Hillary Clinton Campaigns By The Book

Of course she is running for president. The “hard choice” ahead is whether she will call the campaign to a halt, not get it in gear.

Of course her public utterances and appearances are scripted. In an interview published in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review (June 15, 2014), timed to appear at the end of the first week of her book tour, Clinton names nine authors she admires and another ten whose latest books she reads regularly. The two lists are alphabetized. It’s quite a coalition. 

The Clinton campaign now has fresh (text-mined?) data to spot problem areas from public reactions to theroll-out of Hard Choices. The Monica issue seems defunct; how convenient that Ms. Lewinsky chose to break her long silence with aVanity Fair piece published earlier this spring. Iraq re-exploded midweek, propelling Clinton’s admission that “I was wrong” in 2003 into ancient history; major updates (speech? interview with Fareed Zakaria?) required.

A session on “Fresh Air” went sour in talking about gay marriage with NPR’s beloved Terry Gross; tonal adjustments strongly recommended. And a new wealth issue erupted from the gaffe in the Diane Sawyer interview on ABC about being “dead broke and in debt” when the Clintons departed the White House in 2001. That’s gonna take some policy as well as presentational work.

Still, the turbulence did not mushroom into crisis, perhaps shunted from the top of the news for the moment by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s epic fail and the ISIS rebellion in Iraq. The Clinton campaign has time to fine-tune its strategic messaging and engagement. The hard choice won’t be made until after processing the results of the 2014 elections and third- and fourth-quarter economic indicators. A GOP-controlled Senate might be a boost, giving her an entire Congress to run against. An economy perceived as growing healthily will float the Democratic boat, plain and simple.

At week one’s end, what stood out about the book roll-out was its predictable, almost ritual quality. By 2016 we will have lived with Hillary Clinton center stage or near it in our national life for — can you believe? — a quarter of a century. Her over-familiar persona could benefit from embracing a theme of reliability; paradoxically, it would be authentic and fresh to see her as the super-achiever we can count on in a world of non-stop jarring changes.

Such a rendering would become performatively salient by having her sit down with edgy interlocutors in tricky formats and prove herself capable of sailing through unexpected moments. Zach Galifianakis’s webcast series “Between Two Ferns” would have been a great venue for that — but alas, Barack Obama beat her to that, too, so now it would look derivative. But there are a million formats in the naked web world.

As with most successful presidential candidates, Clinton would gain from being regarded as a recurring character whom a voting majority of Americans will root for, just like the protagonists in the books by the ten authors on her second list for the Times. For a model, Clinton and her marketers could turn from books to television and look at the latest vehicle powering the career of Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The comedy star has been — this is even harder to believe — a national figure longer than Hillary (“Seinfeld”began in 1989), and she has graduated from Jerry’s pal Elaine Benes to Vice President Selena Meyer.

I am already at the point of presuming that, just as in “Veep,” Clinton’s entourage grows hilariously desperate to “own” each new gaffe, confrontation, and awkward news tidbit which their star encounters. In last week’s episode of “The Hillary Show,” we learned that NBC paid media neophyte Chelsea $600,000 for a year as a correspondent; partisans to her left and right immediately paired the news with the “dead broke and in debt” comment and filed it in the “crocodile tears of the 1%” category. Oh, what is Team Clinton going to do!!! 

A Louis-Dreyfus/Clinton twinning lacks the eerie congruency of, say, Chevy Chase/Gerald Ford, Dana Carvey/George Bush 41, or Tina Fey/Sarah Palin. Selena Meyer is no wonk. But she is not a ditz either, and she wields authority with resolve. Best of all, we see her struggle and let off steam. Maybe it is time for an actual leader to reverse the characterological flow from reality to satire, put a live camera in “The War Room,” and for Hillary Clinton to take on aspects of the Serena Meyer persona.

How hard could this be? Of course she swears offstage. 

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