Hillary Clinton’s had a tough year: fending off a primary challenge no one saw coming, running against a candidate who’s so...unusual. Oh, and people don’t like or trust her. The notion that she has "something to hide" has trailed her for decades, but where does it come from? Washington Post national political correspondent Karen Tumulty traces much of it back to a fateful day nearly 25 years ago. Brooke talks with Tumulty about the scandal that started it all, Clinton's relationship with the press, and her tendency toward secrecy that often backfires.
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BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media.
I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Hillary Clinton had a tough year, fending off a primary challenge that no one saw coming, running against a candidate who’s so - unusual. Oh, and people don't like her or trust her.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Hillary Clinton’s unfavorability rating hitting a new high in a poll out today.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Only 11% find Clinton trustworthy.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: You asked for the word that describes Hillary Clinton.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: A bunch of people said “liar.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She’s got to be used to it by now. After all, she spent most of the last 25 years fending off ethical and legal challenges, ranging from the legitimate to the totally bogus, all premised on the idea that she always has something to hide.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: What’s Hillary Clinton hiding? New details today in her use of private email…
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Lawmakers are trying to get the truth from Hillary Clinton on the 2012 attack in Benghazi.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Hillary Clinton, answering questions about an Arkansas land deal and about money that she made on cattle futures when her husband was governor.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Before the Clintons left their governorship in Arkansas, more than a hundred people have been suspiciously murdered.
KAREN TUMULTY: And, you know, there’s one today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s that?
KAREN TUMULTY: Leading Drudge, that she was wearing an earpiece last night.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's Washington Post National Political Correspondent Karen Tumulty, and she’s referring to Wednesday's Commander-in-Chief Forum on NBC, where Clinton and Trump were interviewed by Matt Lauer.
KAREN TUMULTY: The only explanation that Drudge can come up with is that someone was feeding her the answers to the questions because, really, can you think of any other reason why a person on live television would be wearing an earpiece?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For those who don't know, it's pretty standard. But the point is Hillary must be up to something, Hillary’s hiding something! It's a media reflex that Tumulty says was set in motion by a single decision almost a quarter century ago.
KAREN TUMULTY: It was December 11th, 1993 at the very end of what had been a very chaotic first year in office for Bill Clinton. And the question of a failed real estate investment that they had made in Arkansas in the 1970s and ‘80s was, once again, percolating in the press, this being, of course, now famous as Whitewater.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The tangled relationship between an Arkansas land deal, a savings and loan and Hillary Rodham Clinton's former law firm is again under scrutiny today….
KAREN TUMULTY: The late Ann Devroy, an incredibly well-sourced White House correspondent for the Washington Post, had heard that the White House had compiled all the background documents on Whitewater, so she wanted to see them for herself. And, finally, the one Saturday morning, David Gergen and George Stephanopoulos, both of whom were working at the White House at the time –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You describe them as rivals who agreed on almost nothing. But they did agree on one thing.
KAREN TUMULTY: They thought that the White House ought to just hand over the documents, if they allowed the media to take a look at it, that they would a) see that there was nothing there and b) get bored with it and move on to something else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
KAREN TUMULTY: But there was a lot of resistance from the first couple, and particularly from Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton was not in the room, it should be said, but Stephanopoulos, who knew them both very, very well, said that he could really hear the president channeling her arguments, that, no, if we give this over our enemies will just demand more, they'll never stop coming at us.
And Stephanopoulos later wrote that if a genie were to come to him and give him one day back at the White House where he could undo one day, that would be the day because by not turning over these documents, they kept the controversy going. Within a month, to the day, the White House had to agree to the appointment of a special prosecutor. That special prosecutor later became Ken Starr, and he was given all the powers of an independent counsel, which led to the discovery of Monica Lewinsky and President Clinton's impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice, none of which were related to the original question of whether there was something funky about this real estate deal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You could argue that Hillary had been under attack from the moment she emerged on the political scene alongside Bill in Arkansas, for her looks, for her independence, her presumption that she knew stuff and could do stuff, right?
KAREN TUMULTY: All of that is true, but she has an inherent tendency toward secrecy. For instance, when she set up the Health Care Reform Task Force and had 500 people working on it, she refused to disclose the identities of those 500 people. She makes these kinds of decisions throughout her career, right up into her decision to set up a private email server. And almost always, this backfires on her.
There's a little bit of irony here because Hillary, from her first experience in Washington, was working for the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment inquiry of Richard Nixon.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
KAREN TUMULTY: And after Watergate, there were a number of permanent changes in both the law and the Washington culture. After Watergate, you had a much more skeptical press. You had a number of new tools, originally used by the left, to sort of force issues where corruption was suspected. The Clintons also arrived in Washington at a moment where scalp hunting had become a real sport.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You describe that an entire industry grew up around the Clinton scandals, pseudo-scandals, conspiracy theories. Were the Clintons, as a political couple, so different that they would warrant this kind of scrutiny?
KAREN TUMULTY: Some of the ways in which they did business made the problem worse. For instance, by 1996, we are all embroiled in campaign finance scandals over a number of policies that the White House instituted for fundraising for the Democratic National Committee, where if you wrote a big enough check you could spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom or you could come to a coffee in the Map Room, where there would be regulators present who regulated your industry.
I think we also need to add into this the changing media environment, the internet coming up as a real force. Matt Drudge, I think none of us had ever heard of him before the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And here he is, still at it this week.
KAREN TUMULTY: Exactly, that suddenly there are forces out there that can drive information and put it in the hands of people without going through the traditional media filters. And some of that information was valid, but a lot of it was not. And that included rumors talked about in the darker corners of right-wing radio and on the internet that accused the Clintons, literally, of murder and [LAUGHS] drug running.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But does some of this have to do with the fact that the Clintons, by dint of their generation, forced an increasingly divided culture to confront itself?
KAREN TUMULTY: That’s another ingredient to throw into our witch’s brew here. [LAUGHS] As one of their longtime friends and advisers said to me, you know, it was basically sex and drugs and Vietnam, and Bill Clinton had it all. And Hillary Clinton herself, when her back was against the wall, would, would come up with explanations for things that just weren’t plausible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So do you think, if she had just been able to fully disclose the Whitewater documents and been more transparent, in general, that she could have prevented the kind of intense scrutiny that she's experienced since, the suspicion that she just can't be trusted?
KAREN TUMULTY: I think it would have been possible to avoid some of it. People like George Stephanopoulos and David Gergen believed that had they turned over the Whitewater documents, Ken Starr would never have been appointed and Bill Clinton would never have been impeached. Would there have been scandals and fake scandals and rumors? Yes, but nothing of the magnitude that we saw come to pass.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it too late for her to change the narrative now?
KAREN TUMULTY: Um, that is a very good question. The lessons that she has learned from this, the lessons that a lot of her supporters think they've learned from this and the lessons that the people around her have taken from this are the exact opposite, that, you know, the best defense is a good offense and that you dig in and get ready for trench warfare.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s funny, people say she’s fake, switches from one thing to another but in this she's been quite steadfast.
KAREN TUMULTY: [LAUGHS] That is true. My very first cover story that I was writing about her for Time magazine was when she was turning 50. She is a very, very difficult subject to humanize because she can be incredibly charming and funny off the record and then the minute you open your notebook the gates come down. And so, I was out to dinner with a bunch of reporters with her on a foreign trip and it was off the record and she told an absolutely charming story, which was about Chelsea going off to college that year and how she missed her so much that she would just sneak into her bedroom and just sit there and mourn her absent daughter. So one day she’s sitting there in the bedroom and the other door to it opens and in comes the president, and it turns out he’s been doing the same thing. I said, could I please have this on the record for my Time magazine cover story about you? And her office said, absolutely not, she does not talk about Chelsea on the record. And I said, you know, this is about Chelsea’s bedroom. She doesn’t even live in her bedroom. And so, all was for naught, until a few days later I did a phone interview with the president. And I knew that if I asked one leading question, he was gonna drop that story on me so fast. And he did! And so, [LAUGHING] I was able to use the anecdote because Bill totally understood what I was going at here, which was just one kind of humanizing little anecdote. And she is just so defensive on stuff like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So this trust issue between Hillary and the media, it's just a downward spiral. It just keeps growing on both sides.
KAREN TUMULTY: Yeah, but the fact is I think every reporter who has had any chance to see her in an off-the-record setting knows that there is another side to her personality, but something about her refuses to let that side show.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Karen, thank you very much.
KAREN TUMULTY: Oh, you're quite welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Karen Tumulty is national political correspondent for the Washington Post.
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