Newly released documents from the Clinton Presidential Library reveal that Hillary Clinton and her aides have been struggling to manage her media image since the early days of her husband’s administration.
According to the new papers that span Bill Clinton’s eight-year term, the then-first lady’s aides created strategies to maximize her exposure in venues where she felt most comfortable, like town-hall style events and local media, noting her “aversion” to the national Washington media.
Clinton’s advisers made frequent, aggressive efforts to humanize a woman who, all the way up through her run for president, was seen as too cold and unemotional and was often criticized for failing to connect with voters.
In a six-page memo outlining ideas for a media strategy as Clinton prepared for a book tour in August 1995, Lisa Caputo, Clinton’s press secretary, wrote to her chief of staff Maggie Williams that she “specifically thought about ways to reach our targeted audiences, place Hillary in a positive light and make her feel comfortable.”
“It is clear to me that Hillary is most comfortable doing press that is built around a specific purpose,” she added.
Caputo wrote that Clinton “thrives in venues that are televised town meeting-like or question and answer formats with a specialized audience,” and at one point proposed a series of interviews with regional media, both because of Clinton’s “aversion” to and the “tone” of the national media.
“Hillary is comfortable with the local reporters and enjoys speaking with them. This will help us get around her aversion to the national Washington media and serve to counter the tone of the national media,” wrote Caputo.
Much of that memo is focused on countering what Clinton’s aides appear to have seen as an unfavorable perception of the first lady in the press. Caputo at one point suggests Clinton attend informal dinners with “opinion-makers” in New York, hosted by Clinton adviser Sid Blumenthal, with editors of The New York Review and The Nation.
“Because we know Hillary will win them over, this will lead to positive talk or chatter about Hillary in these circles which will help inoculate or diffuse any negatives that may arise in the mainstream press,” Caputo wrote.
Long before it became common practice for elected officials to make cameo appearances on prime-time TV shows, Caputo proposed Clinton appear in an episode of "Home Improvement," then one of the most popular shows in the nation.
“The outreach would be enormous and it would present Hillary in a very likeable light I believe. Although I have some concerns that it diminishes the role of First Lady by going on a tv sitcom, it is probably worth weighing it against what we believe we might be able to gain by such an appearance politically and image-wise,” she wrote.
Her press secretary also suggested Clinton’s aides cultivate informal relationships with reporters to combat negative perceptions of the first lady.
“I believe it would create enormous good will for Hillary since we can all tell wonderful Hillary anecdotes that humanize her and show the press the good person that she is,” Caputo wrote. “I believe if we were all out there consistently we would erode the notion in the press that sometimes exists of Hillary being in a bunker mentality.”
A July 1999 memo from Clinton political adviser Mandy Grunwald offering advice on a trip ahead of her 2000 Senate race told her to “keep her tone conversational.”
“Don’t be defensive,” Grunwald wrote. “Look like you want the questions: The press is obviously watching to see if they can make you uncomfortable or testy. Even on the annoying questions, give relaxed answers.”
She also suggested Clinton “look for opportunities for humor” because “it’s important that people see more sides of you, and they often see you only in very stern situations,” warning Clinton to be careful to “be real.”
Clinton has, in recent years, begun to soften her image somewhat, making an effort to show off a more personal, fun side to the public.
During her tenure as Secretary of State, photos of her dancing and drinking during a trip to Cartagena, Colombia, went viral, and she embraced a popular meme that featured a picture of herself texting, looking effortlessly cool with shades on while traveling aboard a military plane.