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Time's Insular Take On Hillary

Hillary Rodham Clinton is featured in a flattering black-and-white photo on the cover of Time magazine this week - the 10th cover story for Hillary Clinton since she appeared on the national scene hitched to Bill Clinton's wagon in 1992. That's got to be a record of sorts. But one thing was very different this time. The headline featured a poll question with two little boxes to check: "LOVE HER" or "HATE HER."

What? Someone might not love her? This must be the handiwork of Time's new Managing Editor, Richard Stengel. He's made a public fuss about his desire to see Time be a major player in the shaping of America's opinions.

This newest cover story is a departure from the norm, the royal covers she's so often received, with titles like "Ascent of a Woman," "Turning Fifty," "Hillary In Her Own Words," and the late-Lewinsky-scandal classic, "'It's Nobody's Business But Ours.'" The normal Time magazine Hillary cover could be mistaken for the cover of Ladies' Home Journal. (There was one exception. One cover in 1996 carried the caption "The Truth About Whitewater" and featured a harshly spotlighted Hillary, but it wasn't advertising a Time article inside, but a book excerpt from James Stewart's "Blood Sport.")

Time treats Hillary Clinton like she was America's Princess Diana, someone we're all supposed to root for because she never got that storybook marriage with the Prince of Arkansas. There'a big problem with the metaphor, however. For all her hatred of land mines, Lady Di never aspired - craved? - to rule England with an iron fist.

Hillary's long-held desire for the presidency, visible all the way back in the "two-for-one special" co-president talk of 1992, is never portrayed by Time as unseemly ambition. Her ambition is natural. She's a Clinton.

What, then, was the tenor of the cover story inside this week's Time? If you love the Clintons, never fear. Karen Tumulty's report still carries the usual courtier's curtsies, starting with talk of the "outsize status of both Clintons" and how Hillary's husband is, hands down, "the best Democratic political strategist on the planet." (Now if he could only keep his hands down.) They are "the most fascinating tango act in politics," even if now "the choreography is reversed." Bill Clinton is "still the superstar," even though the list of candidates he's supported in recent years, and who have gone down in crushing defeats, seems endless. Hillary pleases her neighbors by having "storytime for tots the day she picked up her public-library card." In a sidebar, their Chappaqua fans confess they're not usually "royal-watchers."

If you think the whole thing reads like an internal memo at a Democratic club, you're not mistaken. In more than 4,000 words, there's not a single conservative or Republican detractor- not one - quoted. Time explained that since the question of Hillary's forthcoming presidential campaign is so sensitive, neither Clinton would speak on the record, and discouraged all their insiders from speaking on the record. So the whole article is filled with the Clinton inner circle, often speaking anonymously.

That's not to say they don't ponder, inside the Clinton tank, how their marriage might be a political problem, or he might outshine her on the stump, or she might be seen as liberal. But imagine Time devoting an entire cover story to anonymous insider chatter from Reagan or Bush insiders, without a single soundbite from a liberal critic. Then see a doctor for shortness of breath if you can't handle the incessant laughter.

Conservatives do surface, in the usual role of vicious attackers. Her campaign for the White House could face every attack Bill faced, and more, since "he never had to contend with the blogosphere or the newer kind of independent operation that turned swift boat into a verb in the 2004 presidential election." Tumulty's most ridiculous sentence is this one: "Hilary has already figured as Lady Macbeth in enough volumes to fill a bookmobile." That's just servile exaggeration, just as there isn't a bookmobile of George W. Bush-bashing books.

That said, Tumulty is kind enough to finish the sentence by mentioning two forthcoming titles of the vicious critiques of Hillary, one from Jonah Goldberg of National Review, and my book with Tim Graham on how the media are trying to pave Hillary's path to the presidency. Tumulty is only making the conservative argument stick: the first way the media pave Hillary's path to power is by publishing cover stories in which only the Clinton political family is allowed to speak.

That's why the love her-hate her boxes are inadequate. What many conservatives hate is not Hillary but the glaringly obvious way in which the national news media circle around the Clintons like royal scribes and Secret Service protectors, incapable of telling a story straight, all the while insisting their final product is "objective news reporting."