It Takes a Chill

Hillary Clinton as The Godfather.
Hillary Clinton as The Godfather. Illustration: Drew Friedman

Hillary Clinton dropped her shoulders and whimpered.

She was reacting, with comic theatricality, after a guest at a fund-raiser on Friday night asked her about the perception in the media that she was cold and calculating.

“I am aware of the storyline, and I very much am conscious of how I have to work to make it clear to people who I really am,” said Mrs. Clinton as she walked around a “Hillary for President” stage in the midtown Cipriani ballroom. “That doesn’t mean everybody is going to like me or vote for me, but at least it gives me a better chance to stand on my own bearings.”

She was speaking at an event packed with ticket-holding supporters and almost entirely free of reporters.

Mrs. Clinton, the front-runner in the race to win Democratic Presidential nomination, controls her statements and image more than perhaps any candidate that has come before her.

Her disciplined and highly touted communications operation keeps the media at arm’s length, reflecting the wariness of a woman who has been the subject of more press scrutiny than just about any other elected official in the world. At the same time, her press people have arguably emerged as the most aggressive of any on the Democratic side, criticizing opponents John Edwards and, this week, Barack Obama for their perceived mischaracterizations of her complicated position on Iraq.

Now, as reporters observe and deconstruct Mrs. Clinton’s every gesture and syllable from the wings, she simply isn’t playing along.

“The press made up their mind a long time ago what they were going to think about Hillary Clinton; she does much better and is more comfortable dealing with voters,” said James Carville, who ran Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. He added that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was exceptionally good at keeping information from leaking and protecting their candidate. “They are much more disciplined than we were,” he said.

During Mrs. Clinton’s two-day trip to New Hampshire this weekend, for example, she didn’t hold a single press conference. The national press corps that followed her around to Berlin, Concord and Keene got to watch Mrs. Clinton interact with voters in forums, but without asking questions.

In Nashua on Sunday, Mrs. Clinton held a “conversation with Granite Staters” at an undisclosed location. Local press had access to the event, while the national reporters waited for a pool report from The Washington Post. (A hastily assembled carpool of reporters from The New York Times, New York Post and Daily News managed to get to the event, but eventually gave up on getting access and left.)

In this early phase of the campaign, Mrs. Clinton and her supporters seem confident that the strategy is effective—and entirely justified.

On Tuesday, Emily’s List, a political network that supports pro-choice Democratic women, e-mailed a pointed comparison of the largely positive local coverage of her visit—The Keene Sentinel went with “Clinton Makes a Splash During Appearance at Keene High”—with write-ups in the national press that focused on Mrs. Clinton’s response to a hostile question about her Iraq policy.

Mrs. Clinton’s senior campaign advisor, Ann Lewis, a former White House communications director in the Clinton administration, pointed out in an interview that there was nothing keeping the droves of reporters following Mrs. Clinton from watching her conversations with voters and reporting on the substance of her answers. That way, she said, Mrs. Clinton’s message “ripples out” across the country.

“Most people would prefer to get their political information firsthand. They want the chance to get that information for themselves and make their own observations and draw their own conclusions,” said Ms. Lewis. “We’ve made a conscious decision to put the voters first.”

Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton continues to express an air of supreme confidence, especially in private settings. In a meeting last week with some 300 fund-raisers, according to a participant, Mrs. Clinton cited state-by-state poll results before declaring baldly, “We’re winning.”

It is that early dominance of the Democratic field—she leads her opponents in most polls by about 20 points—and her universal name recognition that allows her the luxury of campaigning without soliciting press coverage.

Those same dominating attributes also allow her campaign to be unusually aggressive about managing the attention they do get. Her press office is not built for charm and outreach. With a media war room filled with hardened alumni of Senator Charles Schumer’s press office—Howard Wolfson, Phil Singer, Blake Zeff—Mrs. Clinton created a team cut out, above all, for rapid response.

On Tuesday, for example, Mr. Wolfson responded directly, by name, to Mr. Obama’s comment a day earlier that Mrs. Clinton “does not begin a phased redeployment” of troops from Iraq.

“Senator Obama is mistaken,” read an e-mail sent to reporters on Tuesday morning. “Senator Clinton has long been on record in favor of a phased redeployment of our troops. In fact both she and Senator Obama voted in 2005 to begin such a withdrawal.”

(She does support phased redeployment but, unlike Mr. Obama, has yet to set a timeline for moving the troops.)

The ambitious goal for the Clinton campaign is, in essence, to keep control of every aspect of the message—from day to day or, as the rapid-fire exchange with the Obama campaign demonstrated, from hour to hour.

“She is unique in her ability to have a communications strategy that she pretty much dictates,” said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst at the Cook Political Report, who recalled that Mrs. Clinton’s strategy after winning her Senate election in 1999 was to only speak with New York press, so as not to give the impression that she had national ambitions.

Veterans of other Democratic campaigns said that Mrs. Clinton’s strategy made political sense, because reporters were more likely to ask process questions about the sorts of things Mrs. Clinton would rather keep quiet, such as her enormous fund-raising ambitions and deepening ranks of political operatives.

“I think they are playing it right,” said Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore’s 2000 campaign. “Time will come when she will have to show a little bit more of herself and give more access to the media. But now is not the time. You can imagine what the reporters would ask her about.”

Mrs. Clinton’s intentions regarding traditional press strategy were clear from the beginning. She announced her campaign online, and followed it up with three days of Web chats with voters. The questions were selected by Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, but she gave full, if practiced answers, that revealed more about her policy positions and personality (favorite movie: Out of Africa) than she has generally permitted in interviews.

“We’ve become aware of this new technology, which is now a fundamental part of politics,” said Peter Daou, Mrs. Clinton’s blog advisor, before introducing her on Friday night. “It’s changing the way people do politics.”

Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s former campaign manager, who pioneered the use of the Internet in political fund-raising and outreach, agreed.

“The press is becoming far less important in getting your message out,” he said, arguing that new technology meant an end to the notion of Janus-like candidates with one face for the public and another in private. “And so any candidate that I think is playing by the old rules—scripted, choreographed and not being open—is going to run into trouble sooner or later.”

Mr. Trippi, who is not currently affiliated with any candidate, said that while Mrs. Clinton was trying to reach out using new technology, she nevertheless was entrenched in that old way of campaigning, and that her tendency to triangulate gave Mr. Obama and John Edwards, at least in terms of authenticity, an advantage.

But Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, with its motto “Let the Conversation Begin,” seems intent on addressing just that criticism.

Campaigning in New Hampshire for the first time since 1996, Mrs. Clinton met with generally supportive crowds impressed by her stage presence and grasp of a range of policy issues.

In Berlin on Saturday, when one voter—yes, that one—asked her about her 2002 vote authorizing the war in Iraq, Mrs. Clinton responded with nothing but nuance and what The Times called her “standard talking points.” (In a possible indication of just how inscrutable Mrs. Clinton can be, the headline on that very same Times story read “In New Hampshire, Clinton Owns Up to Her Vote on Iraq War.”)

On Sunday in Keene—surrounded by frozen lakes, “real log-cabin homes” and a statue of giant moose—Mrs. Clinton made an appearance at the local high school for an open forum with voters. Many wore “I’m Keene on Hillary” buttons and waved supportive signs as they packed into the gym.

Mrs. Clinton, dressed in a black pantsuit and matching teal shirt and earrings, walked around on a platform ringed by red velvet ropes. Television cameras pointed from the back of the room, while reporters skirted the perimeter of the crowd.

Mrs. Clinton talked about her willingness to get “outside the usual media campaign” and joked, “It’s true,” when a voter commiserated that “you were called everything” in the press. Exactly one person clapped when she outlined her proposal to cap troop levels, but the crowd thundered with applause when she talked about becoming the first female President. “I have been reading a good bit of newspaper articles that say she is distant and has canned answers,” said Ranae Beeker, a 48-year-old nurse in the crowd. “She didn’t demonstrate that today. I thought she was very personal.”

Dealing With Protest

On Friday, at the fund-raiser in Cipriani, Mrs. Clinton sipped a glass of water and, strolling around a stage in the middle of the ballroom, shielded her eyes from the lights and picked hands out of the crowd.

One of the questioners turned out to be 26-year-old Dana Balicki—a plant from the anti-war group Code Pink, whose members were protesting outside.

Ms. Balicki asked, “How many millions of dollars are we going to waste, how many thousands of lives?” before Mrs. Clinton cut funding to end the war in Iraq.

“Well, let’s talk about it,” Mrs. Clinton responded. “I don’t disagree with the thrust of your question. I’m trying to figure out the most effective way to rein the President in.”

Mrs. Clinton segued into a primer on the techncal obstacles facing Congressional Democrats and explained why she opposed cutting off funds for the troops that were over there.

Unsatisfied, Ms. Balicki interrupted Mrs. Clinton, who had begun talking about the need to isolate Iran.

“I’m sorry, you’ve had your opportunity,” Mrs. Clinton said, looking down from the stage.

The crowd applauded, and Ms. Balicki began chanting “End the war now!” As security escorted her out, Mrs. Clinton added for good measure, “And you know, you can yell about it, or you can try to solve it—and that’s what I’m doing.”

A few moments later, a man rose to ask, somewhat nervously, how she would overcome a perception that she is shrill.

“You know, I heard all of that when I first started running in New York. And the press said the very same thing. You can go back and pull out the same comments written by some of the same people back in ’99 and 2000,” she said. “And I had enough faith in New Yorkers that if I got out there and actually met enough people and talked about what I wanted to do, and if I had enough friends out there talking about me and telling the reality of me, then people would see through all that.” It Takes a Chill