As first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton and her team had a deep preoccupation with the press, repeatedly searching for ways to soften her image and taking stock of who her friends in the media might be, according to documents released last week from her private papers.
The thousands of pages released by the William J. Clinton Presidential Library on Friday show Mrs. Clinton intensely involved in hefty issues such as her health care overhaul and international women’s issues, including briefing high-ranking members of Congress as she tried to win support for what eventually would become known as HillaryCare.
With polls showing Mrs. Clinton the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2016, after a failed bid in 2008, the documents are being scrutinized by the press and her political opponents for glimpses into her governing philosophy.
But peeking through in many of the documents are repeated signs that she and her team were searching for ways to package Mrs. Clinton, aware that she came across to many as too wonkish and not accessible to average voters — something that would dog her again in 2008.
In one memo, Mrs. Clinton’s press team categorizes the reporters who will be accompanying her on an international trip and labels several of them “a fan” of the first lady. In another memo, Mrs. Clinton’s advisers warn her how to act as she appeared in New York in mid-1999, when she was laying the groundwork for her eventual Senate run.
“Be careful to ‘be real,’” admonished Mandy Grunwald, Mrs. Clinton’s longtime media adviser. “You did this well in the [Dan] Rather interview where you acknowledged that of course last year was rough. Once you agree with the audience’s/reporters’ reality like that, it gives you a lot of latitude to then say whatever you want.”
Ms. Grunwald also urged Mrs. Clinton to look for chances to deploy humor because people “often see you only in very stern situations,” and advised her to be prepared to answer whether she had ever used drugs and to be prepared to defend her failed push for health care.
In a 1995 memo from Lisa Caputo to Maggie Williams, the Clinton team — or Hillaryland, as they referred to themselves in some documents — brainstormed a press strategy to appeal to women.
In a memo ahead of an overseas trip, Mrs. Clinton’s team wrote up descriptions of the reporters who would be accompanying her. It described The Associated Press correspondent as “a fan of yours and therefore he will have high expectations” for her performance. CNN’s correspondent was described as “very fair and positive toward you,” while the staffers said ABC’s reporter had been “made a Hillary fan” by a previous trip.
Myra Gutin, a professor at Rider University in New Jersey who studies first ladies, said the Clinton White House’s attention to Mrs. Clinton and the press was similar to what some other first ladies have experienced.
“It’s pretty much on a par with some of the other White Houses. The Ford White House was very concerned about Betty Ford, particularly after she had made an appearance on ‘60 Minutes’ in which she said she supported Roe v. Wade and she wouldn’t be all that surprised if her daughter had an affair,” said Ms. Gutin, author of “The President’s Partner: The First Lady in the Twentieth Century.”
Mrs. Clinton was under scrutiny by the press, and the Clinton White House was on guard from the beginning. Officials were aware that she would be the first presidential spouse to have a graduate degree and to have worked in a high-powered career.
Ms. Gutin said Mrs. Clinton contributed to the scrutiny with comments in office such as speculating that a “vast, right-wing conspiracy” was out to get her husband, and the president set an early tone in the 1992 campaign when he said theirs would be a sort of co-presidency, or “two for the price of one.”
Ms. Gutin also said Mrs. Clinton might have become more guarded by the end of her time in the White House — though she escaped without making any major gaffes.
The 18 documents released Friday amount to more than 3,500 pages. Some of them are reproductions of illegible handwritten notes by top aides, while others detail the drafting process for presidential remarks.
They are the first of more than 25,000 pages expected to be released this month. They had been protected from release for a dozen years after the end of the Clinton administration.
In one interesting snapshot, the documents showed a draft of one of Mr. Clinton’s weekly radio addresses in 1996 that included stern criticism of divorce, saying “we must make it harder for couples with children to get divorced. A divorce should not be quick and it should not be convenient. Divorce may be tough on parents — but it’s murder on kids.”
The final version Mr. Clinton delivered on Feb. 10, 1996, was much softer: “Divorce may be easier than staying together for parents, but usually it’s tougher for the kids.”
The documents don’t show who wanted the less-emphatic version.
Mrs. Clinton’s political opponents have been scouring the documents for ammunition that they can use either to dent her own presidential prospects or to use against President Obama — particularly on health care.
But they didn’t expose any major finds.
Indeed, what they did focus on was Mrs. Clinton’s record on health care, where she argued that an individual mandate requiring all Americans to have health care coverage was “a much harder sell” than the policy she wrote. At the time, the individual mandate was many Republicans’ preferred alternative to her plan, which focused on employer mandates.
Two decades later, the individual mandate is the centerpiece of Mr. Obama’s health care law — and Republicans have repeatedly challenged the individual mandate as unconstitutional and bad policy.