Image was a paramount concern to Hillary Clinton during her time as secretary of state, and her aides went to great lengths to warn their boss of potentially damaging reports, devise strategies to fight unflattering portrayals, and ply her with compliments after successful media appearances.
Clinton’s symbiotic, love-hate relationship with the media is hardly unique among power brokers in Washington, but dozens of her emails released this week portray an inner circle that was highly skilled at image control and ready to play the long game, building relationships with journalists and crafting a public persona that might serve her well beyond the secretary’s seat. Many of the same advisers from that era are now part of Clinton’s presidential campaign.
In an email from October 2009, top Clinton aide Philippe Reines sounded ecstatic about her appearance on the cover of Parade magazine – “photo is gorgeous” … “a homerun” – and reassured her that the tedium of nonstop media appearances served a greater goal.
“In the end, I firmly believe it will be the totality all these in-depth projects like Vogue, National Geographic, Nightline, Time – which I know are annoying – that are going to create a collage documenting your success,” Reines wrote, “especially in terms of style and work ethic, which I believe is what people are most interested when it comes to their perception and approval of you.”
The emails were released in response to a court order stemming from a lawsuit over Clinton’s decision to eschew an official government account and instead use a personal email account, routed through a private server at her New York home, for all four years she led the State Department.
The arrangement has become the focus of multiple inquiries by the FBI, a pair of inspectors general and Congress. The State Department has begun to release Clinton’s emails in chronological order each month; about 7,000 pages of emails were released Monday night, bringing the total now available publicly to about 25 percent of the 55,000 pages Clinton turned over to the department.
The emails released so far show the less-than-glamorous aspects of life as America’s top diplomat, with Clinton juggling relations with capricious foreign leaders, responding to disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti, handling a sometimes uneasy relationship with the White House, indulging requests for favors from old friends, and wading through a near-constant stream of flattery from underlings and foreign policy experts.
And she had to look good doing it all. Even though she confided to an aide in December 2009 that she had “collapsed” with fatigue after a speech, Clinton was discouraged from letting on that her demanding job took a human toll. An April 23, 2010, email from outside adviser Sidney Blumenthal appears to chastise her after unspecified remarks for “stepping all over your story by saying you are tired.”
Next time, Blumenthal advised, “use the line of the black woman in the Montgomery bus boycott who walked to work: ‘My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.’”
Media-related emails flew continuously into Clinton’s inbox, from the gloating (coverage of her surging past Sarah Palin in popularity polls) to the mundane (a list of the names and affiliations of 10 reporters who would accompany her to Montreal) to the urgent (“We are in an information war on all fronts,” a senior official wrote about combating militant messages).
Staffers monitored what other people said about Clinton, even sending her a transcript of Michelle Obama’s remarks from a Larry King talk show appearance in 2010.
More broadly, State Department officials – as they do in every administration – try to shape coverage of the big picture. In a Feb. 26, 2010, email, one official wrote she was “increasingly concerned about the tone of the media coverage about Afghanistan,” and she recalled how “we waged a very successful campaign against the negative stories concerning our involvement in Haiti.”
“Respond and refute”
Such skill at damage control came in handy on multiple occasions mentioned in the emails. Clinton complained that a Washington Post editorial about a human rights speech she gave in December 2009 was “either deliberately obtuse or clueless” and ordered her staff to “respond and refute.” Within a half-hour, aides promised that they’d draft a response to show her and would promote other commentary, “most of which has been very favorable.”
In another instance, after a federal judge threw out criminal charges against Blackwater guards in the killing of 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians – an episode that drew sharp criticism of the U.S. government’s reliance on private security contractors – Clinton grasped for the appropriate public response. She asked about the likelihood of success on appeal and floated taking civil action against the company or paying compensation to the victims.
In a Jan. 2, 2010, email, State Department legal adviser Harold Hongju Koh assured Clinton that lawyers were “working up a memo” on the subject, but he appeared to suggest that she could just let the Justice Department take the fall because “significantly, the press accounts are all saying that State Department lawyers appropriately warned the DOJ prosecutors, but that the DOJ lawyers chose to take a different route.”
Team Clinton also courted favorite reporters, particularly Mark Landler, who at the time covered diplomacy for The New York Times and appears by name in more than dozen emails from the latest batch released. According to the emails, Landler was invited to a private lunch with an ailing religious figure, Clinton was scheduled to call him for a 15-minute phone interview, and aides brainstormed on how to respond to his query on an unnamed subject that appears to have been controversial.
Reines told Clinton and others in the inner circle that “I don’t think Mark’s writing, just fishing – unless the WH gave it to the Times, but there’s no way they’d handle you that way.” “WH” presumably refers to the White House; relations between the staffs were strained at times because the Obama and Clinton teams had been bitter rivals on the campaign trail.
And interlaced through all the media correspondence were compliments – reading more like sycophancy in many cases – to let one of the most powerful women in the world know that her reputation as a warrior with a compassionate streak was intact. This came through prominently in the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010.
Clinton received compliment after compliment on how she handled the disaster under intense media scrutiny (“Your idea to focus on the girl rescued from the rubble in Haiti wove it all together,” one diplomat wrote of public remarks). Clinton also dispatched her closest aides, such as chief of staff Cheryl Mills, to handle the press.
Mills shared positive feedback she received about her own performance in an NPR interview on Haiti.
Clinton shot back: “And well-deserved. You’re a rock star!”
“At the foot of the master I learned,” Mills replied.