CEDAR FALLS, Iowa » Hillary Rodham Clinton was in a forgiving mood. She had been discussing the small-business economy at a round-table gathering at a bike shop here Tuesday when the Fox News correspondent Ed Henry interrupted. When, he shouted, would she take questions from the news media she had ignored for weeks on end?
"Maybe when I finish talking to the people here," Clinton said as she leaned over a 3-D printed mechanical part that looked like a post-apocalyptic Rubik’s cube. "How’s that?"
"You’ll come over?" Henry followed up.
"I might," Clinton said teasingly. For the amusement of the 19 local residents invited to attend this latest installment of the movable Clinton court, and to the annoyance of the more than 50 members of the news media roped off around them, she added: "I have to ponder it. But I will put it on my list for due consideration."
Unlike in 2008, when Clinton’s regal bearing was brought low by Barack Obama’s insurgent campaign, there is no one to force her out of her Rose Garden. Neither Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont, nor Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, has applied significant pressure on her. That leaves the news media as her only real opponent so far on the way to the Democratic presidential nomination, and while it may not be great for an educated populace or the furtherance of American democracy, it makes all the political sense in the world for Clinton to ignore them, too.
There is no shortage of reminders of the downsides of engagement. She need only look at her Republican counterparts, starting with Jeb Bush, who has made a point of opening up more to reporters but damaged himself during a several-day struggle with how to answer a question about the wisdom of the war in Iraq.
Sen. Marco Rubio’s difficulties with the same question were condensed to a few highly awkward and viral minutes. Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin has been working for weeks to overcome his flubbing of initial questions about foreign policy, and Sen. Rand Paul’s snappish interactions with female reporters have only fed the impression that he is thin-skinned.
Clinton had her own rocky introduction to the 2016 press corps when she gave defensive and not entirely convincing answers at a news conference prompted by the revelation that she had used a private email server as secretary of state. But as reporters have dug deeper into the emails, the financial conduct of her family’s foundation and the character of the company she keeps, Clinton has only seemed more comfortable and dominant on the campaign trail.
She has rolled out more liberal positions on immigration reform and college debt and stayed mum on inconvenient things she does not want to talk about, like a potential trade deal or Israeli policies loathed by her liberal base. And unlike in 2008 — when the battle between her and Obama forced Clinton to do events late into the night, and she often slipped up or held forth about brain science — she is keeping her campaign schedule to a bare minimum.
This week, as she campaigned in Iowa, Chicago and New Hampshire, where on Friday she again took questions from reporters — a relative flurry of activity — she generally filled each day with one event open to the news media, a smaller one with a pool reporter, and then some unexpected stops where she ordered coffee or bought toys for her grandchild. Always the grandchild.
At the bike shop event Tuesday, she listened intently to the stories of the round-table participants, nodding 43 times a minute as they talked about their ice cream shops and 3-D printing. As television lights cast the shadows of two rows of "everyday Americans" onto the tablecloth, she looked expertly over the locals’ heads and into the television cameras behind them to give her prepared remarks ("I want to make the words ‘middle class’ mean something again").
She complimented the participants on their inquiries ("that’s a very fair question" or "that’s a very good question"), and when the moderator unexpectedly pushed her on her position on Obama’s proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, she dodged artfully.
When it finally came time to ask their questions, the reporters seemed more agitated than the candidate as they pushed against a rope line for the impromptu news conference and gasped when her traveling press secretary, Nick Merrill, joked, "Wouldn’t it be funny if she walked off?"
"Hey, y’all ready?" Clinton asked as she sauntered over.
"Yeah!" said the chorus of reporters.
"Tell me — tell me something I don’t know," she said, almost musically, as she snapped her head to the left in a Janet Jackson-era dance move. "Ha, ha, ha, ha."
The smile on Clinton’s face slowly faded as she nodded and replied and obfuscated in response to the half-dozen questions asked of her. She did so with ease, despite the people shouting about her destroying her emails and calling out, "Did you take official actions for the Clinton Foundation donors?" And then she turned away, essentially dusting the whole dodging-the-press story line off her bird’s-eye blazer.
Clinton’s relationship with the political press has never been warm. She started the 2008 race straight-arming reporters, and only when the nomination began slipping from her grasp did she seek to embrace them. It was too late. When she boarded the press bus with bagels ("I didn’t want you to feel deprived"), no one partook. Despite that chill, though, there was a sense of professionalism and familiarity on the Clinton bus, because many of the reporters represented New York-based publications and had covered her as a senator. News conferences were not frequent, but they occurred behind curtains after events.
Now, both Clinton and the news media have changed. She seems less a presidential candidate than a historical figure, returning to claim what is rightfully hers. And the press corps, both blessed and cursed with live streaming, tweeting and Snapchatting technologies, is armed with questions devised to win the moment. The result is a carnival atmosphere. It is not clear what Clinton gains politically from playing the freak.
The solution for her team has been to keep the press at bay as Clinton reads the scripts to her daily campaign shows.
"The media was confined between the bar and the stove," Gary Swenson said, describing an event with Clinton at his home in Mason City, Iowa, on Monday. Asked if he had learned anything from her talk, he said, "No, I don’t think I learned anything remarkably new," but added after a pause: "I think it was more her demeanor. It astonished me. I expected somebody who had space between herself and the people who lived here, and there was none."
The press did not learn much, either, from Clinton’s remarks in Mason City or her answers at the impromptu bike store news conference, except that she is an exceedingly strong candidate. But that did not mean the event was entirely without news.
Outside, by the steps of the bike shop, Henry did a stand-up in front of his Fox camera. "The reason she had a news conference is because I started shouting questions," he crowed to his viewers. He called that the day’s "bottom line."