June 29, 2005

Hill and Two Bills: Checking In on the Clinton Comeback


In spite of all the adulation heaped on Karl Rove, maybe he’s not exactly the PR legend he’s been promoted to be.  (And who know how he would have fared the last four years if he hadn’t had 9/11 to exploit. And re-exploit.)

In any case, the Clintons are pretty good at the game too.  And to my mind, Bill/Hill gave a textbook example this week of how its done. The setting was Billy Graham’s huge crusade at Flushing Meadows Park in New York. 

For the Clinton’s, the event provided just the latest opportunity to continue: a) building up Hillary’s image as a moderate, b) enhancing her appeal to faith based voters, c) breaking down the identification of the GOP as the party of faith, d) reconstituting Bill Clinton’s public image and e) reinforcing the Clinton’s marriage as just as healthy and morally balanced as the next.

(The obstacles they’re dealing with, of course, include perceptions — heavily propagated by those very real enemies of theirs — that a) Bill is a heathen, b) the Clinton’s marriage is one of convenience, c) Hillary is primarily an opportunist, and d) Hillary lacks religion.) 

If you’ve been tracking Hillary pre-campaign, she’s been pursuing a smart, deliberate and progressive strategy to reinforce either newer (or truer) perceptions and extinguish the old ones.  Along the way, she has de-emphasized abortion in favor of family planning as a "third way" in the pro-life/pro-choice stand off.  She voted for the war.  She has been an active member of the Armed Services Committee.  And, she has courted personalities across the political divide, including Newt Gingrich and Lindsay Graham.  So, what better opportunity to bolster the new paradigm then by appearing with the legendary, yet basically apolitical mega-evangelist, Billy Graham?

There were basically two sets of images from the Graham event, those featuring Hillary and Bill, and those featuring Bill and Billy.  (In fact, I only found one shot in Yahoo News that included Hill and Billy, and that was an undistinguished group photo taken from long distance without any contact between BG and HRC.)  The primary PR opportunities that day, however, did not require a shot of Hillary and Graham. 

To illustrate why this event played so effectively in the Clinton’s favor (from a PR standpoint, you could almost say it was divinely inspired), a diagram might be in order.  If you grant me the liberty, I’d like to illustrate the impact by juxtaposing two sets of the most singular images.  (You’ll find the other set after the fold.)


In this first pair, the power of the top image derives from the association of Bill (who has always had a deep religious and spiritual faith) with the cross and the pulpit reinforced by the connection to Billy Graham, the renowned spiritual leader who respects the Clintons and even lent them comments of endorsement.  Bolstering that set of connections, however, is the one to the Almighty himself, whom Graham (in this fantastic aspect of the photo) seems to be conferring with directly. 

From a PR standpoint, what more could a reformed sinner ask for?

I add the image of the Clinton’s on stage (sitting beside Graham) to
show how Hillary derives benefit. To the extent Bill gains grace this
particular day through and from Graham, so does the couple through Bill.
The real significance of this event from Hillary’s standpoint has
little to do with Hillary directly, but is vital to her in terms of the
resurrection of Bill as well as the public restoration of the couple.
From that perspective, the hand holding and the laughter and the
overall unanimity between Hill and Bill functions — from a political
standpoint — nearly like a reaffirmation of vows before this
religious audience and one of God’s top spokesmen. In that light, the
picture here (and I don’t believe it’s all PR) is of a strongly tested,
normal (Christian) couple on the road back.

(And I mean normative, not idealized.  The latter you can save for Bush.)


The strongest images from this event, however, were the shots of
Clinton and Graham at the podium/pulpit, where the affection between
the two Bills couldn’t have been more genuine.

This top shot is powerful (if not politically rare these days) in the
way Clinton, framed by the colored lights, creates a physical bond with
Graham. (It should be noted that Clinton’s desire to touch has always
been much deeper than just sexual). The image is all the more
impressive when you consider that it’s Clinton
controlling the microphone at the rock star Graham’s event, but the
preacher’s obvious regard for Clinton, and Clinton’s gift for showing
the love (and also the fact Bill stayed visually lower than Graham)
neutralizes the suggestion of a desire to score points.

This last shot, however, does probably the best job of
capturing Hillary’s gain that day. If she’s not really the spiritual
type (and who says she has to be? here, she’s obviously clapping, while
Bill seems more prayerful), she can basically be herself, and derive
credit and satisfaction just presiding over a momentous civic event as
the proud Senator from New York.

As a politician — at least, the way it used to be — it doesn’t get more spiritual than that.

(image 1, 2 and 3 : Shannon
Stapleton/Reuters. June 25, 2005 in YahooNews. image 4: Stephen
Chernin/AFP/Getty Images. June 25, 2005. Yahoo News. image 5: Gregory
Bull/AP. June 25, 2005 in YahooNews.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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