Hillary Clinton’s face looms over the offices of Correct the Record—in a friendly way. The young PR operation’s 18 workers do their typing and designing and debunking next to a blown-up version of that 2011 photo in which the former secretary of state is checking her BlackBerry on a flight from Malta to Tripoli, behind dark sunglasses. That photo inspired the Texts From Hillary Tumblr, and was painted on the Ready for Hillary PAC’s bus before it started schlepping around the country.
It’s kitsch from Clinton’s finest hour, from the postelection, pre-Benghazi period when a pundit could call her “a great secretary of state” and hear no coughing or guffawing. A few steps away, past the shelves full of David Brock’s books—his 2002 memoir of the conservative movement he left, and the much less heretical 2012 The Fox Effect—sits American Bridge’s president, Brad Woodhouse.
American Bridge is the permanent campaign that’s currently trying to save the election for Democrats. Correct the Record, launched in November 2013, is a subsidiary focused on the next election. Both organizations live to fight Republicans, just as Media Matters—the Brock project from which all of this grew—lives to rebut “conservative misinformation” in the press.
But Media Matters and American Bridge respond to everything. Correct the Record has only one mission. In an interview with David Freedlander, Brock said he dreamed up the project after Republicans held hearing after hearing on Benghazi. “There was no, or limited, capacity for her to deal with the range of attacks,” he said, referring to Clinton. In October, Brock co-authored a book titled The Benghazi Hoax, and within weeks Correct the Record was there to insist that “Hillary Clinton was the ‘most on top of the situation’ on the night of the attack.”
I dropped by the Brock-verse a few weeks after the release of Clinton’s memoir Hard Choices. The conventional wisdom is that the tour could have gone better—more book sales, fewer verbal somersaults about her wealth and gay marriage stance.
Correct the Record wants everyone to know that the media blew it. It had been sending out weekly updates of Clinton book sales, because there was a story out there that she was flopping. The first memo, from July 2, ran to more than 4,000 words, and insisted, “Critics have praised the authenticity and insight of the former Secretary of State’s new memoir” and that “Hard Choices sold more in its third week than Rand Paul and Jeb Bush’s books did total, combined!” (Exclamation point in the original.)
Woodhouse wants me to appreciate the long game that CTR is playing. They don’t just do rapid response, though of course they’re “very good” at it.
“You can hand people a list of 100 Hillary Clinton accomplishments, or 30, or whatever, from the State Department or her life, and nobody’s even reporting on them,” says Woodhouse, sitting behind his two computer screens and a TV tuned to MSNBC. “They’re reporting on whether she had a gaffe. But one thing Correct the Record is doing is citing and placing a lot of op-eds, putting surrogates out on TV, to talk about her accomplishments. And all that stuff is going to be somewhere for someone to use later on.”
Right. It’s not like CTR can force the media to use this material. It can only politely inform the press that it’s falling for right-wing spin. CTR’s own spin has described an attack on the Clintons’ wealth as an attack on the “profoundly American success and philanthropy of Bill and Hillary Clinton,” and criticism of her speaking fees as “relentlessly attacking Hillary Clinton for raising money for universities.”
If this came from an actual campaign, reporters would choke on the chutzpah. But it doesn’t. It comes from a small group led by Burns Strider, who happened to be a senior adviser to the 2008 Clinton campaign, and who argues that Clinton’s book tour was an unqualified win.
“The great thing about the book tour, from my vantage point, as a guy from Mississippi who’s worked all over the country, is that Secretary Clinton hasn’t gone out with a giant stash of canned answers,” says Strider. “She doesn’t go out with a tested message. She’s talking from answering and reacting to questions. You look at her town hall on CNN, on Charlie Rose, she’s had an incredibly successful couple of months chatting with the American people.”
If you gaze too deeply at Correct the Record, you start to wonder if you’ve been too critical of the Clintons. That is by design. The outfit has studiously avoided intrigue and invited plenty of reporters into the inner sanctum. (This piece is at least the third that begins with a tour of the CTR bunker, though each reporter got a different estimate of the total staff—from 16 to 18 to 20.) Strider will even discuss how the organization might fend off attacks if Clinton draws a challenge from the left. “If Clinton chooses to run,” he says, “she’s gonna articulate her record for the future and I’d be very surprised to find it not much in line with her friends from the left.”
And Brock is happy to describe what he learned in his wild days as a right-wing hack, and why the facts brought him to liberalism and the defense of the Clintons. In Blinded by the Right, he describes in detail how the right first turned on him when his reporting for a Hillary bio turned out nuanced instead of vitriol.
“Back when I wrote The Seduction of Hillary Rodham, I wrote something to the effect that I thought her potential as a political leader was such that she might end up being a more historic figure than her husband,” remembers Brock. “I think the potential is still there. I try to make sure, through our work, that she gets a fair hearing, and that the media environment isn’t clogged with misinformation.”
Brock goes through all of the hits on Clinton, and explains why they fizzled—why they were predestined to fizzle. What about the Benghazi attack, the one that led to Correct the Record’s very existence?
“The Benghazi issue is almost like birtherism at this point,” says Brock. “I don’t think it’s doing real damage. If it’s a question of where Benghazi sits in the mainstream discourse, it’s largely been contained. I think we had a fair amount to do with that.”
How about the Washington Free Beacon’s report that dredged up—with fresh audio—the story of a young Hillary Clinton defending a child rapist?
“It was very misleading in the way it was presented, and wrong,” says Brock. “So again, I don’t think … ” He pauses. “It got some attention and broke through to some extent, but when real reporters looked at it, it fizzled.”
And what about the current wave of Clinton books? Correct the Record tears through them, but has discovered that they need little rebutting. No one in the mainstream media (excluding Fox News and the New York Post) did much with Ed Klein’s Blood Feud and its mysteriously sourced quasi-scoops. Daniel Halper’s Clinton, Inc., released a month after Hard Choices, was the sort of book a young Brock might have written, with named sources backing up some of the best stories. But it was no real threat to Hillary.
“I don’t believe it’s going to succeed as well as other conservative books in the marketplace,” says Brock. “The basic approach he seems to take is that he will give you a page or two of essentially rumor or speculation, that a lot of us who are plugged into the world have heard. Then he backs out of it with various caveats. I think he doesn’t deliver the kind of red meat that an Ed Klein has delivered. The conservative audience—it doesn’t do caveats. And as far as its reach into mainstream conversation, there hasn’t been much pickup. Reporters don’t feel like any new ground has been plowed there at all.”
I ping Halper and tell him what Brock thinks of his book. In no time at all, Halper points me to the rules of Clinton PR that he identified in his reporting, and identifies this as No. 3: “make any allegation unfavorable to the Clintons” into “old news.”