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The Selling of Hillary

Aired June 15, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The selling of Hillary. Are the TV anchors being tough, or just helping her peddle books? Are the Hillary bashers having their day? Has the senator made all those questions about Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers fair game for the press? And why are so many reporters convinced she's running for her husband's old job?

Also, the passing of David Brinkley. How a man of few words changed the television business.



KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Just ahead, Frank Rich, David Gergen and Michelle Cottle will join our discussion.

For five long years, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has refused to answer reporters' questions about her personal life. But now that she's written about her troubled marriage and more in $8 million memoir, she's plunging into the media spotlight. Flip on the tube just about any time this past week, and you couldn't miss her, with Barbara, Katie, Larry.


SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: That was probably the worst moment that I can even imagine anyone going through.

I had to spend a lot of time by myself, thinking hard about all the years we had together, the many good things we shared and putting it into the context of the terrible disappointment of his lying to me.

LARRY KING, HOST, LARRY KING LIVE: You were shocked? Is that a good word, or no?

CLINTON: I was so upset.

KING: Upset more than shocked?

CLINTON: Well, shocked, upset, dumbfounded.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: If it wasn't the former first lady herself, someone somewhere out there in cable land was attacking or defending her.


PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST, CROSSFIRE: The country loves Hillary.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST, CROSSFIRE: Actually, I'm not even anti- Hillary.


CARLSON: I am not -- I am not ...


CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, HARDBALL: If it's demonstrated that she knew about this relationship and she demonstrated that in conversation, before August 15, is she a liar?

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, THE O'REILLY FACTOR: The senator put herself up as a victim of a dishonest husband, as a champion of women, as a champion of children, and as a romantic kind of gal.


KURTZ: And joining us to talk about all this coverage of senator and author Hillary Clinton, Frank Rich, cultural critic and associate editor at the "New York Times." In Boston, David Gergen, White House adviser to four presidents, Republican and Democratic, including President Clinton. He's editor at large at "U.S. News and World Report" and now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. And here in Washington, Michelle Cottle, senior editor at "The New Republic."

Frank Rich, is there anything unseemly or just weird about the media lavishing all this attention on the woman they used to harass and investigate, and helping her sell lots of books in the process?

FRANK RICH, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I don't know if it's unseemly. I think it's just the American process of selling a book. I think that no matter what she wrote in this book, I think what she wrote was fairly canned (ph), mind you, but no matter what she did, whether she said nothing or said a lot more, particularly during a slow news time, which this is, people are going to help her merchandise the book, and I think everyone who speaks about it, whether they're attacking her or praising her or interviewing her, is moving the merchandise.

KURTZ: Right. David Gergen, Hillary largely avoided the press, except in carefully controlled settings when you worked in the Clinton White House. Do you see any irony here of her doing 10,000 interviews, many of them largely about her private life?

DAVID GERGEN, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Well, of course, there's irony here, but the Clintons have been, I think a very good at having it both ways. And, they're doing it again. She's -- I -- you know, there was all this complaining that came from the publishers about the early leaks, and I bet if we knew the story, those leaks seem to be now very calculated and very shrewdly done to build interest in this book, to build up audiences so that when the "60 Minutes" appearance came, there were some 13 million people who tuned in for it -- I'm not talking about "60 Minutes," but the Barbara Walters...

KURTZ: Barbara Walters, yes.

GERGEN: Yes. And they have done this, I think, in a very smart, shrewd way, and she sold a lot of books. It's been a big commercial success. And while it's not been a critical success by any means, it's been a big commercial success, and I think a political success for her.

KURTZ: Well, we'll come back to that. I want to turn to Michelle Cottle. For years, Hillary Clinton talked about a zone of privacy, refusing to answer lots of reporters' questions. Has she now obliterated that zone with this book?

MICHELLE COTTLE, THE NEW REPUBLIC: She never really had a zone. As much as she talked about it, we never gave her a zone of privacy. But she knew that if she was going to write this book, she had to talk about her personal life. Nobody cares about her health care policy, nobody cares about what went on...

KURTZ: Nobody cares about serious public policy the former first lady is writing about?

COTTLE: Absolutely. If she wasn't writing about sex in the White House, this book would have sold 20 copies instead of what it has. So if she was going to do this, she had to talk about this.

KURTZ: Well, the definitive proof here in this "New York Post" headline -- "Hillary: I Never Cheated on Bill," which was a question she was asked at a book signing, shows that that zone of privacy is gone.

It seems to me, Frank Rich, that this is really a continuation of the Clinton wars. All the people who don't like Hillary are on TV, in front of the cameras, denouncing her book. And all the people who are her fans and loyalists are coming out and saying, she's a wonderful person, she's being bloodied by the right. There's a certain echo chamber effect here for you?

RICH: Yes, it's early summer reruns. You know? It's just ridiculous -- you know, I mean, like they have gotten everyone back on the "Love Boat" again for a reunion, you know, from Juanita Broderick to Lanny Davis, you know, defenders, critics, and so on. I think we should keep it a little bit in perspective.

First of all, I've actually talked to people at the publisher, Simon & Schuster, about this. I'm not sure that they leaked it. In fact, they vehemently deny that they did, which suggests that perhaps someone in the Clinton camp could have stoked this, which I think is kind of brilliant if that were to be the case, but also, we're talking about right now 1.35 million copies in print. "Harry Potter" coming out in a couple of weeks is going to have a first printing of 8.5 million. So we should remember Washington and the media magnify even this return of the Clinton wars a bit.

KURTZ: David Gergen, you know, we've been through 9/11 and Afghanistan and Iraq. Isn't there a certain self-indulgent quality in so many of us in the press now, just sort of going through what Frank refers to as the Lewinsky reruns?

GERGEN: I think there is after so much seriousness, that people are hungry for something different and something with a little sex in it. I mean, the greatest disappointment about this book is it doesn't give us a very revealing analysis or perspective on health care and the co-presidency and the other moments which really, frankly, were much more important to the nation than Monica, and the debacle in health care has really left us...

KURTZ: Is that because it's a very carefully constructed political memoir, or is it because also the press is spending, you know, maybe 12 seconds on the more substantive parts of this 500-plus page book?

GERGEN: Well, I think in part it was because they were -- and I think there were calculated leaks, and not by the publisher, but by someone else close to the -- who wanted to sell this book. I think it was, as Frank Rich would say, I think it was brilliant, brilliantly done, but they were all about the sex. And secondly, she's not very revealing about the health care. And thirdly, I don't think she has given up her zone of privacy by any means. She's told what she needs to tell, she's pulled back the curtain just a touch. You see just a bit, it's like a peek-a-boo book, but you really do not see into the inner sanctum of this marriage, and properly so. I applaud her for trying to maintain a zone of privacy.

KURTZ: Wait a minute. Michelle, she is -- she is smacking around her husband, the former president of the United States. I wanted to wring his neck. I couldn't decide if I wanted to stay married to him. Is the press falling for these carefully calculated tidbits, what David Gergen would call peeling back the curtain just a little bit? I mean, it's been on all the front pages and all the cable shows for days now.

COTTLE: Well, sure, yes and no. But because she's such a private person that everybody takes these little tidbits and they salivate over this. I mean, the Clintons are rock stars still. People want to know what's going on with them. It's more exciting. It's summer. People can only take so much heavy news.

But is she getting in there and giving us the really nitty-gritty details? No, but, you know, this is Hillary. We'll take whatever we get and we'll run with it.

KURTZ: Frank Rich, put on your theater critic hat for a moment. I want to play a couple of clips from the first TV interview with Barbara Walters on ABC that Hillary Clinton did. Let's take a listen to some of those questions. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARBARA WALTERS, ABC NEWS: I have to ask you about some of the things you write about, and they're difficult questions to ask, and probably difficult to answer.

OK. I have to ask it. What if he does something in the future?


KURTZ: Frank, you know, Hillary's put herself out there on this book tour in order to get publicity. Why does Barbara Walters seems to have to apologize whenever she wants to ask an uncomfortable question?

RICH: Well, I think there's something regal in a way about Hillary Clinton. I also think that Barbara Walters wanted to pay respect to someone who is an United States senator, probably -- and a former first lady and, you know, is very popular to at least part of the audience. But I think that what we have learned with all these interviews, and I think -- you can't really fault the journalists for this...

KURTZ: Oh, sure we can.

RICH: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Let's fault them all -- but really, you're dealing with a very, very effective, shrewd politician for exactly the reasons that David Gergen said. She knows -- it's like Gypsy Rose Lee, you know, only taking off a glove in a striptease. She knew exactly, Mrs. Clinton knew exactly what she wanted to put out there. She wasn't going to go beyond it, and you know, you could take a muck truck and drag her across Broadway or Pennsylvania Avenue, and I don't think that the soundbites were going to change that much. It's a game. Everyone knew it was a game going in. Is anyone really surprised at the result? Everyone'd think she'd lose in the middle of an interview on national TV?

KURTZ: Right, she'd break down and start crying. Now, it's a very lucrative game as well.

Part of this book is about Whitewater, David Gergen. And Hillary Clinton writes that you famously advised her to just dump the documents, put everything out, on the theory the press would just get bored and moved on. In retrospect, why didn't she take that advice?

GERGEN: She was advised very heavily by her lawyers, David Kendall and others, not to do so, and she also took -- paid attention to her own instincts as a trial lawyer not to give away an inch to the opposition. She felt she had been savaged by the press in the past when she disclosed -- if you disclose anything, it would just go a little farther.

In retrospect, I happen to think it was one of the turning points, an unfortunate one, for the administration. Had they turned over the documents, had the Clintons turned over the documents at the time, I believe there would have been no Ken Starr, no special prosecutor, no Monica, and history would have been very different.

KURTZ: Very different. By the way, David, Hillary said in an interview that she didn't -- she seemed to be the last person on planet Earth to know about Monica Lewinsky, despite all the mounting evidence, because she wasn't reading any of the press or watching any of the TV coverage. Do you buy that?


KURTZ: OK. Thanks for the short answer. Michelle Cottle, the night that Hillary Clinton was on "LARRY KING LIVE," Fox News put on Juanita Broderick, the woman who accused Bill Clinton of having sexually assaulted her back in 1978. Creative counter-programming?

COTTLE: Well, it's fair and balanced. You know, we have Hillary on one channel; Juanita on another. You know, this has been a hay day for people who like to complain about the Clintons, and anybody who has anything unpleasant to say, this has been the perfect opening. Hillary's out there. She's telling her side of the story. It's time to rehash the entire thing for the American public.

KURTZ: Right. Frank Rich, every article I read, every appearance, every stand-up I see, interprets the book and the book tour in light of Hillary's 2008 campaign for the White House. How do journalists know that she will, in fact, run for the White House in five years? Perhaps she doesn't even know.

RICH: That's probably true. I think that everyone assumes a certain calculation on the part of the Clintons no matter what they do. But I also think it reflects a vacuum in the Democratic Party. There is actually a campaign for '04 going on.

KURTZ: Is there?


RICH: Incredibly enough. And with publishing this book, she's completely upstaged all of those candidates, who, let's face it, none of them have really lit a fire with the public. Granted, it's early. So, it's a kind of -- I think the press is sort of willing this story line, and, you know, it could well be true. There is no way to know. But I remember even when John F. Kennedy, Jr. was killed in that plane crash, we had a period of speculation that had he lived, he might have run against Hillary Clinton for the Senate. He might have had presidential ambitions. So, just, you know, we invent these stories and sometimes they pan out, sometimes they don't.

KURTZ: Is what we're learning here, is what we're learning here, David Gergen, that the press is just bored with Joe Lieberman and John Edwards and John Kerry and Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt and would much rather write about the trials and tribulations of the Clinton marriage?

GERGEN: Absolutely. And they've left a vacuum so far, but it's early. There are going to be better candidates here. This campaign's going to heat up in the next few months. This is not over yet, even though George Bush is a prohibitive favorite. If I may just add on the Hillary book, there was much that I was disappointed with with the book, but I have to tell you, I think she's treated a lot of people, including me, a lot more favorably than she had to, and I appreciate that.

KURTZ: OK. Closing comment on the -- why is the Democratic presidential race sort of non-entity in television terms?

COTTLE: Well, it's so early right now. These things start earlier and earlier, and none of these guys are the Clinton variety rock stars, so of course we're looking for kind of the added excitement. If Hillary got into '04, people would lose their minds.

KURTZ: But then nobody would say it was early. Everybody would cover it.

COTTLE: But you wouldn't be covering still the horse race politics of it. You'd be covering every kind of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and outfit...

KURTZ: The phenomenon.

COTTLE: ... that she wore. So.

KURTZ: All right, we have to leave it there. Michelle Cottle, David Gergen in Boston, thanks very much for joining us. Frank Rich, stay put. Stay put. When we come back, we'll weigh in on the troubles at the "New York Times."


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Talking with "New York Times" columnist and culture czar Frank Rich. Frank, you worked for Howell Raines on the editorial page. It's no secret that you think highly of him. How did things reach the point that he had to resign after five tumultuous weeks?

RICH: I'm still not really sure, to tell you the truth. I can only speak, you know, for myself as an observer, not for the paper.

KURTZ: Exactly.

RICH: I think that things got out of hand. We started with a truly terrible situation, a reporter, Jayson Blair, who had falsified a number of stories. And somehow within the organization itself, and to a certain extent, without, it became a kind of almost out of control referendum, although one without a vote on the leadership and management of the paper. And the atmosphere within the paper was extremely ugly and divisive in a lot of cases, with partisans on both sides about many internal issues of the paper, including the leadership of Howell and Gerald Boyd.

KURTZ: And would you agree that during this difficult period, with the controversy over Jayson Blair and then Rick Bragg, that Howell Raines didn't do himself any favors by not speaking out, by laying low? People at the paper seemed to feel that he wasn't defending the integrity of the "New York Times."

RICH: Well, I feel, you know, I really feel that you lose control of the story if you don't participate in it, and none of the -- you know, the top people of the "Times," including Howell, they rarely presented themselves to the public. And the results were that speculation followed, and a certain amount of anger certainly followed, because particularly after Rick Bragg gave an interview to you in the "Washington Post" saying that practices that he tried as a ...

KURTZ: Using stringers and interns and researchers.

RICH: Using stringers and interns to do reporting reflected the way everyone at the paper worked, was inaccurate. I mean, of course we use stringers and interns for some jobs, but generally speaking, not for discretionary features. In fact, my own wife is such a feature writer for "The Times," and was outraged as many people were that he would ascribe this kind of secondhand reporting to other staff members.

KURTZ: Right. You write in your Sunday column that coverage of the "Times" controversy was largely fair, with the exception, you say, of the Murdoch empire. What are you talking about?

RICH: Well, you know, I think the coverage was largely fair. Of course, there were some inaccuracies, as there are in any fast moving news story. You know, the Murdoch empire became -- parts of it -- a political opportunity to pile on and sort of promote their ideological agenda, which is their right, by the way. Used "The Times'" internal troubles and public troubles as a stick to beat us on other things. I'm not complaining about that. I just think it's a fact (ph).

KURTZ: I see, you're just reviewing the coverage. We have about 20 seconds. How important was it that "Times" reporters were able to go online, places like Jim Romanescu's (ph) media Web site, and post their feelings and vent their frustrations at Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd? Was that a factor in the way this all came out?

RICH: I think it was a factor in revving up the story, because there are always leaks out of newspapers or any other large organizations. But here were reporters complaining, and not anonymously, using their own bylines on a Web site that really has no agenda, it's just a posting, you know, sort of objective site for journalists, and it became almost a bulletin board within "The Times," as well as the outside world, about the internal troubles, and I think revved up emotions and everything else.

KURTZ: Things move quickly in an Internet age. We'll have to leave it there. Frank Rich, thanks very much for joining us.

RICH: Thank you, Howie.

KURTZ: When we come back, saying goodbye to David Brinkley.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: Eight years ago when he was a 75-year-old Sunday morning anchor, I visited David Brinkley in his Chevy Chase, Maryland home and asked why he kept up the daily grind of television. Here's his complete and unexpurgated answer. "I enjoy the work. And if I don't, I will do what millions of American males do, go home, sit in a rocking chair, watch TV, get fat and die."


KURTZ (voice-over): Sadly, Brinkley died this week at 82, and for those too young to have seen his best work, no one else in television spoke quite like him.

BRINKLEY: I think they're coming to the point where nothing like this will take place again.

KURTZ: He could be witty, sarcastic, impatient, but he did it all with an economy of words exceedingly rare in today's blabbermouth age.

BRINKLEY: David Brinkley, NBC News, Washington.

KURTZ: Brinkley joined NBC in Washington during World War II and stayed for four decades, covering everything from political conventions to the assassination of President Kennedy.

BRINKLEY: What has happened today has been just too much, too ugly, and too fast.

KURTZ: He became part of a famous nightly news team with Chet Huntley in New York, ending each program with their signature sign- off.

BRINKLEY: Good night, Chet.

CHET HUNTLEY: Good night, David. And good night for NBC News.

KURTZ: In 1981, Brinkley suddenly reinvented himself. He jumped to ABC, created "This Week With David Brinkley" and revolutionized the Sunday talk show format. It was an hour, and it featured a roundtable in which the likes of Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts and George Will vented their opinions. The journalists, not the guests, were the stars. Brinkley presided over it all like a sometimes cranky grandfather, letting the kids run a little wild.

Just about everyone found him to be a sweet guy.

SAM DONALDSON, ABC NEWS: People have to like you to listen to you, in order to get what you have to deliver in the way of the facts. People liked David Brinkley.

KURTZ: David Brinkley interviewed nearly everyone, including the Clinton White House aide who would eventually succeed him, George Stephanopoulos. He might have stayed just a little too long, as was evident on his last election night in 1996, when he was less than gracious toward the newly reelected president. BRINKLEY: Therefore, he is a bore and will always be a bore.

KURTZ: Brinkley was a private man. Very few people know he once dated Lauren Bacall. And once he faded into retirement...

BRINKLEY: My time here now ends extremely well.

KURTZ: ... he returned to the medium he loved only for some controversial commercials for Archer Daniels Midland.


KURTZ: Good night, David. We'll all miss you. We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right after this check of the hour's top stories.


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