‘Be Real’: How the White House Tried to Soften Hillary’s Image

PHOTO: Barbara Walters, right, is pictured with Hillary Clinton, left, while filming a 1996 broadcast.

Then-first lady Hillary Clinton’s advisers were keenly focused on humanizing her image -- even trying to get her to appear on a popular 1990s sitcom -- as a way to make her involvement in policy seem "less extreme," according to documents released today.

In previously secret memos dating back to the 1990s, Clinton aides even pushed a cameo on ABC's then-hit TV show "Home Improvement" and suggested that Bill and Hillary do a Barbara Walters interview around their 20th anniversary to further soften her image.

When facing reporters, the first lady was also advised not to appear "defensive" and to be ready for hardball questions such as "have you ever used drugs?"

The Clinton White House also toyed with having the first lady use the then-blossoming Internet to get her message out to young women.

1) "Home Improvement" star?

In a 1995 memo, Hillary Clinton's top communications aide Lisa Caputo proposed the "wild idea" of Clinton making a cameo on "Home Improvement," starring Tim Allen.

But she addressed the worry that the appearance could "diminish the role of the first lady" -- concerns that were outweighed by the positive impact on Hillary Clinton’s "image," according to the memo.

"I know this may sound like a wild idea, but I think it is an interesting one to discuss. ... 'Home Improvement' would very much like to have Hillary make a guest appearance on its show. 'Home Improvement' is the most popular television show on the air. They are willing to do a show on women, children and family issues or a show on whatever issues Hillary would like," according to the memo.

"The outreach would be enormous and it would present Hillary in a very likeable light I believe. Although I have some concerns that it diminishes the role of First Lady by going on a TV sitcom it is probably worth weighing it against what we believe we might be able to gain by such an appearance politically and image-wise. You probably know that Rick is 100 percent in favor of Hillary pursuing this project."

2) Hillary’s "aversion" to the national press

In a 1995 memo leading up to Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election bid, Caputo sent correspondence outlining media possibilities on the horizon, but was also clear to note Hillary Clinton’s dislike for the national media.

"It is clear to me that Hillary is most comfortable doing press that is built around a specific purpose," Caputo wrote. "Hillary is comfortable with local reporters and enjoys speaking with them. This will help us get around her aversion to the national Washington media and serve to counter the tone of the national media."

3) Harnessing "Internet"

Caputo noted in 1995 that the "Internet has become a very popular mode of communication" and suggested "Hillary could speak to young women through [the] Internet."

"I think Hillary would have fun with this, and I believe it would: not be too difficult to organize," Caputo wrote in a media strategy memo. "We could invite women's media (i.e. the women's magazines) in to watch her do such an event. It would make for a nice story in a women's magazine."

"People magazine is tinkering with the possibility of using Internet. They have been in touch with me about the prospect of having Hillary communicate with parents across the country about children and families through Internet. They would then run the transcript in the magazine. This could be a really nice idea. They are still in the research stage and I am waiting to hear back from them."

4) The Clinton’s 20th Wedding Anniversary, a media opportunity

In the same 1995 memo from Caputo, she suggested that the Clinton’s host a big party at the White House to celebrate their anniversary -- even doing an interview with Walters to publicize it.

The timing would allow the Clinton’s to sit down for an interview without appearing "too political," Caputo said. "This might be a nice time peg to have the President and Hillary do a special joint television interview with Barbara Walters. A Barbara Walters interview would attract an important audience of women and senior. If we did an interview around the anniversary time peg, it would not appear too political."

5) "Style Pointers" for Hillary’s public appearances

In a July 1999 memo, Clinton’s close adviser Mandy Grunwald offered the first lady "style pointers" for an upcoming public appearance, including recommending she "be careful to ‘be real’” and “look for opportunities for humor.” She also warned her to prepare for a few specific questions, including "have you ever used drugs?"

"Don't be defensive. Look like you want the questions: The press is obviously watching to see if they can make you uncomfortable or testy. Even on the annoying questions, give relaxed answers," Grunwald suggested. "Keep your tone conversational… Don't let their [the large audience’s] presence force you to raise your voice or turn your statement into a speech. It's important that your tone stay informal and relaxed and therefore not political.

“Don't use the Administrations [sic] record as your own: You've spent a lot of years saying, ‘My husband did X.' This trip is about you. And you are not an incumbent. Look for opportunities for humor. It's important that people see more sides of you, and they often see you only in very stern situations."

6) Channeling Eleanor

In Caputo’s 1995 memo, she lamented that there was rarely any "historical context" in articles about Hillary, which could put her activities as first lady into perspective and make her seem "less extreme" as she tried to push for universal healthcare.

For that, she suggested enlisting the help of Eleanor Roosevelt: "Eleanor Roosevelt's Birthday -- Eleanor Roosevelt's birthday is in October and it would be wonderful for Hillary to celebrate the birthday with a day of events at the White House. I think it is beneficial to Hillary to do historical events every month or every 6 weeks. These events will help place a context around her and what she is doing as First Lady. We should look for historical events to celebrate that will help put Hillary into an historical context. So often there is no historical context in stories written about Hillary. If we are able to place her in situations which celebrate historical events, it may help to round out her image and make what she is doing seem less extreme or different in the eyes of the media."

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