The media’s Bill Clinton problem

February 4, 2008

For news media, the emergence of Bill Clinton as a key public player in the presidential campaign of his wife, Sen. Hillary Clinton, raises unusual coverage issues.

The most obvious, and the easiest to fix, is the problem of even-handedness. The former president is a celebrity of the first order. No other U.S. politician, active or retired, commands the crowds and media that he routinely draws. So any news cycle in which he’s stumping is likely to feature not just a story about Sen. Clinton, but one about him too, hence double the coverage her opponents get.

Not that media attention is otherwise precisely balanced, but the ex-president brings an unusually heavy finger to the scale. So the media need to compensate. If the campaign were a debate the solution would be simple: Bill’s time comes out of Hillary’s. That’s the same principle the media need to apply in getting toward even-handedness in coverage.

But the more perplexing problem, and the one that the media have only slowly begun to address, is in figuring out just what Bill Clinton’s public status now is, and what kind of scrutiny he  and his own record  ought to be subjected to.

This country treats former presidents very well indeed. They get material ease, lifetime staff and guards at public expense, and a license to get as rich as they like speaking, writing, golfing, sitting on boards, accessorizing the elites of the world.

The media lay off ex-presidents unless they seek attention, and in this they get a break that’s unusual for the famous  they get celebrity without accountability, they’re allowed to choose between prominence and privacy.

This comfy sinecure comes at a price: They must keep clear of the rough and tumble of politics, unless they’re pushing broadly humanitarian causes that engender little controversy. (Jimmy Carter manages to duck the no-controversy rule, but I think he’s viewed less as an ex-president now and more as a global trouble-shooter and Nobelist.)

But Bill Clinton? His sharp-elbowed advocacy on his wife’s behalf during the South Carolina primary has thrust him into the Democratic presidential campaign not as a benign senior statesman offering vanilla platitudes, but as a steeply partisan politico  and has reminded the public that in a Hillary Clinton administration, he’s almost sure to be a figure of unique and perhaps formative influence.

Fair enough. So how should he now be covered? If he is, in effect, campaigning for a position of major national importance, if he’ll be more a Dick Cheney than a Laura Bush, shouldn’t he get the inspection the press would routinely give to, say, a vice presidential candidate  few of whom matter anywhere near as much as he will?

Sure, Bill Clinton’s presidency was covered intensively. But it ended in January 2001, and he has been skating beneath the media gaze ever since. What causes has he championed, and what obligations has he incurred?

Since South Carolina these questions have started to be raised. In a New York Times column, Frank Rich recounted a disquieting story of Clinton’s stonewalling press inquiries into fund-raising for the presidential library. A front-page Times article last week detailed his service abroad on behalf of a Canadian mining baron who later donated tens of millions of dollars to the library.

As Bill Clinton’s role in his wife’s campaign grows and his stature within a Clinton II administration rises, the armistice under which his post-White House doings are treated as private business is destined to crumble.

There’s logic to that, and if it means a better-informed electorate and a more accountable leadership, such scrutiny will be commendable.

But it may also mean a media establishment eager for the tales and innuendoes that will be spread about Bill Clinton  who was almost impeached for reprehensible personal behavior  when the same well-oiled smear machine that slimed John Kerry in 2004 starts in on the seven years he has spent jetting around the world unchaperoned.

Many people in the news media were embarrassed by their complicity in dignifying the Swift Boat calumnies of ’04. The return of Bill Clinton may yet offer another opportunity for the media to serve as a tool of political hitmen. That would make 2008 one more episode of journalistic shame.

Correction: Bill Clinton was not “almost impeached.” He was in fact impeached by a vote of the House of Representatives, but the Senate did not vote to remove him from office.

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