Press Box

The Bill and Hillary Code

What’s the New York Times trying to tell us?

Bill and Hillary Clinton

When the New York Times prints a news story in its own private code, as it did with today’s (May 23) Page One article “Clintons Balance Married and Public Lives,” veteran readers grope through it, sentence by sentence, in hopes of piecing together the article’s true meaning.

Even the headline of reporter Patrick Healy’s piece appears coded. It alleges a Bill and Hillary “balance,” but, specifying no fulcrum upon which the relationship firmly rests, it invites the reader to conjure up a wobbling teeter-totter.

The story states that the “state of their marriage” is “Topic A” for “many prominent Democrats” without ever saying how or why it ranks so high. And who are the many prominent Democrats? If they are many, why aren’t they represented in the piece? Or do Healy and his editors count “one, two, three, many” when enumerating their subjects?

Healy could directly ask, “Is Bill cheating?” Instead, he writes a donut around the subject. As the piece spirals out to 2,000 words, the donut grows into a 20-inch Michelin radial, and the radial becomes a NASCAR oval. The experienced reader finds himself searching the infield of this great expanse for what appear to be clues.

Healy writes, “Nights out find [Bill] zipping around Los Angeles with his bachelor buddy, Ronald W. Burkle, or hitting parties and fund-raisers in Manhattan.” Given the context, what literate person won’t make a connection between “zipping” and “zipless,” especially when the person with whom Clinton is zipping is a billionaire bachelor buddy? I doubt if Burkle spends his time with Clinton driving down the Harbor Freeway to see the Watts Towers.

Noting that Bill Clinton’s past sexual indiscretions have made him a “magnet” for “tabloid gossip,” the piece does little to explain whether any of his behaviors justify the stickiness of the chatter. For all the words Healy spends on Bill’s fidelity, neither his on–the-record sources nor his anonymous ones venture to testify to the man’s faithfulness. It’s both the subject of Healy’s piece and the non-subject.

Take, for example, the newspaper’s time-motion study of the Clintons’ overlapping schedules. The paragraph reads:

Since the start of 2005, the Clintons have been together about 14 days a month on average, according to aides who reviewed the couple’s schedules. Sometimes it is a full day of relaxing at home in Chappaqua; sometimes it is meeting up late at night. At their busiest, they saw each other on a single day, Valentine’s Day, in February 2005—a month when each was traveling a great deal. Last August, they saw each other at some point on 24 out of 31 days. Out of the last 73 weekends, they spent 51 together. The aides declined to provide the Clintons’ private schedule.

What’s this supposed to mean? Assuming these numbers are right, the Clintons spend more time together—almost half of each month—than most political couples who keep homes in Washington and their districts. But rather than make that obvious point, the article goes on to cite anonymous Clinton friends—”eager to smooth any rough edges on the relationship”—who want the Times to know about the dinners, the board games, and the gardening duties the Clintons share. The journalistic effect is spotting smoke—alerting readers to the fact that something’s slightly amiss with the Clintons—but then not looking for fire. Or, does Healy want his readers to know that he—and the Clinton’s “friends”—are protesting too much?

Intrigue feeds on intrigue when the article highlights Bill’s relative absence from events that showcase Hillary and asserts that she wants to position herself as her “own person,” owing to her presidential ambitions. But why make any fuss about Bill not being at Hillary’s side? Few members of Congress appear in public with their spouses, except during campaigns, and even then many campaign alone. Unless, of course, the Times intends a secret message with this piece: They spend lots of time together, he keeps a tactful distance from her career by mutual agreement, and he cheats.

Don’t blame Healy for the cryptic course the article runs. I’m sure that after 97 editors red-penciled all the direct meaning out of his story, the copy desk stonewashed it soft so nobody would break a tooth while reading individual paragraphs. But read as a whole, the piece has a way of gumming up your mind.

For instance, having emphatically made the point that Bill is both present and absent, both a devoted co-gardener and an L.A. zipper, that Bill participates in her strategy sessions and Sen. Clinton operates as her own person, the piece concludes with Hillary saying, “I’m so grateful to you, Bill, wherever you are,” as she surveys the dimly lighted fund-raiser where Bill has spoken and exited the stage.

What the hell is that supposed to mean? Wherever he is literally? Figuratively? Existentially? This is the sort of news story that when read leaves you knowing less about the subject than when you were merely ignorant.


I’d love to see all the drafts of this story from rough to final. If only I had subpoena power! Send e-mail to and tell me what power of the state you’d like to call your own. Raise armies? Appoint judges? Tax? Regulate interstate commerce? (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Mail sent from addresses will not receive a response because I don’t have time to jump through Earthlink’s anti-spam hoops.)