It's Not the Cough, It's the Cover-Up

Hillary Clinton’s defenders often complain that her critics turn non-issues into controversies, but her crisis-response strategy tends to have the same effect.

Hillary Clinton on the sidewalk outside her daughter's apartment Sunday
Hillary Clinton on the sidewalk outside her daughter's apartment Sunday (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

It’s not the diagnosis that gets you, to paraphrase a former U.S. president, but the cover-up.

This weekend’s revelation that Hillary Clinton has pneumonia helps explain quite a bit. It explains her persistent cough, and it explains why she had to leave a September 11 commemoration on Sunday. For weeks, there has been fevered (sorry) speculation about Clinton’s health, and now it turns out that there’s a fairly straightforward, and antibiotic-treatable, explanation.

So why didn’t her campaign say so from the start?

Even more confounding, the acknowledgment of the pneumonia diagnosis came after hours of changing stories. Last week, she was joking in Cleveland that she was “allergic” to Trump. Then, on Sunday, Clinton got lightheaded at the 9/11 ceremony in New York and had to leave. A campaign spokesman said, “During the ceremony, she felt overheated so departed to go to her daughter’s apartment, and is feeling much better.”

But attendee video showed Clinton stumbling as she was about to get into a van to carry her away. She went to her daughter Chelsea’s apartment in the city, then emerged two hours later and told the press, “I’m feeling great. It’s a beautiful day in New York.” It was only in the late afternoon that the Clinton campaign circulated a statement from Dr. Lisa Bardack, her physician, saying that she had on Friday diagnosed Clinton with pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics and rest.

That decision to delay publicizing the diagnosis, instead of ripping the band-aid off, looks like a self-inflicted wound. (Sorry, and sorry.) The gap both created space for speculation about what was really wrong with Clinton and also reinforced the impression that she either tends to needlessly withhold information (charitably) or, as many voters believe, that she is dishonest (uncharitably). As former Barack Obama aide David Axelrod, who has been critical of the Clinton campaign’s strategic and tactical approach, put it:

A common argument among Clinton’s defenders is that many of the so-called scandals attached to her, and to Bill Clinton, are in fact nothing of the sort—they are small matters turned into major incidents by unscrupulous conservative operators, who are then amplified by a credulous press.

There’s something to this argument, as I note in my cheat sheet on Clinton-related controversies. But it’s impossible to consider this argument fully without also noting Clintonworld’s own tendency to do all it can in helping to turn those small controversies into big ones. Rather than simply deal with the health question head on, they spent hours offering explanations that not only looked increasingly inadequate, but in fact were inadequate.

Here’s what that does not mean: It doesn’t mean that the bogus speculation that Clinton was having seizures, based on goofy interpretations of videos, are or were valid. Nor does it mean that there’s any equivalence between Clinton’s excessive secrecy about her health and, say, Trump flirting with white-supremacist backers, praising Vladimir Putin, lying repeatedly, or joking about Clinton being assassinated, to pick a few recent examples at random. Nor does it excuse Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, or the fact that the only thing voters know about the Republican nominee’s health is the farcical letter his doctor released last year.

One needn’t overlook those things to be puzzled or critical about this weekend’s obfuscation, which makes it much harder for Clinton’s advocates to defend her health and transparency with a straight face and could well force her to release more detailed medical records than the short (though longer than Trump) report she has already released—an ironic outcome. Jennifer Palmieri, the Clinton campaign’s communications director, replied to Axelrod, “We could have done better yesterday, but it is a fact that public knows more about HRC than any nominee in history.”

The public knows many of those things, from the pneumonia diagnosis to the granular analysis of her State Department emails, in spite of the Clinton team, not because of it.