Why Terry Gross Was a Mistake for Hillary Clinton

An interviewer best known for making her subjects cry on air is dangerous territory for a carefully stage-managed politico.

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton(C) greets patrons at a Barnes & Noble Bookseller store, for the signing of her new book, 'Hard Choices' on June 10, 2014, in New York. Hillary Clinton launched her much-anticipated book tour Tuesday and tried to smooth over a flap over her earlier remark that she and her husband Bill were 'dead broke' when they left the White House. 
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
Add to Briefcase
Alex Seitz-Wald
June 12, 2014, 12:02 p.m.

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.

What We're Following See More »
Bill Murray Crashes White House Briefing Room
10 hours ago

In town to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center, Bill Murray casually strolled into the White House Briefing Room this afternoon. A spokesman said he was at the executive mansion for a chat with President Obama, his fellow Chicagoan.

Morning Consult Poll: Clinton Decisively Won Debate
13 hours ago

"According to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, the first national post-debate survey, 43 percent of registered voters said the Democratic candidate won, compared with 26 percent who opted for the Republican Party’s standard bearer. Her 6-point lead over Trump among likely voters is unchanged from our previous survey: Clinton still leads Trump 42 percent to 36 percent in the race for the White House, with Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson taking 9 percent of the vote."

Trump Draws Laughs, Boos at Al Smith Dinner
1 days ago

After a lighthearted beginning, Donald Trump's appearance at the Al Smith charity dinner in New York "took a tough turn as the crowd repeatedly booed the GOP nominee for his sharp-edged jokes about his rival Hillary Clinton."

McMullin Leads in New Utah Poll
1 days ago

Evan McMul­lin came out on top in a Emer­son Col­lege poll of Utah with 31% of the vote. Donald Trump came in second with 27%, while Hillary Clin­ton took third with 24%. Gary John­son re­ceived 5% of the vote in the sur­vey.

Quinnipiac Has Clinton Up by 7
1 days ago

A new Quin­nipi­ac Uni­versity poll finds Hillary Clin­ton lead­ing Donald Trump by seven percentage points, 47%-40%. Trump’s “lead among men and white voters all but” van­ished from the uni­versity’s early Oc­to­ber poll. A new PPRI/Brook­ings sur­vey shows a much bigger lead, with Clinton up 51%-36%. And an IBD/TIPP poll leans the other way, showing a vir­tu­al dead heat, with Trump tak­ing 41% of the vote to Clin­ton’s 40% in a four-way match­up.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.