Hillary Clinton’s last press conference was a small event, just eight questions from reporters in Fort Dodge, Iowa. The reporters asked about gun control and terrorism, mental health issues and civil liberties. It was Dec. 5, 2015.
That’s 274 days ago, if you’re counting. Lots of people are.
Clinton’s opponents gleefully and regularly mention it. Journalists keep track in reports and on social media. The Washington Post even has a ticker.
Does it matter?
Clinton’s campaign – and the candidate herself – say this is a non-story. They say that Clinton has done more than 300 interviews this year, which is true.
Those 300-plus interviews, however, are hand-picked and often come with ground rules. The closest she’s come to a press conference was on August 5, when she answered questions after a speech at a dual convention of black and Hispanic journalists. But those questioners were pre-selected by the event’s moderators.
That’s different than standing in a room full of reporters, with cameras on you and no certainty of what’s coming next. Why is that important? Because press conferences are tough. They require quick thinking and thoughtfulness. They demand patience and poise. All of which happen to be things we want to see in our leaders.
Few people question Clinton’s smarts or policy acumen, but she doesn’t always handle the give-and-take of questioning well. In one of her last press conferences in August 2015, she famously answered a question about wiping her email server clean with a sarcastic “What, like with a cloth or something?” That answer went viral, and an animated shrug moments earlier became the product of many online memes.
Such are the hazards of answering questions on the fly – your responses can be clipped and GIFed and turned into ammunition for your opponents. Clinton, who is leading in most polls, has decided not to take the risk.
Is that disqualifying for the presidency? No. Is it as problematic as, say, Donald Trump’s incendiary and racist worldview? We don’t believe so.
But it is troubling. Clinton has a transparency problem. Her intent on controlling what people know about her runs counter to the openness that we expect from public officials. She’s shown no inclination to bend to that expectation; in fact, her resistance to doing so led to the carelessness of her personal email server.
Holding a press conference or two won’t make the email and trust issues go away, but there would be political benefits. For starters, it would give her slightly firmer ground to stand on when criticizing Donald Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns. At the least, it would stop all the counting.
Mostly, it would provide voters with an important glimpse into the person they’re considering for office. Yes, press conferences can seem kind of fogeyish in this age where candidates and voters have so many platforms available to communicate. But there’s no substitute for being out there, on camera and off-script, answering unwanted questions with follow-ups. If Clinton can’t manage that now, what kind of accountable president would she be?