Hillary Clinton’s appearance on Sunday’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos has been psychoanalyzed as much for the fraught past history between the two protagonists as for some questionable network staging decisions that left the show’s host at a clear disadvantage.
Stephanopoulos launched the hour with an uncharacteristic full disclosure that he had worked for President Clinton from 1991-96. When interviewing either of the Clintons in the past, there were no such disclaimers. So the decision to address his resume at the top was probably an effort to deflect or contextualize jabs like the one Hillary threw at him Sunday.
After he tried repeatedly to get her to admit that she had flip-flopped her position on NAFTA Clinton let it be known that she wasn’t the only with a past she’d sometimes like to forget.
“George and I actually were against NAFTA,” said Clinton, adding “I’m talking about him in his previous life, before he was an objective journalist.”
It was a gloves-off broadside delivered by someone spoiling for a “game changer.”
But after the widely pilloried performance that Charlie Gibson and Stephanopoulos turned in during the Philadelphia debate three weeks ago, the news division, and Stephanopoulos in particular, certainly hoped to shine.
But the staging was all wrong.
Clinton and Stephanopoulos were positioned in chairs that put them an eye line below the live audience so they couldn’t see questioners from their seats. This gave Clinton an excuse to bolt her position and spend most of the hour on her feet facing the public town hall-style rather than toughing it out with Stephanopoulos. After realizing she would not return to her seat, somewhat awkwardly, Stephanopoulos ambled over to her side and for the remainder of the show had to look up at a candidate who knew she had made a power move and won control.
You can picture the Clinton people on a pre-shoot site survey smiling to themselves when they realized the setting would allow her - even encourage her- to jump to her feet and free herself from the shackles of a one-on-one inquisition. Meanwhile over at Meet The Press, her rival, Barack Obama, had nowhere to roam sitting gamely through a Tim Russert cross examination about his relationship with Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Media critics took note. More than one used the noun “loom” to describe Clinton’s effect on Stephanopoulos. Maureen Dowd called the host’s efforts “pesky.”
“A few questions in, Clinton rose from her chair and loomed over Stephanopoulos,” wrote David Brooks in Tuesday’s New York Times. “The country hasn’t seen such a brazen display of attempted middle-aged physical intimidation since Al Gore took a walkabout on the debate stage with George Bush. It was like watching someone get elbowed in a dark alley by their homeroom teacher.”
Lacking the anchor experience of a Charlie Gibson or a Diane Sawyer, Stephanopoulos relied on the instincts of his producers to stage the location. My bet is next time he’ll have more input.
David Westin, president, ABC News, tacitly admitted that the staging may have been less than ideal.
“There’s never been a program I’ve been associated with that I couldn’t go back and say, I wish I could have done something a little differently,” said Westin. “I’m never going to say everything is just perfect. From my way of thinking it never is.”
But Westin brushed off the media criticism saying, “People get paid to be critics. They have a role. They get paid to present their opinions and that’s fine.”
What matters, he added, was that Stephanopoulos “pressed her on issue after issue.”
“However it looks, his job is to press her on issues and get answers. And I think he did that. You don’t play in the major leagues without being willing to get roughed up some.”