The Meme Prisoner

Illustration by Darrow

The day after the notably down-and-dirty Nevada caucuses, I asked Hillary Clinton if, on occasion, her campaign had been wont to play the game a tad too rough. Now and then, Clinton allowed—then quickly pivoted and trained her fire on Barack Obama’s operation. She argued that his campaign had incited racial animus by playing up her remarks about Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King. That it had made “what I thought was a breathtaking charge that I was in some way responsible for Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.” That it had “basically condoned a really mean-spirited” Spanish-language ad in Nevada that asserted Hillary “does not respect our people.” Without pausing to catch her breath, Clinton concluded, “There’s no outcry. There’s no drumbeat. And so I accept that I will always be under a higher level of scrutiny; it goes with the territory.”

The scrutiny Clinton was talking about was media scrutiny, of course. So I asked if she agreed with her husband’s loudly voiced view that there was a double standard inherent in the coverage of her and Obama. “I don’t go there,” she replied, waving one hand in the air. “Certainly, a lot of my supporters express their feelings about it. But I just don’t think about that because it’s not a useful thing for me to think about.”

Whether Clinton is actually so Zen-like about this topic—and, really, who would be?—her adjutants are adamantly not. Instead, for the better part of a year, they have complained to any reporter who would listen about what they regard as a manifest pro-Obama, anti-Hillary tilt in the press corps. With the contretemps over David Shuster’s “pimped out” comments about Chelsea Clinton, this line of argument has become more heated, to be sure, especially as it pertains to NBC and MSNBC. (“A horror show” is how one Clinton adviser describes her nightly treatment by Chris Matthews, Tim Russert, and even Brian Williams.) But it’s connected to a long-simmering sense of grievance that’s deeper and more subtle.

That the campaign exaggerates its degree of outrage, and Hillary her victimhood, in order to gain a tactical advantage is obvious. But that doesn’t mean their critique is meritless—quite the contrary. The more interesting question, however, is what role each campaign has had in fostering a media dynamic that has clearly favored Obama and plainly damaged Clinton. And also whether that dynamic will come back to bite Obama if he’s the Democratic nominee.

It’s worth pointing out, to begin with, that the Clinton forces are hardly alone in noting the disparity. “Both of them have gotten an enormous amount of play,” says Marion Just, a political scientist at Wellesley who has made a systematic study of the coverage of the race. “But the coverage of Hillary has been primarily negative, while the coverage of Obama has been so positive that you have to call him, though I really hate this term, a media darling.”

Divergence in tone is one thing, double standards are another. And it’s the latter that most galls the former advisers to the other, now-departed, Democratic candidates. “Obama has been able to get away with a stunning amount of hypocrisy that would get called on her,” says one such operative. “They’ve run the nastiest, most deceptive pieces of paid media: the mailer they did lying about her health-care plan, with the Harry and Louise look-alikes. The idea that it took Hillary growling Tony Rezko’s name in a debate to get any national coverage. How he complained in Iowa about 527s and then had them supporting him like crazy in Nevada and California. And nobody says a peep about it. It’s fucking comical!”

There are countless other examples of this syndrome, both large and small. The way that Clinton’s famous fumbling of a question about whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to have driver’s licenses in a debate last fall was hammered on for weeks—whereas Obama’s flubbing of the same question in the next debate was essentially let slide. The way that Obama’s evisceration of his rival in his stump speeches was applauded by the media—whereas Clinton’s plunge into negative territory was widely condemned. The way that Clinton was roundly criticized for being inaccessible, and thus unaccountable, to the press—when Obama has since January been even less available for questioning than she.

Theories abound as to why the media has treated Clinton and Obama so differently. The simplest is that reporters simply like Obama better; that he’s new and fresh and unburdened with anything resembling Clinton fatigue. Another theory revolves around cultural bias. “The fact is that the national press is a bunch of northeastern liberals,” says the adviser to an erstwhile Democratic runner, “and they just love the idea of this post-racial black dude being the nominee.” A third revolves around the respective dramatic arcs embodied by Clinton and Obama. Citing the Times primary-beat reporters assigned to the candidates, a competitor of theirs observes, “Pat Healy’s job is to challenge the Clinton myth and machine. Jeff Zeleny’s is to write the epic rise of Barack Obama. That’s generally the media’s approach—Clinton and Obama are just at different points in their stories.”

All these theories contain at least some truth, but it’s the last one that edges closest to what I think has actually gone on. Campaigns are, at bottom, a competition between memes: infectious ideas that gather force through sheer repetition. The most powerful of these memes are what Just refers to as meta-narratives, the backdrops against which everything plays out in the media. “Clinton’s meta-narrative,” she says, “is that she’ll do anything to win; she can’t be trusted, she’s ethically challenged; she’s manipulative, calculating, and programmed.” Obama’s meta-narrative is decidedly otherwise. “It’s the same, in a way, as John McCain’s,” says Just. “He’s authentic, honest, free of taint. Then you add in new, charismatic, and an agent of change.”

For any candidate and his or her team, the formation and management of the meta-narrative are paramount strategic challenges. And these challenges were especially daunting for Clinton because she started out with much of hers already baked in. Even so, early on, her campaign had ample opportunity to alter the vestigial perceptions of her. They had done so effectively, after all, when she first ran for the Senate in New York. But instead, the affect she presented to reporters was in perfect keeping with all the stereotypes about her: She was guarded and relentlessly, robotically on-message on the rare occasions when she sat for interviews, displaying little of her charm or humor. She adopted an arch-Establishmentarian posture rather than an inspiring, transformational one—an alterna-stance that wouldn’t have been such a stretch for someone who stood a reasonable chance of becoming our first female president.

And, in fact, it was worse than that. By arguing that one of Clinton’s key virtues was her ability to go toe-to-toe with the GOP attack machine, her campaign exacerbated instead of ameliorated her reputation for ruthlessness. “By bragging about how tough they were,” says John Edwards’s former chief strategist, Joe Trippi, “they reinforced the sense of the media that everything they did had a negative cast to it.” At the same time, Trippi argues, “it made it really hard for them to call Obama on his shit. How can you complain about Obama being negative when you’re bragging about your willingness to do the same thing against the Republicans?”

Obama, by contrast, was in the enviable position of being able to author his own meta-narrative. With his two autobiographies, he was able at once to accentuate his positive qualities and, in pointing out the potentially damaging aspects of his past (his teenage drug use preeminent among them), to inoculate himself against attacks. The grassrootsy, bottom-up, decentralized campaign structure that he and his team built, funded by small donors via the Internet, enhanced the impression of him as a man committed to a different kind of politics. And his strategists were wise enough to understand that when it was time to go negative, they should never do so with TV ads but stick instead to more sub-rosa media, from radio and direct mail to robo-calls. “In my experience in politics,” Trippi says, “nobody ever really gets called out on that crap.”

The implications of Obama’s and Clinton’s respective meta-narratives for their press coverage have been profound. For Clinton, the inability to change the story line meant that any vaguely negative maneuver was interpreted in the darkest possible light, for it reinforced a preexisting supposition. For Obama, however, any criticism could be fended off as a manifestation of grubby old politics. And any act he committed that could be perceived as nefarious created cognitive dissonance. As Just points out, a prime example is the case of Tony Rezko, the now-indicted Chicago fixer and slumlord to whom Obama has been linked for many years. “There was no way for the press to believe it wasn’t true—because, you know, it looks like people are going to jail,” she says. “So instead the press dismisses the story as an aberration.”

The trouble for Obama is that the Republicans aren’t terribly likely to let that dismissal stand—nor the polite avoidance of discussing his controversial minister, his wayward youth, or, indeed, his blackness itself. Again and again, as Clinton often points out, the GOP has proved painfully adept at taking compelling, carefully honed meta-narratives and blowing them to pieces. In ways too numerous to mention, Obama has been toughened up by the primary process. But no matter what his handlers say, the notion that he’s been subjected to the most withering press scrutiny imaginable is—how to put this?—a fairy tale. His success has turned in no small part on his skill at avoiding such flyspecking, and on his rival’s inability to muster the same kind of dexterity. If Obama winds up facing John McCain, a man whose meta-narrative is spun from pure gold, he is unlikely to be so fortunate again.

Heilemann on Hillary’s Bleak Outlook
The 2008 Electopedia


The Meme Prisoner