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Humanizing Hillary, Canonizing Chelsea

Here's one sign that Hillary Clinton is the Democratic presidential frontrunner. Reporters are tripping over themselves to convince us how likable and human she is, strong and yet nurturing. It's the same playbook the media used for Al Gore and John Kerry, both just as stiff, robotic, and unlikeable then as Hillary is now. So they're portraying Hillary not only as strong and invincible, but also as warm as a down comforter and as sweet as Mrs. Butterworth.

The New York Times stands out as a primary transmission belt for the Clinton campaign's effort to melt the ice-queen image. On the front page July 29, Times political writer Mark Leibovich lavished his awe on personal correspondence Hillary wrote as a Wellesley co-ed to her high school friend John Peavoy at Princeton. The headline was "In the '60s, a Future Candidate Poured Her Heart Out in Letters."

Leibovich stressed how missives from this "unformed and vulnerable striver" were a revelation. Young Hillary was "by turns angst-ridden and prosaic, glib and brooding, anguished and ebullient," her letters a "rare unfiltered look" into her head and heart. But how do we know this correspondence is "unfiltered"? The letters are intact, but can we be sure they are the only letters Hillary sent to Peavoy? Did Hillary instruct Peavoy to share some, and not all? We don't know. Peavoy says he hasn't talked to Hillary for years, but the Clinton campaign declined comment when asked. That's their usual way of wiping away fingerprints.

As for "rare," the New York Times takes a while to admit the letters are actually nothing of the sort. As the Clintons always say, this is old news, if ever it was news. In paragraph 21, Leibovich acknowledges that Peavoy shared the letters with author Gail Sheehy, who quoted a number of the same passages in her 1999 biography "Hillary's Choice." So these "rare" letters have been in the public domain for eight years now.

Included in that pile is the line that perfectly encapsulates Hillary's smug brand of nanny-statism. "Can you be a misanthrope and still love or enjoy some individuals...How about a compassionate misanthrope?" If the media loved Hillary less, those telltale words would ring through the campaign like George W. Bush's insulting "compassionate conservative" mantra in 2000.

But most of Leibovich's quotes from the Peavoy letters focused on her uncertainty about her destiny and her inspiring evolution away from her "rigid conservative" father to the (liberated) role of a "liberal antiwar activist." The letters show a young Hillary who "skates earnestly on the surface of life, raising more questions than answers."

So what was the political effect from this exercise? Liberals quickly promised to make their daughters read them. Joan Walsh of Salon.com said they were "intensely humanizing," a "net gain" for the Clinton camp.

Two days later, Hillary's enablers at the Times were back at the task. At the top of the front page was a story on "Chelsea Clinton, Primed for a Second Stint as First Daughter." In a big color photo, Chelsea stood between two Hillarys, a smiling real one and a regal official painting. Reporter Jodi Kantor played them as two clones of Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way.

Both mother and daughter were favorably described by ever-present "friends" of Hillary: like her mother, Chelsea has the habit of "pre-empting questions by asking lots of them," the "passionate interest" in health care, and the tendency to sound scripted. Both mother and daughter have used White House contacts to build careers, but "won over skeptical colleagues with their diligence and enthusiasm." Even now, Kantor rhapsodized, Chelsea is still "playing a more glamorous version of her lifelong role: model daughter."

Kantor betrayed a Clinton lover's romance with the idea of a Clinton dynasty that passes from Bill, to Hillary, to even President Chelsea. The story ends with a friend hearing Chelsea speak and thinking she's "going to go all the way." If so, she sure can count on the New York Times to deliver a complimentary verbal gift basket. Chelsea's "a focus of public fascination," but co-workers find she has a "deeply admirable ability to yield focus." We're told that "people seem delighted just to watch her lips move and hear sound emerge." As Kantor described her Jewish boyfriend, she identifies Chelsea as "a Christmas-cookie-baking, churchgoing Methodist."

At least Kantor makes it perfectly clear that her piece gibes with the Clinton campaign, "which seeks to portray Senator Clinton as a strong yet nurturing force, a friend to women and children, and a symbol of progress from one generation to the next."

With their reliably progressive palette of one color - whitewash - The Times could be easily described as Hillary's official Portrait Partner.