Hillary Clinton learns to meet the press

The first lady's attitude toward reporters - once prickly - is warming, as her Senate campaign heats up.

Flanked by Secret Service agents and staff, and chased by a handful of reporters, Hillary Rodham Clinton strode determinedly across a white marble concourse in Albany's capital complex, dismissing the press's questions.

"I'm not going to hold a walking press conference," she said, to their evident dismay.

An hour later, after a short speech on education reform at a nearby hotel, she emerged from a side room smiling broadly, holding up a bottle of Saratoga Springs water, and faced the pack of inquisitive correspondents.

Thus, US Senate candidate Mrs. Clinton tries to come to terms with the symbiotic and sometimes barbed relationship with the media that remains crucial to any politician's success. Love them or revile them, try to control them or ignore them, members of the fourth estate still remain the primary link to voters.

No one better than Sen. John McCain in recent history has shown how much positive publicity a candidate can gain by cultivating the news media.

The first lady, on the other hand, began her historic quest for the Senate at the other extreme.

"She detests the press, and that's not unusual among public officials," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "But what is unusual, is her inability to hide it."

But she is trying, and trying hard. In the past few months, she's made herself more available for one-on-one interviews with the local and national press. In every media market she ventures into, she does back-to-back sit-downs with the local television stations. And although her opponent, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani faces reporters almost daily, she now has press "availabilities" once or twice a week.

At the same time, she's tried to reveal her more spontaneous side, like holding up the bottle of Saratoga Springs water - to jokingly show she imbibes locally - at last week's unscheduled availability.

"She's a lot better than what she was. She knows a lot of the reporters personally - she calls us by our names. She's a lot more personable than she used to be," says Lara Jakes, who's been covering the first lady for the Albany Times Union. "But at the heart of it, she has her game face on and you know that."

When Clinton began her so-called "listening tour" this summer, she kept the press at a determined distance, and paid a price for it. After a short, initial honeymoon, the coverage turned tepid and eventually began focusing on her inaccessibility. In New York, a rough-and-tumble state where "slap on the back" pols like Al D'Amato and Chuck Schumer routinely rub elbows with the press, such aloofness is quickly judged an offense.

"We even set up ambushes," says Phil Bayly of WNYT in Albany. "Not to ask her degrading or alarming questions, but simply to ask her a question at all, like 'How ya doing?' We expect more of a Senate candidate than that."

Mr. Bayly, like most of the local press who cover her, now says they are getting access on a regular basis, and Clinton appears to have hit her stride.

She herself has referred to the campaign as an "evolutionary process." And as her spokesman, Howard Wolfson, points out, she'd never run for office before, despite her extensive experience in and around her husband's campaigns.

"It's different when you're a candidate, but I think she is loving it," he says.

Legendary distrust of the media

Even so, Clinton's legendary distrust of the press still emerges at times.

"The image she's trying to project is much softer and accessible, but the reality is she's still got that flinty, steely side that in a flash you see when you get into territory where she doesn't want to go," says Judy Sanders, the Albany news chief of WRGB-TV.

That flinty side is a product of the unprecedented battering she and her husband have sustained since coming into office. Professor Sabato says some of her resentment of the press is unfounded, in that the president's behavior warranted much of the coverage he got. But he also believes some of her anger is legitimate. "From the very beginning of the '92 cycle, parts of the press were determined to go where no press people had ever gone before - to invade the legitimate privacy of this very controversial couple," he says.

In Clinton's presence, one can almost feel the strain she makes to be affable with reporters. But she can also let down her guard to reveal an amused sense of dismay with the press and its priorities.

Front-page news

Last week The New York Times ran a front-page story about a fund-raiser for her that was sponsored by a Pakistani group. An organizer told the reporter he had hoped to influence President Clinton's decision on whether to visit Pakistan by giving money to the first lady. There was no evidence whatsoever that that happened. And when asked about it at her informal availability, Mrs. Clinton said people who thought they could influence the president through her were "dead wrong."

But she also said it never occurred to her that a routine fund-raiser, an event where people typically try to influence politicians' decisions on a variety of issues, would become grist for a story.

"Not at all, it never crossed my mind - especially because when I was asked I said, 'I know the president said he hopes to go' - but that was all, and that was what everybody in the administration was saying," she said. "It struck me as a nonevent."

But for some reporters, who are trained to be skeptical, the story warranted front-page coverage simply because someone said they were trying to influence the president through his wife - which appeared to be something new - even though there was no evidence that it actually happened.

That kind of reaction is something the most successful pols have learned to understand, anticipate, and even finesse. And it is something the press itself is recommending Clinton get used to.

"Come sometime in the summer, she's got to be able to rub elbows with us, and kill dead time and talk sometimes about nothing - just like Alphonse D'Amato did, and just like Chuck Schumer does," says Bayly. "That's what being a US senator is.... You can't live behind these guarded walls."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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