If she wants to be a new millennium president, Hillary Rodham Clinton needs a new public-relations strategy. Her 1990s shtick stinks.
This is what her team is doing now:
Deny the truth: After The New York Times reported that Clinton used a personal email account to conduct government business as secretary of State, spokesman Nick Merrill claimed that she complied with "the letter and the spirit of the rules." No fair-minded person could argue with a straight face that creating a home-brewed email server that avoided disclosure of public documents is abiding by the spirit of anything other than butt-covering.
Blame the messenger: The New York Times is one of the nation's great news organizations with an editorial page closely aligned with Clinton and her views. The central thrust of its story was solid and easily verified. That didn't stop Clinton attack dog David Brock from demanding a retraction. "The piece didn't stand up to scrutiny after it was published," he said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." Brock is wrong.
Blame Republicans: Like most other politicians, the Clintons like to be holier-than-thou until their halos are shot full of holes. Rather than accept responsibility and address the problem, Clinton aides noted that former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also used personal email for government business. Powell operated under a different set of rules and at a time when email was not as central to working life. Bush was not a federal employee. (Yes, he should also release all of his Florida emails, and not just self-selected documents.) Appearing on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Brock said the story was leaked by GOP lawmakers investigating the Benghazi attack. That's irrelevant: Who leaked the information doesn't change the facts—and the facts in this case are Clinton's enemy.
Demonize and intimidate critics: You're either for the Clintons or you're evil; there is little middle ground when Bill or Hillary Clinton are under attack. Publicly and privately, Clinton aides are accusing all critics—even Democrats and objective journalists—of being accomplices to the so-called vast right-wing conspiracy. For a small taste of how this journo-bullying looks, read this account from Erik Wemple of an email exchange involving Clinton aide Philippe Reines, who calls a standard journalistic practice "creepy" and refers to "your lying liar pants on fire source." Reines is childish and patently deceptive, for sure, but he's also reading from a playbook designed to silence journalists.
What worked in the 1990s is a farce today. Times have changed. The media and the American public are familiar with the stale Clinton tricks, which now only play into the GOP caricature that Hillary Clinton is calculating, paranoid, and wholly political. Since a Clinton last sat in the Oval Office, the Internet has made almost everybody a researcher and a journalist—equipped to judge wrongdoing for themselves and insist upon accountability.
She can't spin her way out of this. Her henchmen can't bully everybody. When she tries to shift blame, the people's fingers all point back to her. I would suggest she try a new strategy, two simple actions that would speak louder than any words.
1. Return all foreign donations received by the Clinton Foundation, which can continue its good works without creating a perception that foreign countries are trying to buy influence.
2. Turn over all her emails—every last one of them—to a person or entity whose independence is beyond reproach. Truly private emails should be returned to Clinton, never disclosed. The rest— hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of pages—would be handled for what they are: the public's documents. Emails concerning government business don't belong to Clinton; they belong to us.
Personally, I don't think the Clintons are corrupt. I don't think she can be bought by a foreign country. I don't assume there's something nefarious in those emails. But you shouldn't have to take my word for it. Or even her word for it. If she wants to be president, Clinton needs to realize that transparency and accountability are not luxuries; they're the life's blood of modern public life.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.