Not for the first or last time, Bill Clinton has committed, at the least, an enormous unforced error, to the significant detriment of his wife’s presidential campaign.
Clinton met at an Arizona airport with Attorney General Loretta Lynch. This would be the same attorney general whose Department of Justice is investigating possible crimes with respect to Hillary Clinton’s having used a private email server and who ultimately must sign off on any decision about prosecutions.
Clinton and Lynch have said they did not discuss the case. I’m skeptical, and we’ll probably never know. But let’s assume for the sake of discussion that they didn’t: It was still an enormously stupid thing for Bill to have done.
This meeting happened just after the release of a report by the congressional committee that is investigating the deaths of four Americans in an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi. (Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server was part and parcel of that investigation.) That report, two years and $7 million in the making, found no wrongdoing on the part of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Given that the whole investigation — indeed, the whole committee — was nothing but a partisan witch hunt, this should have been an opportunity for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign to take a big ol’ victory lap and rub the GOP’s face in its own failure. Instead, the story of Bill Clinton’s meeting with Lynch popped up almost immediately, and the media hubbub over that meeting pretty much drowned out the good news for the Clinton campaign.
Now, a lot of people I’ve interacted with on social media claim that this is a bullshit nonstory blown up by a GOP-compliant media. To which I respond: So what? We already know that our news media tend to make nothingburgers about Democrats into Big Hairy Deals while ignoring or downplaying the much worse excesses of Republicans. (Here’s just one particularly relevant example: The GOP established a special congressional committee to look into the deaths of four Americans at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi — but did nothing about the deaths of 60 Americans in dozens of attacks on U.S. embassies that took place during the George W. Bush administration.)
As someone in the PR business, I would tell any client that you need to deal with the news media as they are, not as you wish they were. To do otherwise is to violate a basic rule of PR: If you do something that looks bad, a nontrivial number of people in the media are likely to claim that it is bad even if it really isn’t.
Critics of this position tend to argue that the news media need to be better at their jobs (which they do) and that because there’s no actual, substantive wrongdoing here (so far as we know), it doesn’t matter. But it does. One reason the Clintons score so low on the trustworthiness scale is that they have a long history of doing things that look wrong even if they actually aren’t wrong. That history includes, among many greatest hits, Bill’s claim to have smoked pot without inhaling, Hillary’s unlikely but apparently legitimate profit at cattle-futures trading, and Hillary’s latter-day flip-flops on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Each of these things, in isolation, means little or nothing. But put them all together, combine with the aforementioned media flaws and Republican pile-ons, and shake well, and you get a pretty poisonous PR cocktail.
The Clintons’ defenders in this instance argue that this somehow doesn’t matter, but unforced errors this big always matter. And the vehemence with which these defenders argue their position, even though it makes no sense to anyone with a lick of common sense, let alone PR training, suggests that on some level, they know Bill Clinton screwed up and they’re angry about it but just don’t want to admit it.
I have said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m voting for Hillary in November because I am a single-issue voter and my single issue is not opening the seventh seal and ushering in the Apocalypse. But given the ability and willingness of Republicans and their media allies (unwitting or otherwise) to turn nothingburgers into “scandals,” the Clintons desperately need PR counsel with absolute veto power over their worst instincts. And history suggests that they either don’t know this or don’t care.