As Hillary Clinton has toured the country accepting awards and, more recently, promoting her book, she’s become accustomed to fielding questions from admirers and allies, whether it’s Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday night, or a member of the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday morning, who started a question with a preface that he said Clinton was sure to like (she did).
Which is why it was bound to be interesting when Clinton agreed to sit down with Terry Gross, the public-radio interviewer perhaps best known for making her subjects cry on air.
Emotional, revealing, and deeply personal moments may be OK or even beneficial for the actors and writers who regularly appear on her WHYY talk show Fresh Air — intense moments with Maurice Sendak and Tracy Morgan come to mind — but are obviously more dangerous territory for a politician carefully managing her image.
On Wednesday, during a tense exchange lasting more than seven minutes, Gross asked Clinton 10 different ways about the evolution of her stance on gay marriage. But, unlike some recent TV interviews Clinton has given, the takeaway was not Gross’s pointed inquiries, but the fact that they seemed to get under Clinton’s skin, who snapped back at her interlocutor.
“You know, I really, I have to say, I think you’re being very persistent, but you are playing with my words and playing with what is such an important issue,” Clinton said after trying to put the issue to rest several times.
Gross, attempting to smooth tension with a chuckle, replied, “I’m just trying to clarify so I can understand … “
But Clinton fired back, “No, I don’t think you are trying to clarify. I think you’re trying to say that I used to be opposed, and now I’m in favor, and I did it for political reasons, and that’s just flat wrong. So let me just state what I feel like you are implying and repudiate it.”
The moment was over soon after that, and the interview moved onto friendlier territory for another 30 minutes, but America Rising, the GOP opposition research group, had already clipped the audio and blasted it out online, eclipsing anything else Clinton had to say.
Gross, famous for her laborious research that often involves lugging boxes of books home, regularly puts her subjects’ entire lives on the table, moving far beyond whatever they happen to be there to promote. Lynn Cheney learned that in 2005, when Gross pressed her on her lesbian daughter, and Sandra Day O’Connor encountered it more recently on gender issues.
Television interviews, by contrast, are more likely to focus on the big news or top-line issues of Clinton’s record,such as the Benghazi attacks, which Clinton is likely well prepared to talk about.
Gross, outside the beltway in Philadelphia and free from the constraints of daily political coverage, is more likely to open a line of questioning her subjects are not expecting and then push them with impunity, since she doesn’t have to be too concerned about alienating those close to her subjects.
And from her perch on NPR, a network beloved by upscale liberals everywhere, and on an issue deeply important to the progressive base (LGBT rights), it will be difficult for Clinton allies to go after Gross or present the line of questioning as unfair.
Of course, this kind of exchange is critical to informing the democratic debate about a likely presidential front-runner, but more questionable as political strategy.