‘Be careful to be real’: Confidential memos reveal how Hillary Clinton’s image has been carefully nurtured

Cache of communications between Clinton and her political image-makers released

Shortly before the millennium, in July 1999, Hillary Rodham Clinton trekked to upstate New York to join the retiring Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan at his farm and officially launch her campaign to replace him. On the eve of the big kick-off, her adviser, Mandy Grunwald, wrote the first lady a memo offering her “a few style pointers”.

Keep your tone conversational, Grunwald advised, “chatty, intimate, informal”. Find moments for humour, she said, and do not be defensive or raise your voice.

She added: “For years, you’ve been saying, ‘My husband did X,’ but this moment is about you, so talk about what you’ve done. Be careful to ‘be real’ .”

The Grunwald memo is part of a cache of confidential communications between Clinton and her political image-makers released to the public on Friday, detailing the strategic machinations behind her evolution from a political spouse to a political leader in her own right. The memos open a rare window on the meticulous and intense efforts to manage her public image during her and President Bill Clinton’s tumultuous eight years in office.

They describe attempts to cultivate influential journalists who could become “fans” or “Clinton surrogates”. They also detail a push to lever the First Lady’s official travel and agenda to generate positive news media coverage, softening her image in the run-up to Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign.

First lady: Hilary and Bill dancing in 1993 First lady: Hilary and Bill dancing in 1993 The documents are among nearly 4,000 pages of internal communications released by the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, which also include new details about White House decisions on health-care policy and an array of national security issues.

The records show that in 1993, Clinton said at a private meeting of Democratic lawmakers that a GOP proposal for an individual health insurance mandate – a general approach that she would later embrace – would send “shockwaves” through the public. An adviser also worried in a 1994 memo that the administration was “over-promising” by telling people they would be able to pick the doctor and health-care plan of their choice, an issue that has flared anew during the implementation of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Friday’s release was the first of several batches of Clinton records – totalling about 25,000 pages – expected to be made public in the next two weeks. An additional 7,000 to 8,000 pages could be released in coming months. The National Archives and Records Administration, which oversees the library, said it had withheld the documents for the first  12 years after Bill Clinton left the Oval Office because they had been  exempt from disclosure under the Presidential Records Act.

Since her years as First Lady, Clinton has served as a US senator from New York and as Obama’s first secretary of state, both prominent positions that have dramatically remade her image. She is now the leading contender to be the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, with strong approval ratings among the public.

She remains today, as she was in the 1990s, a highly divisive figure. More than 20 years ago she elicited sharp criticism from Republicans who saw her as being too involved in policy making on health care and other issues. The new documents show that her handlers at the time were keenly focused on shaping, and improving, her public image since the earliest years of her husband’s administration.

In 1995, for example, Clinton’s press secretary, Lisa Caputo, wrote that the Clintons’ 20th wedding anniversary that year provided “a wonderful opportunity for Hillary” to bolster her political standing. She suggested throwing “a big party” and releasing a photo spread of the occasion for People magazine, which could later be used as part of “a nice mail piece” for voters.

Caputo appears frequently in the documents as the First Lady’s top image guru. In August 1995, Caputo wrote a six-page memo to Maggie Williams, Hillary’s chief of staff as First Lady, with 16 suggestions to rehabilitate their boss’s image. It was a political low point for the Clintons following the Republican takeover of Congress and the defeat of health-care reform. One idea was for Clinton to appear in an episode of Home Improvement, ABC’s hit family sitcom featuring Tim Allen.

Caputo detailed plans to feature Clinton in historical contexts to help to soften her image, including by celebrating the birthday of Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Clinton considered a personal hero. This strategy, Caputo wrote, could make Clinton “seem less extreme”.

Clinton has long had an aversion to the Washington press corps, and her advisers developed strategies to overcome that. One idea was for Clinton to meet the editors of women’s magazines monthly, which could “turn the editors into Clinton surrogates”.

In 1999, as Clinton prepared to step out from her husband’s shadow and face the New York press corps as a first-time candidate, Grunwald dashed off a memo with eight “style pointers.” She wrote: “The press is obviously watching to see if they can make you uncomfortable or testy. Even on the annoying questions, give relaxed answers.”

Grunwald reminded Clinton to try to steer the discussion to the message she wants to deliver. “You have a tendency to answer just the question asked,” she wrote. “That’s good manners, but bad politics.”

© Washington Post

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