Politics & Policy

The Dirty Business of the Billary Machine, Again

On the campaign trail in 2008. (Joe Raedle/Getty)
"Ambitious" is an understatement, and the public is wary.

In the run-up to Hillary Clinton’s presidential announcement, a lot of commentators dismissed criticism of her or suggested it would boomerang against Republicans. Her former consultant James Carville accused MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough of “scandalmongering.” On Sunday, Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press, speaking to radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt, expressed his skepticism of Republican efforts against the Clintons: “I look at sort of an obsession on the right of beating Obama and beating Bill Clinton over the years . . . is there a point where you do this too much?”

But clearly many voters disagree. A new Bloomberg poll finds approval of Hillary at 48 percent in the wake of her e-mail scandal. The poll finds 53 percent of Americans believe “she purposely withheld or deleted some relevant e-mails from a private account and home server she used while in office.” Just 29 percent of respondents think she is being truthful.

“Voters do think she is a strong leader — a key metric — but unless she can change the honesty perception, running as a competent but dishonest candidate has serious potential problems,” concludes Quinnipiac’s assistant polling director Peter Brown. His firm’s new polls find majorities in the swing states of Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia don’t believe she is honest or trustworthy.

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Reams of copy have been written by reporters about Hillary’s lack of warmth, her secrecy, and her belief in hand-to-hand political combat. But what seems to bug voters I speak with is the sense that she is mostly a pure political animal. New York magazine reported that “in the Senate, [her Democratic colleague] Chuck Schumer used to tell aides that Clinton was ‘the most opaque person you’ll ever meet in your life.’” He would then add, “If [I’d] lived her life, I’d be that way, too.”

But the life she and Bill Clinton have led includes a degree of ambition and tactical ruthlessness that is remarkable even by Chuck Schumer’s standards. Jeff Gerth and Don Van Atta, two Pulitzer Prize winners formerly with the New York Times, wrote in their 2007 biography of Hillary, Her Way, that in the early 1970s, she and Bill had “made a secret pact of ambition.” They would “embark on a political partnership with two staggering goals: revolutionize the Democratic party and, at the same time, capture the presidency for Bill,” they wrote. “They called it their ‘twenty-year project.’” Indeed it took them only two decades until Bill was elected in 1992. “Once their ‘20-year project’ was realized, their plan became even more ambitious: eight years as president for him, then eight years for her. Their audacious pact has remained a secret until now.”

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Apologists for the Clintons have attacked Gerth and Van Atta’s account, noting that their source for the his-and-hers White House plan is former New York Times reporter Ann Crittenden and her husband. They in turn heard it from historian Taylor Branch, a friend of the Clintons. After Her Way appeared, Branch reversed an earlier statement he had made to one of its authors, saying “I don’t remember” the conversation about a pact. But “I’m not denying it,” he also stated. When contacted by the Washington Post in March 2007, Branch said, “I never heard either Clinton talk about a ‘plan’ for them both to become president.”

But the accuracy of their original “20-year project” citation hasn’t been challenged. Gerth and Van Atta say their source was none other than Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff, Leon Panetta, who heard about the “project” from Bill Clinton himself on Air Force One in 1996. Clinton “allegedly told Panetta that’s why they relied on people like adviser Dick Morris, who has since become an outspoken Clinton basher,” ABC News reported in June 2007. “According to the authors, Clinton told Panetta that ‘you had to hear from the dark side,’ referring to Morris, and ‘we had to do what we had to do.’” Leon Panetta has never altered his on-the-record account.

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The fanaticism with which the Clinton Machine went after Gerth and Van Atta over the notion of their shared presidential “project” helps make the point that the Machine is obsessed with public imagery and getting even with opponents. “[Bill] gets angry, and he gets over it. She gets angry, and she remembers it forever,” Robert Boorstin, who oversaw communications for Hillary’s health-care task force, told former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein for Bernstein’s 2007 Hillary biography A Woman in Charge. At another point in his interview with Bernstein, he said of Hillary: “I find her to be among the most self-righteous people I’ve ever known in my life.”

#related#None of these behavior patterns are unknown among politicians, and voters know the game is a dirty business, so they usually focus on other issues. But electing a president is different, and there are signs that Hillary will be held to a higher standard the closer she appears to be returning to the White House. You’re likely to see more stories like the one last month from Gerth, writing for Pro Publica: “Hillary Clinton’s Top Five Clashes over Secrecy.” Another scandal could suddenly pop up, further increasing her trust deficit with the public.

Some Democrats seem almost to relish all the incoming fire Hillary attracts from Republicans. Paul Waldman, a leftist who writes for the Washington Post and the American Prospect, gloated earlier this month: “I’m sure the idea that Hillary Clinton might enjoy immunity from low-level political scandal because she’s been involved in so many previous scandals (real and fake) just drives Republicans batty.”

But there are signs that the evasions and counterattacks that worked for a first lady, for a U.S. Senator, and even for a secretary of state might not serve Hillary as a full-fledged presidential candidate, especially over the long 20-month stretch until voters go to the polls in November 2016. After all, they didn’t work for her in the 2008 primaries against Barack Obama — a contest in which she was also viewed as an invincible frontrunner.

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online.


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