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Why RNC Chairman Reince Priebus Is Freaking Out Over Pop Culture’s Hillary Rodham Clinton Obsession

By Alyssa Rosenberg  

"Why RNC Chairman Reince Priebus Is Freaking Out Over Pop Culture’s Hillary Rodham Clinton Obsession"

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Sigourney Weaver as Elaine Barrish, a riff on Hillary Clinton, in USA's 'Political Animals.' Credit: USA

Sigourney Weaver as Elaine Barrish, a riff on Hillary Clinton, in USA’s ‘Political Animals.’ Credit: USA

Who’s afraid of Hillary Clinton? Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, apparently. Now that Hillary Clinton’s become a hot pop culture subject, with USA’s miniseries Political Animals in the rearview mirror, a feature-length biopic, Rodham in the works, Diane Lane starring in an NBC miniseries about the former First Lady and Secretary of State, and CNN working on a documentary about her, Priebus has told NBC and CNN that if they don’t suspend their projects, he will ask his members to agree not to hold debates on the networks or condone debates set up outside the RNC system that appear on NBC and CNN. The Hollywood Reporter explains:

In both letters, Priebus attempts to paint the Clinton projects as little more than lengthy and free campaign ads. In the letter to Greenblatt, he notes that David Cohen, who is an executive vp at Comcast, NBCUniversal’s parent company, has been a major donor to Clinton and other Democrats. “Your company has expressly stated that your choice to air the miniseries in the near future would avoid concerns of running afoul of equal time election laws,” Priebus writes in his letter to Greenblatt. “This suggests a deliberate attempt at influencing American political opinion in favor of a preferred candidate, not to mention a guilty conscience.”

It seems far more likely to me that the decision to order these projects speaks to the networks’ needs for something buzzy–NBC still hasn’t found anything other than The Voice that really works for it, and CNN is undergoing a dramatic renovation at the hands of Jeff Zucker–than it does to any particular affection for the Clintons.

But Priebus’ anxiety is telling. Pop culture riffs on the presidency have a strong bias towards scandal, because that’s what’s sexy. Primary Colors, the first major pop culture take on the Clintons, presented Susan Stanton, its Hillary surrogate, as a bisexual schemer with no particular regard for her own reputation as long as her husband continued to rise. Political Animals was kinder, but it still focused on adultery dramas. Reelz is reopening the Kennedy Assassination file again, because that’s where the ratings are. There’s no particular reason to believe that any of the forthcoming takes on Clinton will be in any way hagiography, and much to suspect that they’ll mostly focus on the conundrum that still seems so overwhelming to so many people: the fact that Clinton was cheated on repeatedly and stayed. But that Priebus is concerned about even portrayals that might not be positive suggests that Clinton’s achieved a particularly Teflon status, where even bad news from her past ends up generating sympathy or respect for her.

And I also wonder if Priebus might have motivations of his own for getting some RNC debates off networks. Given that the Republican Party seems no closer than it was in 2012 to reaching a decisive break between its radical and moderate wings, if I were Priebus, I might want to keep that debate between them as far away from mass audiences as possible. Given how far moderate Republicans like Mitt Romney have had to run to the right during their primary campaigns, one of the things that debates do is generate a vast trove of high-quality clips of things that the eventual nominee will eventually have to try to explain away in a shortened general election season. If I were Priebus, I’d want as few of those debates as possible, and I’d want them to happen further from the public eye so my eventual candidate has less baggage that can eventually be hung around her or his neck.

It’s true that painting the Clintons as the ultimate insiders benefitting from media sympathy, and trying to use the idea of dynastic succession that they avoided during the Bush years is probably one of the better lines of attack the RNC has against Clinton if she decides to run. But going after the mainstream media as biased is a way for Priebus to both throw a bone to the idea that Fox News and other conservative outlets are more balanced than NBC and CNN, while also potentially getting his candidates out of a spotlight that for them, can feel awfully harsh.

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