Columns » Jay Barth

Time for another talk



As Bill Clinton started his 1982 political recovery following his shocking defeat to Frank White two years before, he took to the airwaves of Arkansas with an atypical campaign advertisement: He looked directly at the camera and apologized for having been out touch with Arkansans during his first term, including his damaging decision to raise vehicle tag fees.

As Clinton wrote in his autobiography, "I then said that when I was growing up, 'my daddy never had to whip me twice for the same thing.' " Clinton had a fight at every stage of his 1982 comeback, but the ad was crucial to inoculating him from critiques of his first term and allowed him to go on the offensive against his primary and general election opponents.

Sixteen years later, Clinton was again on his back politically — this time because of his falsehoods regarding his inappropriate sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Once again, he talked straight to the camera and admitted his failings, this time in a short address from the White House just hours following his August 1998 testimony to the grand jury investigating the case. The speech didn't immediately rehabilitate his reputation with the American public, but it was crucial to making the case that it was time to "move on." Indeed, the web-based organization — crucial to setting the stage for the historic Republican congressional defeats that fall — opened for business only days after that speech.

Eighteen more years have passed, and it is time for a different Clinton to talk directly to the camera, crisply take responsibility for her errors regarding her use of email during her time as secretary of state, and move the American public toward thinking anew about her candidacy and her prospective presidency. Unquestionably, the notes from Hillary Clinton's FBI interview regarding her email practices released late last week demonstrate that no matter how sloppy the decisions, intentional wrongdoing was absent. Moreover, as Paul Krugman's much-discussed New York Times column over the weekend sharply argued, the media regularly engages in innuendo regarding Clinton's email practices and the dynamics surrounding the Clinton Foundation, while Donald Trump's own "record of bilking students, stiffing contractors and more" is ignored. While few voters see Trump as either competent or truthful, the coverage of the Clinton email controversy has taken a toll on Clinton and helped Trump cut her national polling lead in half since the immediate aftermath of the Democratic National Convention.

To turn the tide, Clinton's campaign should invest in a national two-minute ad in which she talks directly to the camera. She is very, very good in such a setting (indeed, better than her husband), as Clinton showed in her excellent ad announcing her candidacy last spring. Once and for all, she should acknowledge her regret that she got some things wrong regarding her email practices, defend the Clinton Foundation's work, and commit she will never break trust with the country as president. Then, she could close the message with a tweaked version of the close of her husband's 1998 address in which he asked the American public to "to repair the fabric of our national discourse, and to return our attention to all the challenges and all the promise of the next American century." Hillary Clinton's trustworthiness numbers bounced upwards as a result of the messaging from the well-crafted Democratic National Convention, suggesting that voter perceptions of Clinton are not yet cemented and could be shifted by such an effort.

To be clear, Hillary Clinton will likely be able to win this general election without taking such a step. Barring an episode during the upcoming presidential debates that jars her advantaged position in key state polls, Clinton seems poised to hold on for an Electoral College victory over Trump. But, this isn't just about winning an election; it's also about removing the albatross that her perceived untrustworthiness will present to her presidency. At a time when Americans' faith in their governmental institutions is challenged like never before, it's important not just for her ability to get things done, but for the country to truly begin to "move on."

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