I checked in on the morning news on Sunday to find Fox News reporting that Hillary Clinton had been rushed away from the 9/11 memorial she was attending, and had appeared to faint as the Secret Service herded her into a waiting van. Her press pool was prevented from following. What followed was perhaps the most amazing spin cycle of my media career, unfolding in 140-character, exclamation-point-ridden indignation modules.
First the veracity of Fox was questioned, and its reporting compared to some of the conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health that have been circulating on the internet. Then video appeared, showing exactly what Fox’s source had said: she’s leaning on a concrete post for support, tries to get into the van, and then her knees buckle and she has to basically be lifted by the people around her. The Clinton campaign said that the candidate had “overheated” and was resting comfortably at her daughter’s apartment.
Liberal New Yorkers rushed to paint the city as a sort of Death Valley of the East, its streets littered with the fallen bodies of those who had dared to step outside for more than a few minutes. Eventually someone on Team Clinton seemed to realize that the “overheated” story was making her sound like a frail old lady and we got a new story: Clinton had pneumonia.
Now the spin began rotating fast enough to power a high-speed monorail. There was no story here except the one about a brave politician who had disregarded personal sickness to pay tribute to the victims of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Clinton had gone to work sick because “that’s what women do.” Anyone still talking about her health after this remarkable display of physical stamina was a scurrilous partisan and a bad journalist. UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman had the tweet that I think best captured the flavor of the exercise: “Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un shakes the world with the spirit of Juche by collapsing at a military parade.”
To state the obvious: Obviously Hillary Clinton’s health matters, and the public has a right to know whether she has the physical stamina to be president. Obviously Sunday's events are a real story, not only because of what happened, but because the Clinton team lied about it. If it didn’t matter, why did they lie, and hide it from her press pool?
Perhaps less obvious, but also true: this whole cycle was straight out of the playbook that worked for Bill Clinton for many years. Hide, deny, lie, and when that lie breaks down, spin another while surrogates and supporters attack. That playbook lost its mojo on Jan. 19, 1998, when the Drudge Report broke the story of Monica Lewinsky's presidential trysts. It has been steadily getting less effective since that day. Unfortunately, the only person who doesn’t seem to realize that is Hillary Clinton.
I will hardly be the first to observe that all of us, and especially famous people, now live in a digital panopticon, where at any moment our actions may be observed, videotaped, and uploaded to the internet. Nor that the web has democratized publishing, creating what law professor Glenn Reynolds has dubbed “> an Army of Davids ” willing and able to attack the powerful. Nor that the amazing proliferation of data and records on the web has given those Davids an array of weapons far more powerful than a slingshot. Why has the news not yet reached Hillary Clinton?
If you collapse in public, and you are famous, the odds that this event has not been captured on someone’s cell phone are starting to approach zero. And the odds that this video will be seen by virtually every American are starting to approach 100 percent because there are no longer any gatekeepers to bully. Trying to control stories like the old Clinton spin machine did is like trying to fight World War II with tactical maneuvers that worked for Caesar’s legions.
Nor is this the first time that Clinton has had this problem. She tried to keep her e-mails secret by building a private server that was eventually going to come to light. When it was discovered, her early stories about it were nonsensical to anyone who knew anything about technology.
They were bolstered by easily checkable statements that were at best half-truths and which were almost immediately exposed. When she finally gave a press conference, she played dumb and evasive as the public’s trust in her plummeted. She then swung to a series of new statements which were progressively shown to be untrue.
This drip-drip-drip of revelations had been worse for her than if she’d been more forthcoming in the first place, because it turned a bad one-day story into a months-long Technicolor saga. This problem could have been avoided if she had simply recognized that the old world was gone, and that the new one offered no safe hiding places. Just as she could have short-circuited Sunday's disaster by announcing, well before the ceremony, “Secretary Clinton has walking pneumonia, but it’s under control and she feels very strongly that she needs to be there to honor the victims of September 11.”
If Gabriel Rossman perfectly summed up the spin cycle, David Axelrod perfectly summed up the problem beneath it: “Antibiotics can take care of pneumonia. What's the cure for an unhealthy penchant for privacy that repeatedly creates unnecessary problems?”
Unfortunately, there’s now a possibility that even if such a cure is found, for Hillary Clinton, it will come too late.