Clin­ton’s im­age clouded by press con­fer­ence pho­bia

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Jules Wit­cover Jules Wit­cover is a syn­di­cated colum­nist and for­mer long­time writer for The Bal­ti­more Sun. His lat­est book is “The Amer­i­can Vice Pres­i­dency: From Ir­rel­e­vance to Power” (Smith­so­nian Books). His email is juleswit­cover@com­cast.net.

My Web­ster’s Dic­tio­nary de­fines “pho­bia” as “any per­sis­tent ir­ra­tional and ex­ces­sive fear of some par­tic­u­lar thing or sit­u­a­tion.” That seems to fit Hil­lary Clin­ton’s at­ti­tude to­ward the com­mon­place press con­fer­ence, the tra­di­tional ex­change be­tween politi­cians and the news me­dia.

She re­port­edly hasn’t held one since Dec. 4 in Fort Dodge, Iowa. What, one might rea­son­ably ask, is she afraid of?

Her pres­i­den­tial cam­paign man­ager, a cour­te­ous young fel­low named Robby Mook, was po­litely ques­tioned about the mat­ter the other day by a for­mer Ge­orge W. Bush com­mu­ni­ca­tions aide with some ex­pe­ri­ence in run­ning press con­fer­ences, Ni­cole Wal­lace, on MSNBC.

She couched the ques­tion in the guise of a help­ful sug­ges­tion, tak­ing note of the crit­i­cism of Hil­lary as ex­ces­sively se­cre­tive and pri­vate. “You have a per­cep­tion prob­lem on the ques­tion of hon­esty and trust­wor­thi­ness,” Ms. Wal­lace noted. “Why wouldn’t you put her out there to an­swer ques­tions that she could cer­tainly han­dle?”

Mr. Mook replied with the boil­er­plate re­sponse that his boss had held more than 300 one-on-one in­ter­views with mem­bers of the press and tele­vi­sion. He said that she has “taken ques­tions in a va­ri­ety of for­mats,” and that the cam­paign would “keep look­ing at” the op­tion of hold­ing a press con­fer­ence.

The ques­tion now is whether the Clin­ton cam­paign will pro­duce her in this for­mat be­fore the Nov. 8 elec­tion, or just keep “look­ing at” the idea un­til that date has passed.

As pres­i­dent, ev­ery oc­cu­pant of the Oval Of­fice go­ing back as far as Franklin D. Roo­sevelt has made the open, free-wheel­ing press con­fer­ence a sta­ple of com­mu­ni­cat­ing his ideas and pro­grams. So have most pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, in­clud­ing dur­ing the most re­cent pres­i­den­tial pri­mary pe­riod.

In any pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, the re­porters reg­u­larly trav­el­ing with that cam­paign are usu­ally the most qual­i­fied to in­ter­ro­gate the can­di­date about his or her com­ments and pol­icy pro­pos­als, gar­nered from their fa­mil­iar­ity with what he or she has al­ready said.

The trou­ble with many of the one-on-one in­ter­views that Mr. Mook men­tioned is that they are con­ducted by less in­formed and less skilled talk-show hosts and celebri­ties, who of­ten are prone to serve up soft­ball ques­tions or to sim­ply mas­sage the can­di­date’s ego.

Mr. Mook in the MSNBC in­ter­view on the “Morn­ing Joe” show sought to di­vert the ques­tion by lament­ing that “no­body is ask­ing Don­ald Trump about the for­eign con­nec­tions, about the peo­ple that have di­rect in­flu­ence over him,” in the way Hil­lary Clin­ton has been asked about the ac­cess of Clin­ton Foun­da­tion donors to her.

The fact is that ma­jor news­pa­pers, in­clud­ing The New York Times, The Wash­ing­ton Post and The Wall Street Jour­nal, have been run­ning de­tailed ar­ti­cles rais­ing ques­tions about Mr. Trump’s busi­ness con­nec­tions in Rus­sia, as well as his re­cently re­signed cam­paign man­ager Paul Manafort’s fi­nan­cial ties to Rus­sian oli­garchs.

The longer Hil­lary Clin­ton de­clines to take ques­tions at a full-fledged press con­fer­ence with re­porters best po­si­tioned to probe into trou­bling se­crecy and eva­sive­ness, the longer the cloud of her trust­wor­thi­ness will re­main. Un­less there is some undis­closed block­buster from which her pub­lic re­la­tions ex­perts feel she needs to be pro­tected, or that af­ter all her years in the pub­lic eye she is un­able to jus­tify, she is be­ing ill-served by ap­pear­ing to duck a no-holds-barred press con­fer­ence.

There may not be an­other in­di­vid­ual in pub­lic life who has been more thor­oughly in­ves­ti­gated and in­ter­ro­gated, by both friendly and hos­tile mem­bers of Congress and the Amer­i­can press corps, than the for­mer first lady and sec­re­tary of state.

She proved long ago, and again now as a sec­ond-time Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, to be a skilled, well-in­formed and ar­tic­u­late pub­lic fig­ure, if un­for­tu­nately one too widely per­ceived as eva­sive and dis­sem­bling.

It’s past time for Hil­lary Clin­ton, for her own po­lit­i­cal sake and for that of a too-doubt­ing pub­lic she is so stead­fastly court­ing, to step up and end her no-press­con­fer­ence streak now, in a straight­for­ward man­ner. Es­pe­cially be­cause she can af­ford to run what­ever risk may be in­volved, for­tu­nate as she is to have such self-de­struc­tive op­po­nent in Don­ald Trump.

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