During Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, the New York Times was the first major mainstream news organization to report on what blossomed into the so-called Whitewater scandal. Now, a column by Maureen Dowd of the Times about nasty anti-Hillary and anti-Bill remarks by Hollywood executive David Geffen, a former friend of the Clintons but now a supporter of and fundraiser for Barack Obama, cued literally all news organizations to hype the Geffen attack and reactions of the two campaigns into something more than common exchanges between competing candidates: a Clinton-Obama clash or feud or mudslinging fest or even war. “The Clinton and Obama camps went to war, rocking computers all over the country with incendiary e-mails,” writes columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. in today’s Washington Post. He laments that
the Hollywood news pushed the Republican eye-scratching over Iraq onto the back pages. It also shrank coverage of the first big Democratic forum in Nevada (only Obama skipped it), where the candidates sparred about serious issues, notably over how to achieve universal health coverage. Oh, but health care is so boring compared with a Hollywood big shot who drops hints about Bill Clinton's love life. Yeah? Tell that to the family of someone who died of cancer because she had no insurance and couldn't afford a screening test.
Indeed, just as the news of the last few days highlighted the bizarre court-room fight for the final resting place of Anna Nicole Smith and the tiring troubles of Britney Spears instead of truly important matters, the Clinton-Obama non-story was and is receiving far too much attention. But the usually so perceptive Mr. Dionne should not blame the two campaigns but rather the real culprits: the news media that continue to over-report the matter because they strive on controversy and conflict and drama—as long as the story line is simple and involves well-known figures.
Moreover, the Geffen attack on Hillary Clinton was used by many in the media to criticize the Clinton campaign in general and former president Bill Clinton’s role in particular. Adam Nagourney writes in today’s New York Times, “After weeks of watching in frustration as Senator Barack Obama himself as a fresh face gliding above partisan politics, Senator Hillary Rodman Clinton has drawn Mr. Obama onto a muddy political field, engaging him in a back-and-forth that recalls the kind of Washington bickering Mr. Obama has decried.” Doesn’t a feud take two to tango?
Washington Post columnist Howard Kurtz wonders whether much of Senator Clinton’s campaign, “perhaps too much,” will be about the former president and thereby will question whether she herself has more experience than Barack Obama. According to Kurtz,
While Hillary will certainly try to take credit for the Clinton administration's accomplishments, and compare them favorably to the Bush years, does she also bear responsibility for what went wrong? Does this sort of chatter remind people that her White House "experience" was being married to a president? (Yes, she spearheaded health care reform, but we all remember what happened to that.) And if that experience was largely vicarious, isn't her only advantage over Barack Obama that she's spent a few more years in the Senate?
Obviously, some pundits want it both ways—on the one hand Hillary Clinton is seen and criticized as an experienced old hand in politics as usual and Senator Obama as a fresh face unspoiled by inside the Beltway experiences, but on the other hand Senator Clinton’s political experience and expertise (going back well before she became first lady) is questioned to strip her of this real advantage.
Seems to me that the Dowd column triggered more of a media hunt on Senator Clinton’s alleged vulnerabilities rather than a “war” between the Clinton and Obama campaigns that not only the media but Democratic and Republican opponents of the two Democratic front-runners seem to hope for.