very late in the game.”
What’s more, even as Mrs. Clinton was beginning to make nice with the people who cover her, her campaign and surrogates were busy setting the media up as a straw man, aggressively blaming the campaign coverage for the uncertain state of the campaign after Iowa.
As soon as she came to New Hampshire, early in the morning on Jan. 4, Mrs. Clinton suggested that the press had not done enough to vet the records of her opponents, echoing a point her pollster and chief strategist Mark Penn had made when he said it would be “incumbent on the media to do unto others what they have done so effectively with Senator Clinton, which is to really look at her record.”
But that very morning on the campaign plane from Iowa to New Hampshire, even as Mr. Penn was enumerating the failings of the press, old Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe was making an apology of sorts. According to several reporters who had surrounded him to complain about lack of access to the candidate, Mr. McAuliffe answered, “I know—she should be on this plane.”
THERE HAS BEEN A running disagreement about press policy within the campaign itself for a while now.
Speaking on background, one senior Clinton campaign official disputed the notion that access to Mrs. Clinton was especially limited and said there had been a program to reach out to the national media “behind the scenes, for over a year.”
“There was no deliberate strategy to run against the media,” said the official. But after being pressed about the indisputable unhappiness of the Clinton-assigned press corps, the official added, “If it was or wasn’t successful, that would be a question for the operational side.”
The operational side is run by Howard Wolfson and his deputies, Phil Singer, Blake Zeff and Jay Carson. Like him, they’re all alumni of Chuck Schumer’s press office. They have not always been pleased by the media’s treatment of their candidate. (“I don’t think that Howard Wolfson or Jay Carson or Phil Singer hate any of us,” said one reporter, tapping on a laptop before an event. “But they really do hate the aggregate.”)
But at the same time, Mr. Wolfson, who can do brusque with the best of them, has not been inaccessible. And some of his colleagues in the campaign, as well as some of the reporters who have covered the campaign longest, blame Mr. Penn (as well as the candidate) for the current policy and say that Mr. Wolfson, as much as anyone, has been pressing internally for a more press-friendly posture by the campaign.
“There is no stronger advocate for more reporter access to the candidate than Howard because he knows how terrific she is and wants reporters to see that as well,” said one Clinton adviser in response to the official.
The adviser said that in campaign meetings and conference calls, Mr. Wolfson incessantly advocated for more access—that she fly with reporters to Iowa or New Hampshire, that she do more off-the-record drinks and press availabilities. Those appeals did not get through, said the adviser.
The resulting media strategy was one that left some of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters dismayed.
The day after the disastrous Iowa caucuses, Mr. Penn and Mr. Wolfson participated in a conference call with prominent supporters.
“I felt for Howard,” said a source close to the campaign who was on the call. “Everyone and his brother was jumping on him, saying, ‘We needed to see her more, we needed her warmer side, she should have been talking to the press.’”
The source, a longtime Clinton supporter, expected changes to be made in the campaign after New Hampshire.
“There are certainly a number of people whose voices weren’t heard and who now want to be.” (Maggie Williams, a longtime confidante of Hillary Clinton, is coming on as campaign manager, according to reports that came out the night of the primary.)
Another prominent supporter close to the campaign thought the new strategy of publicly chastising the press had a whiff of desperation about it.
“You don’t blame the press unless you are not doing well on the ground,” said the supporter. “If they had not lost Iowa or weren’t behind in New Hampshire, there would be no bitching about the press.”
This supporter, too, predicted a shake-up in the Clinton campaign.
A former high-level adviser to Mrs. Clinton pointed out that the complicated relationship between Mrs. Clinton and the press went back at least 16 years and was “not a new dichotomy.”ss=”text”>“The Clintons have had more respect from the press than they recognize, and the press admires the Clintons more than they like to admit.”
That’s the funny, tragic thing: Most of the reporters on the beat are actually disposed to like Mrs. Clinton.
“She’s brighter than anyone in the press pool,” said one.
“She’s funny as shit,” said another.
Days before the Iowa caucuses, the campaign sent out friends and constituents who had personal testimonials and used them to good effect. “Overall, you’d like to have that sense of her as a fully rounded person who is actually a human being,” said a veteran reporter.
The reporter described how one New York resident visited to thank Mrs. Clinton for being instrumental in providing his son with a bone-marrow transplant when they were having problems with insurance companies. “You should have seen us: It was so moving. We all had tears in our eyes,” said the reporter, whose eyes actually began to well up. “They should have been doing this all along.”
DIRECT INTERACTIONS WITH Mrs. Clinton haven’t been easy to come by. According to one daily newspaper reporter who has covered Mrs. Clinton for a year, the press corps “would go weeks without speaking to her.” Another said that when she did speak in the past—when she was the front-runner—she would speak for only a few minutes.
On Jan. 2, a day before the Iowa caucuses, Mrs. Clinton actually came onto the campaign bus with bagels and coffee in hand. She kept a cautious distance from reporters and barely stood away from the windshield in her brief encounter. No one shouted any questions and one writer compared the awkwardness to bumping into an ex-girlfriend.
By the time Mrs. Clinton arrived in New Hampshire after the caucuses, she seemed to open up. The campaign’s likable press aide, Jamie Smith, made an announcement on the press bus that Mrs. Clinton would hold “an avail” in a coffee shop in Manchester. Word spread instantly around the coach’s cushioned seats.
The back-of-the-bus crowd, which included Aaron Bruns of Fox News, Eloise Harper of ABC, Peter Nicholas of the Los Angeles Times and David Greene of NPR, was delighted at the prospect: “Wait, did she say she would give an avail?” asked one, in disbelief.
Talking about it afterward, one national reporter assigned to the campaign said, “A lot of us in the press corps have pent-up questions and we have no opportunity to ask her, and that frustration builds and then we think the candidate is blocking us. More than that, it prevents us from doing our job the way we need to do it.”
Sometimes there is the feeling that reporters want to attend her events just to recharge their computers. At an event at a small bagel shop in Durham on Jan. 5, Mrs. Clinton spoke to a crowd of undecided young voters. She answered questions in eight-minute intervals and spoke for over an hour.
Reporters sandwiched together in the scrum studied their BlackBerrys and rolled their eyes. One whispered to another sarcastically, “Can you feel the excitement?” Another asked: “Can you please pour some Drano in my mouth?” They began taking bets on who in the audience would fall asleep first. Former CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer said to the rest of the pack: “This event is taking so long we could all grow beards by the end of it.”
When reporters do get the attention they crave, it is often in bursts, and not of the helpful variety. Patrick Healy, The Times’ Hillary beat reporter, explained at a forum at the Times building in November the relentless scrutiny he faces from her press team: He has received instant messages from the campaign over blog posts; he has heard griping from members of Bill Clinton’s administration over story themes. “So she cares a lot about everything—what’s on the blogs, what’s on page 1,” he said at the forum. “She can be very critical.”
Her campaign has made no obvious effort to differentiate the bad old days between the Clintons and the national media—the days of Whitewater, Travelgate and, of course, Monica Lewinsky—and the reporters who now cover her.
“Take a look around—most of the people covering this campaign are 30 years old,” said a veteran beat reporter while pro-Hillary supporters chanted at a rally in a Manchester parking lot on the morning of Jan. 6. (Most of the reporters covering her are under 40, especially from the major newspapers. The [off-air] beat reporters for the networks only get younger—representatives from ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are all in their 20’s.)
“They don’t know the Clinton White House from the 90’s—they were all in college then,” the reporter said.
But it would be wrong to describe the consequences of the de facto freeze-out as simply reporters getting mad and writing critical things. To hear even the most scrupulous, self-reflective ones tell it, they just haven’t always had a choice.
“We do these process stories instead of critiquing the actor,” the reporter said. “When Chelsea Clinton or Dorothy Rodham show up for an event, we don’t write about them, we write about the process—we write about how Hillary is trying to warm herself up instead of how Hillary is a warm person,” the reporter said. “Maybe her daughter gives her a great sense of comfort, but we don’t know, since no one knows Hillary.”