Last week, the media latched onto part of an interview by Terry Gross of NPR’s “Fresh Air” of Hillary Clinton and focused on a seven-minute segment about gay marriage. Gross pressed Clinton on when she first supported the idea, and whether she kept quiet about it for several years as part of a political calculus, including while her husband was signing the Defense Of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell into law.
That was a valid line of questioning from Gross, whom I have often praised as one of the best interviewers I’ve ever heard. Good for her for not letting Clinton be evasive in her answers. Gross also asked Clinton about how, during her years as the third female US Secretary of State, she dealt with heads of governments of countries that oppress women, how she was treated, and whether she or her predecessors (Madeleine Albright and Condoleeza Rice) were able to make a dent on behalf of women’s rights globally.
But there was another exchange later that didn’t get any attention:
GROSS: So I have to ask you about the kerfuffle over the People magazine cover that you were on. You were standing with your hands resting on the back of a chair, apparently a patio chair. But the photo was cropped, so all we saw of the chair was the bar across the top of the chair. And your good friend, Matt Drudge, tweeted, “Is Clinton holding a walker?” Now, you know, obviously it wasn’t a walker but — and he didn’t lie. He didn’t say you were holding a walker. He just asked a question in the tweet. Is that a technique that you’ve become used to, like…
CLINTON: Yes, it is to me. (Laughing).
GROSS: Planting ideas in people’s heads, not by making a statement, but just by “I’m just asking a question.”
CLINTON: Right, well…
GROSS: “Is that a walker?”
CLINTON: Yeah, Karl Rove tried that with my health and got totally, you know, shot down. I am so used to these people. They’re like a bunch of, you know, gamers. They are trying constantly to, you know, raise false canards, you know, plant, you know, false information, and that’s what they do.
They don’t want to have a real debate about what the tax policy of this country should be. They don’t want to have a real debate about how we begin growing the economy again and putting more people to work. They don’t want to have a real debate about climate change and clean energy. They want people to get diverted and totally off subject, and that is their modus operandi.
But I have to say, Terry, that if that’s the best they have to offer, let them do it because that is not the debate that I think the American people want to have.
Clinton is correct about the right-wing not wanting to engage in public debate about those important issues (and others) and instead offering false issues and information. But she’s wrong to write that strategy off as ineffective because “the people” don’t want it. The American public is easily distracted by stupid stuff, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s true or false. Once it gets said publicly by Rove or Drudge or the like, it gets picked up by right-wing talk radio and Fox News, which can couch it in “we didn’t make this up, it’s a quote from a public figure.”
It’s like when the Bush administration leaked phony evidence about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction to Judith Miller of the New York Times, and once it was printed, Dick Cheney and others went on the Sunday talk shows hiding behind, “This was in the New York Times!” without revealing the true source of the lies.
To make waves in our lazy media, these ridiculous claims don’t have to be verifiable, they only have to create a talking point — and the more they say it, and the more the rest of the political machine repeats it, the more the public believes it. So you can make all sorts of false claims (e.g. there’s a scientific debate over climate change when there isn’t), or lie about your opponent in campaign ads (e.g. swift-boating John Kerry), and be sure that enough of the American public will fall for it, thus allowing you to chip away, piece by piece, at the standards of decency and truth.
I’m reminded of the scene in James L. Brooks’ “Broadcast News” where Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) tells Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) that good-looking but not-too-bright anchorman Tom Grunick (William Hurt), who she has the hots for, is actually the devil.
AARON: I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this about anyone, so please don’t take it wrong when I tell you that I believe that Tom, while a very nice guy, is the devil.
JANE: This isn’t friendship.
AARON: What do you think the devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great god-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing…he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance…just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.
I am not a Hillary Clinton fan. I didn’t vote for her in 2008, when the Conventional Wisdom pundits were proclaiming her Madame President before a single vote was cast, a process that’s being repeated now in speculation about 2016. But she was right on the money in 1998 when she talked about a vast right-wing conspiracy. Since then, it has grown exponentially, and she is wrong to dismiss its impact — on her and all of us — little by little.