PRESSWATCH

Life in the Vast Lane
Journalists treat Mrs. Clinton with kid gloves. That may not last.

BY JAMES TARANTO
The American Spectator, May 2007

It wasn't exactly a scandal, but on February 24 the Associated Press published this revelation:

While Mitt Romney condemns polygamy and its prior practice by his Mormon church, the Republican presidential candidate's great-grandfather had five wives and at least one of his great-great grandfathers had 12. . . .

Romney's great-grandfather, Miles Park Romney, married his fifth wife in 1897. That was more than six years after Mormon leaders banned polygamy and more than three decades after a federal law barred the practice.

But so what? Romney not only isn't a polygamist; he doesn't even practice "serial monogamy." He married his high school sweetheart, Ann, and they've been together for 38 years.

If the marital lives of a presidential candidate's great- and great-great-grandparents are a legitimate topic of journalistic inquiry, what about the marital lives of presidential candidates themselves? We've heard a fair amount about the sometimes messy divorces of Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Newt Gingrich, but one candidate with a history of marital troubles has largely escaped scrutiny.

That would be the junior senator from New York. Hillary Clinton did not divorce her husband when his infidelity came to light during a sexual-harassment suit. Instead, she not only stood by her man but made him (and, implicitly, herself ) out to be the victim of what she styled a "vast right-wing conspiracy." According to the Washington Post, in an article published the day after the AP's "exposÚ" on Romney's ancestors, she now wants the topic to be off-limits:

[Mrs.] Clinton has a new commandment for the 2008 presidential field: Thou shalt not mention anything related to the impeachment of her husband.

With a swift response to attacks from a former supporter [Hollywood mogul David Geffen] last week, advisers to the New York Democrat offered a glimpse of their strategy for handling one of the most awkward chapters of her biography. They declared her husband's impeachment in 1998--or, more accurately, the embarrassing personal behavior that led to it--taboo, putting her rivals on notice and all but daring other Democrats to mention the ordeal again.

"In the end, voters will decide what's off-limits, but I can't imagine that the public will reward the politics of personal destruction," senior Clinton adviser Howard Wolfson said Friday, when asked whether the impeachment is fair game for Clinton's opponents. Earlier in the week, Wolfson dismissed references to President Bill Clinton's conduct as "under the belt."

So far the press has largely gone along. Here's an example from the March 5 issue of Newsweek:

Last December, a Newsweek reporter tentatively broached a delicate subject with a longstanding adviser to Hillary Clinton: was there a concern in the Hillary camp that her husband might somehow embarrass her in the campaign ahead? The reaction was swift and fierce. "If that's what you want to talk about, I'm hanging up right now," said the adviser, who did not wish to be identified even entertaining such a question. . . .

Perhaps the Clintonites are understandably worried that the Republican right will try to create a scandal where there is none or dredge up old history.

An example of dredging up "old history" would be going back three and four generations to examine the marital practices of a candidate's ancestors. In Mrs. Clinton's case, the questions very much involve living history.

Based on her public actions--remaining married to her husband and publicly defending him despite his infidelity--one may wonder if the Clintons have a "polyamorous" marriage (polyamory essentially consisting of polygamy without commitment). It may also be that the Clinton union has devolved into essentially a marriage of convenience--that the senator believes she is better positioned to realize her political ambitions if she remains legally bound to her husband, who is very popular at least within his own party. As Mark Steyn argued in a January 1998 Wall Street Journal op-ed:

Mrs. Clinton is the most powerful first lady in history. Those of us who value executive accountability have never been comfortable with this. Mrs. Clinton's presence in the White House derives from the fact of her marriage to the president. If that marriage is, as it appears to be, a sleazy travesty of what most Americans understand by the term, that is a matter of explicit public concern.

This is surely no less true now that Mrs. Clinton is seeking the presidency in her own right.

In mid-March, Mrs. Clinton reprised the "right-wing conspiracy" theme, as the AP reported:

She asserted the conspiracy is alive and well, and cited as proof the Election Day 2002 case of phone jamming in New Hampshire, a case in which two Republican operatives pleaded guilty to criminal charges, and a third was convicted.

"To the New Hampshire Democratic party's credit, they sued and the trail led all the way to the Republican National Committee," Clinton said.

"So if anybody tells you there is no vast right-wing conspiracy, tell them that New Hampshire has proven it in court," she said.

A conspiracy of three is not exactly vast. It would be a stretch to call it half-vast. But it's worth looking again at the context in which Mrs. Clinton first introduced the notion of the "vast right-wing conspiracy." Here's an excerpt of her comments, on the January 27, 1998 Today show:

The great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it--is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president. . . .

If all that were proven true, I think that would be a very serious offense. That is not going to be proven true.

In the event, it was proved true. It's bad enough that Mrs. Clinton never apologized for her paranoid accusations back in '98. Instead she established residency in one of the most heavily Democratic states, where in 2000 she rode her image as an innocent wife victimized by the "right-wing conspiracy" right into the U.S. Senate. For her to revive the conspiracy theme--while at the same time declaring the subject of her marriage and her husband's impeachment to be off-limits--takes gall.

But the press continues to be gentle. The March AP report said only that Mrs. Clinton "famously charged allegations of an affair between her then-president husband Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky were the result of a conservative conspiracy," and that "as evidence of the affair eventually came to light, the comment was ridiculed. But many Democrats have since insisted that [Mrs.] Clinton was correct."

Liberal journalists likely will continue to shy away from these questions, as did the Newsweek reporter who "tentatively broached a delicate subject" instead of confronting a source with a tough question, the way reporters do with Republicans. The senator's Democratic opponents may respect her "taboo" too.

But if she wins the nomination, we can expect to hear a lot more about this, just as we did in 2004 about John Kerry's dodgy activities vis-Ó-vis Vietnam. (See "Kerry's Quagmire," TAS, July/August 2005.) Like Kerry, Mrs. Clinton may find herself unprepared to wage an effective general-election campaign because she is so used to receiving deferential treatment from the press.

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