Politics & Policy

The Hillary Narrative

A story for the ages.

Was it the Saturday night anger? Or the Sunday morning tears? Was it the pundits piling on? Or Obama’s coolly snide “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” Perhaps it was those dumb guys yelling “Iron my shirt!”? And, who the heck, were those yahoos anyway? I’ve read they were 21-year-old Hillary supporters, who, after decades of “no-iron” shirts, have probably never worn a starched and ironed shirt in their lives.

No doubt, the Clinton campaign is analyzing and re-analyzing the stew of ingredients — a bit of anger, a moment of softness, the look of exhaustion, a touch of sisterly solidarity and Bill causing problems yet again — that constituted last week’s recipe for success.

One thing ought to be pretty clear in the Clinton camp: Women may not like Hillary, and in fact, to paraphrase Obama, she really is unlikable enough to many of them. But they don’t want the guys to pile on, either. That reminds them of the male nay-sayers they like to claim they have had to contend with in their own lives. Or, at the very least, a chicklit novel or a Lifetime victim-of-the-week movie.

A survey taken by New York Women in Communications Inc. of both men and women shows that although women won’t support a female candidate unconditionally, they are far more sensitive than men to the public scrutiny of a female candidate. According to the survey, 47 percent of women say females are more likely than males to receive negative media coverage, compared to only 35 percent of men. And 60 percent of women say female candidates are more likely to be judged by their clothing or hairstyle, while only 49 percent of men concur.

So how the media treats a female candidate becomes a factor not only in shaping women’s opinions about the candidate, but also by determining how supportive of that candidate women will be when they arrive at the ballot box. The media may have helped Hillary when they were being positive about the inevitability of her campaign. But they may have helped her even more, at least with women voters, when they turned negative about her chances. A woman’s vulnerabilities, real or pretended, and how the media focuses on them, can become more important than her policies, especially at a time when media coverage has turned this election into a year-long 24/7 reality show. And the twists and turns of the soap opera narrative of Hillary — she’s up, she’s down, she rises once again — are a lot more compelling to the media — and, let’s admit it, to female voters — than Hillary’s own chilly, wonky personality.

I am sure that Obama’s people were startled when the pundits’ and the pollsters’ predictions in New Hampshire just didn’t come true. What women didn’t share with the pollsters was that even if they weren’t so enthused about Hillary they didn’t like the gleeful way so many talking heads were counting her out.

I am sure Obama staffers are now trying to figure out how to deal with Hillary moment-by-moment. They are not worried about her health care or Iraq War positions — after all, does the media pay much attention to that? They are instead wondering when those tears will well up once again.

If Hillary does prevail and win the nomination, adopting an effective strategy to compete with her will prove an enormous challenge to the Republican nominee. Regardless of whether the issue is the war, or the economy, health care, or the mortgage crisis, the media will focus on the drama of the day. And drama is the one thing that the Clintons continue to prove they can always guarantee.


Myrna BlythMyrna Blyth is senior vice president and editorial director of AARP Media. She is the former editor-in-chief and publishing director of Ladies’ Home Journal. She was the founding editor and ...


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