For Hillary Clinton, stealth may be bigger problem than health

The Democratic presidential candidate repeatedly seems to reveal as little as possible to the public. Is she too lawyerly for her own good?

Andrew Harnik/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gets into a van on Sept. 11 in New York. The Democratic presidential nominee did not initially acknowledge why she left the 9/11 anniversary ceremony in New York.

Hillary Clinton’s future may turn more on perceptions of stealth than on questions of health.

That’s a paraphrase of former President Obama adviser David Axelrod talking on Tuesday about Mrs. Clinton’s pneumonia diagnosis. His point was that the former secretary of State’s penchant for secrecy could be far more politically troublesome for her than health problems, despite the blaring coverage of the latter in the Drudge Report and other right-leaning media outlets.

Clinton’s physician told her she was ill on Friday, and advised rest. But Clinton wanted to power through her weekend schedule. News of her condition was closely held even among her aides.

Then she was forced to leave a 9/11 memorial ceremony on Sunday. Faced with little choice, she and her top aides made the pneumonia diagnosis public.

Once again, she seemed to be hiding something, which plays into a much deeper concern for many voters than her health.

“It seems to be Clinton’s guiding impulse to reveal as little information as possible, disclose only those things that are absolutely necessary, and instinctively avoid transparency. Voters are likely to find that more problematic than whatever the health issue is itself,” says Matthew Wilson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Clinton should have just said “I have pneumonia” as soon as she knew, Wilson adds. It’s true that might have inflamed the right-wing talk that her health problems are more serious than she has let on. But it would have provided a logical explanation for her few visible symptoms, such as a persistent cough.

Health story goes mainstream 

As it is, her opponents’ speculation continued anyway, and has now exploded into mainstream media. The whole thing has exasperated even some of Clinton’s Democratic supporters.

“Given that the campaign only revealed her true condition after seemingly having no other choice, when evidence of her falling ill was rocketing all around the Internet, won’t voters be tempted to disbelieve whatever else the campaign says about her health going forward?” writes left-leaning Greg Sargent at his Plum Line blog at The Washington Post.

Clinton herself has long pushed back against the notion that she’s not forthcoming with information the public needs to know. When asked about the subject in interviews, she invariably pivots to some version of a talking point centered on the voluminous information produced by decades of news reports and legal investigations into the activities of her and her ex-president husband.

“I think it’s fair to say ... that people know more about me than almost anyone in public life,” Clinton said Monday during a call-in to Anderson Cooper’s CNN show.

It’s possible that her decades of experience have hardened a natural inclination to keep things as private as possible. That’s what some of her defenders say. In this view, with numerous investigations – from Whitewater to firings in the White House travel office to Ken Starr’s probe and congressional hearings on Benghazi – the disclosure of information has only seemed to feed the beast and lead to continuing investigations.

Clinton thus faces a double bind, according to her defenders. Speak openly, and get hammered by opponents. Keep quiet, and get hammered anyway.

“And people wonder why she gets defensive with the press,” writes Nancy LeTourneau at the left-leaning Washington Monthly.

A lawyer's approach?

But when it comes to passing out information, Clinton often seems naturally reactive. She releases things only as other people or events push her to. She doesn’t do it proactively.

In that sense, she may be the most lawyerly of all recent presidential candidates. Many, including Barack Obama, have been attorneys, but Clinton had a wide-ranging practice at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock back when her husband was Arkansas governor, and in her public statements there is often something of an attorney’s natural reticence.

“Clinton has very careful lawyerly instincts,” says Professor Wilson of SMU. “She is very careful about parsing her words. You get the feeling she is scrupulously avoiding saying anything untrue, while saying as little as possible.”

Her opponent might be her opposite in that regard. Donald Trump says so much so often with questionable supporting evidence that it’s almost impossible for interviewers or fact-checkers to keep up. Thus many objectively false statements or controversial assertions slide by quickly, unchallenged.

At the moment, polls on which candidate is more honest and trustworthy are mixed. A just-released Washington Post survey gives Clinton a 46 to 41 percent edge on that question. But a CNN poll released earlier in September has Trump ahead, with 50 percent of respondents rating him the more trustworthy of the candidates, as opposed to 35 percent for Clinton.

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