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
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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.

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