The First Lady as Columnist
By Debra Durocher
Getting her name into newspapers prior to the election might be more difficult for Hillary Rodham Clinton than keeping it out. If she wants her name to appear as a byline, that is.
Debra Durocher is an assistant editor at The New Republic.
Newspaper editors are watching the First Lady's weekly syndicated column very carefully for shifts from commentary to campaign propaganda. If and when they spot campaign fodder, some newspapers don't run it.
Clinton uses "Talking it Over" to tell readers what she thinks they should think about issues inside and outside the Beltway: support programs for young parents, good; Martin Luther King Jr.'s message of love, good; "scandal-mongering" over Whitewater, bad.
In mid-January, around the time Clinton wrote about Whitewater, Oregonian Editor Sandra Mims Rowe stopped running the column, which the Los Angeles-based Creators Syndicate began distributing to about 100 papers last July. (Though not the same 100, about the same number of papers carry the column now.) "I thought it was too political, or bordering on too political, especially during an election year," Rowe says.
Like the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Daily News, the Portland paper wanted to try the First Lady's column when it debuted. Rowe says she hoped for an insider's view of White House life, but as the campaign neared, she worried that the copy seemed increasingly political and decided to pull it. "Hillary Clinton's a serious woman," Rowe says. "None of us should have expected her to do a backstairs-at-the-White-House column."
As part of Clinton's effort to defrost her image, her column was intended to give readers a chance to see different facets of the First Lady--perhaps the lawyer and the politico, but also the wife and mother. Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady's prototype, wrote a daily column called "My Day" for more than two decades that was hailed for its honesty and lack of pretension. But Clinton is scrutinized by a vastly different media, and her column is seen as a potential parrot of the administration's line.
Some journalists see no problem if Clinton writes partisan columns, arguing that strong opinions make for better copy. San Jose Mercury News columnist Joanne Jacobs says editors and readers should expect a skew to Clinton's writings, especially in an election year. "If she has anything to say, it should be political," she says.
Detroit News Editorial Page Editor Thomas Bray, who recently suspended the column for the duration of the campaign, says he had high hopes that Clinton's column would include punchy copy, but that ultimately he was disappointed. "We've felt that many of the columns seem too content-free," he says. "This being an editorial page, we're more interested in what she has to say about issues."
In an August critique of Clinton's journalistic dabbling, Jacobs wrote, "A columnist's agenda should be to inform the public...or stir vigorous debate on critical issues, or to raise hell." Jacobs argues that none of these things inform Hillary's writing. "The column's an image rehabilitation project for her," she says.
Undeterred by critics' complaints, Lissa Muscatine, the First Lady's speechwriter, says journalists aren't Clinton's target audience--the public is. "She hasn't written columns that could in any way be viewed as part of a partisan political campaign," she says. "At the same time, she's not shy about what she believes, and she's not about to become shy just because it's an election year."
Muscatine adds that the First Lady--sans ghostwriter--has succeeded in her original intent: "Her point is to be able to share her observations and experiences in the White House and as First Lady directly with the people, unfiltered," says Muscatine.
Much of Clinton's writing has been folksy. She has written about quality time the first family has spent in Wyoming and the stress of Chelsea wanting a driver's license. The lack of friction ultimately led some papers to cancel the column, as the Seattle Times did in January. "We were curious to see what the First Lady had to say to readers," Seattle Times Editorial Page Editor Mindy Cameron says. "Not much, it turns out."
Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau Chief James Warren says that if he were an editorial page editor his concern would be more with the punch of the prose than with the column giving political mileage to the Clinton campaign. "My desire would be to juice it up more," Warren says. "I'd be interested in selling something people might really want to read."###