Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bill and Hillary's two-for-one media muscle

Way back in 1992, when Bill Clinton was first running for president, he was fond of promoting himself and Hillary as a unique package deal, "two for the price of one." And apparently that's still the deal - as evidenced by the way Bill and Hillary worked in tandem to muscle a national magazine into killing a negative story.

I'm a bit surprised that this incident, revealed this week by Politico, has not garnered more attention, given the fact that it shows how America's premiere power couple operates behind the scenes. One can only assume, hypothetically speaking, that if George H. W. Bush back in 1999 had somehow been able to muscle a national magazine into killing a negative story about his son the candidate, there would have been an outcry on the left about the Bush family using its clout to suppress freedom of the press.

The facts in the Clinton incident, as reported, are essentially these: Gentlemen's Quarterly, the glossy monthly that typically combines political and celebrity profiles with tips on cool socks and accessories, had enlisted a respected free-lancer, Joshua Green, to write about the inside skinny of the Hillary Clinton campaign. That's a tough assignment, because "Hillaryland" is a ship that rarely leaks. But apparently, Green unearthed some evidence of infighting among the top staffers, reportedly including some jealousy over one senior official's pay package. So when the Clinton campaign got word of all this (from Green, who he was seeking comment), the spinners swung into action.

It turned out that GQ had a separate project in the pipeline: a fawning story about Bill Clinton's good works around the globe, a story that was scheduled to run in December, with Bill's familiar mug on the cover. It was a sweet deal for GQ, because Bill is considered one of those rare celebrity-politicians who can actually inspire greater newsstand sales - which explains why GQ wanted him fronting the issue that would have lots of Christmas advertising stuffed inside.

Well, the Clinton team decided to threaten that deal. During the summer, it reportedly, it told GQ: Either you kill that negative Hillary story, or Bill would refuse to cooperate any further on any aspect of the Bill story.

And GQ caved. It killed the unflattering Hillary story in order to save its positive Bill story.

GQ's editor told Politico: "I don’t really get into the inner workings of the magazine, but I can tell you that yes, we did kill a Hillary piece. We kill pieces all the time for a variety of reasons." Then he declined to say anything further about the "reasons" for this particular killing. In other words, the Politico story is accurate...and the Clintons pulled off a two-fer.

It's hardly unusual, of course, for politicians to shape news coverage, or to wield clout in the publishing world. The Kennedy family was famously adept; thanks to the backstage machinations of old Joe Kennedy, Look and Life magazines often seemed to function as de facto campaign brochures for JFK. But the GQ affair demonstrates how the Clintons plan to play the game, by leverage his unique celebrity on behalf of her candidacy.

What's mysterious about this incident, however, is why the Clintons felt the need to muscle the Green story onto the editor's spike. Perhaps it's because they didn't like Green, who had previously written a long Atlantic magazine piece about how Hillary is "cautious" pol. It's hard to imagine why a piece about intramural campaign squabbling would set off alarms, since that kind of insider stuff is interesting to only the most devoted political junkies. (This being the Internet age, won't this article surface somewhere else, eventually?) The bottom line, however, is that this incident reveals the control-freak mentality inside the Hillary camp.

There could have been a different outcome, of course. GQ might have told the Clintons to stuff it, deciding instead to stick with the Green story and put some other celebrity on the Christmas issue cover. For free-press purists, perhaps that would have been the preferred outcome. But these glossy magazines are accustomed to being squeezed; they have to deal with Hollywood press agents (the most notorious, for a long time, was Pat Kingsley) who decree that their celebrity clients won't grace the mag cover unless the client gets to choose the writer, or even the subject matter. These magazines are all about business, not the First Amendment. And the two-for-one Clintons know how to work that angle.


Hell has frozen over. A Senate Republican has finally acknowledged that, on an important national issue, President Bush is "factually incorrect."

For years, of course, Bush has been making statements about Iraq that bear no resemblance to factual reality, and this week he has sought to extend the practice to the domestic sphere, to the debate over children's health insurance. But this was too much for Iowa Republican senator Charles Grassley, who also fumed that "the president's understanding of our bill is wrong."

Welcome to the club, Chuck.

He has been a key player in the bipartisan effort to expand a popular children's health insurance program (the one that passed the House last night, with 45 Republicans voting for it). But Bush plans to nix it anyway, claiming over the weekend that the bill "goes too far toward federalizing health care and turns a program into one that covers children in some households with incomes of up to $83,000 a year."

But, as Grassley's camp pointed out, there is no such provision in the bill. Bush was apparently seizing on the news that New York State, citing the high cost of living there, has asked for a waiver that would permit coverage of kids in family-of-four households earning $83,000, but the bill itself has no provisions to expand eligibility, and stipulates that the poorest kids below the poverty level get top priority. (As for New York's requested waiver, the feds have already turned it down.)

In any case, Republican congressman Roy LaHood of Ohio had the best question yesterday: "I'm a little baffled as to why the Bush people picked this issue to fight it out on. It's very sensitive. It's about kids. Who's against kids' health care?"

Indeed, why pick a fight over a children's bill that is endorsed by the American Medical Association, the health insurance industry, governors from both parties (including conservatives such as Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota), the AARP, and enough Republican senators (including Grassley and Orrin Hatch) to ensure a veto-proof Senate majority?

Whatever the answer, Bush's vow to veto health insurance for kids may well prompt even more congressional Republicans to consider retirement rather than run the gauntlet in 2008.