Clinton's image remains clouded by press conference phobia

The longer Hillary Clinton declines to take questions at a full-fledged press conference with reporters best positioned to probe into troubling secrecy and evasiveness, the longer the cloud of her trustworthiness will remain.

My Webster's Dictionary defines "phobia" as "any persistent irrational and excessive fear of some particular thing or situation." That seems to fit Hillary Clinton's attitude toward the commonplace press conference, the traditional exchange between politicians and the news media.

She reportedly hasn't held one since Dec. 4 in Fort Dodge, Iowa. What, one might reasonably ask, is she afraid of?


Her presidential campaign manager, a courteous young fellow named Robby Mook, was politely questioned about the matter the other day by a former George W. Bush communications aide with some experience in running press conferences, Nicole Wallace, on MSNBC.

She couched the question in the guise of a helpful suggestion, taking note of the criticism of Hillary as excessively secretive and private. "You have a perception problem on the question of honesty and trustworthiness," Ms. Wallace noted. "Why wouldn't you put her out there to answer questions that she could certainly handle...?"


Mr. Mook replied with the boilerplate response that his boss had held more than 300 one-on-one interviews with members of the press and television. He said that she has "taken questions in a variety of formats," and that the campaign would "keep looking at" the option of holding a press conference.

The question now is whether the Clinton campaign will produce her in this format before the Nov. 8 election, or just keep "looking at" the idea until that date has passed.

As president, every occupant of the Oval Office going back as far as Franklin D. Roosevelt has made the open, free-wheeling press conference a staple of communicating his ideas and programs. So have most presidential candidates, including during the most recent presidential primary period.

In any presidential campaign, the reporters regularly traveling with that campaign are usually the most qualified to interrogate the candidate about his or her comments and policy proposals, garnered from their familiarity with what he or she has already said.

The trouble with many of the one-on-one interviews that Mr. Mook mentioned is that they are conducted by less informed and less skilled talk-show hosts and celebrities who often are prone to serve up softball questions or to simply massage the candidate's ego.

Mr. Mook in the MSNBC interview on the "Morning Joe" show sought to divert the question by lamenting that "nobody is asking Donald Trump about the foreign connections, about the people that have direct influence over him," in the way Hillary Clinton has been asked about the access of Clinton Foundation donors to her.

The fact is that major newspapers including The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have been running detailed articles raising questions about Mr. Trump's business connections in Russia, as well as his recently resigned campaign manager Paul Manafort's financial ties to Russian oligarchs.

The longer Hillary Clinton declines to take questions at a full-fledged press conference with reporters best positioned to probe into troubling secrecy and evasiveness, the longer the cloud of her trustworthiness will remain. Unless there is some undisclosed blockbuster from which her public relations experts feel she needs to be protected, or that after all her years in the public eye she is unable to justify, she is being ill-served by appearing to duck a no-holds-barred press conference.

There may not be another individual in public life who has been more thoroughly investigated and interrogated, by both friendly and hostile members of Congress and the American press corps, than the former first lady and secretary of state.

She has proved long ago, and again now as a second-time Democratic presidential candidate, to be a skilled, well-informed and articulate public figure, if unfortunately one too widely perceived as evasive and dissembling.

It's past time for Hillary Clinton, for her own political sake and for that of a too-doubting public she is so steadfastly courting, to step up and end her no-press-conference streak now, in a straightforward manner. Especially because she can afford to run whatever risk may be involved, fortunate as she is to have such self-destructive opponent in Donald Trump.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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