Back when Bill Clinton was president and I was working for The Progressive magazine in Washington, D.C., I was summoned to a meeting with Roger Ailes at Fox News' headquarters in New York. Fox was brand new then, and its creators were willing to try anything, even putting actual left-wingers on television.
Ailes had me into his office for a genial chat, and asked me some "thought-provoking" questions, like this one on abortion: What did I think of the parallel between pregnant women and the American soldiers who fought and died at the Battle of the Bulge?
"Every single one of them [soldiers] was letting the government tell him what to do with his body," he pointed out. It seemed like an absurd argument to me, and I started to say so, but he held up his hand. I had to admit, he said, that it was a different way of looking at things.
"Okay," I said. He seemed pleased. Ailes gave me a copy of his book, You Are the Message, and asked if I knew what made good political debate on television. I had an idea what the right answer was. It didn't have much to do with complex analysis. "Entertainment," he said, patting me on the back.
For the next two years, I had a contract with Fox. I enjoyed it. But I had my doubts about the whole endeavor. Shows like Hannity & Colmes and The O'Reilly Factor were too cheesy, I thought. They'd never stay on the air.
How wrong I was. Within a short time, Fox had remade political coverage on television and eclipsed its more staid rivals' ratings. Soon everyone was competing with Fox to make politics more entertaining.
Ailes, who as a Republican media consultant helped undo Michael Dukakis with the infamous Willie Horton ad, went on to give the Monica Lewinsky scandal a helpful push.
I thought about him recently during the flap over Hillary's emotional moment in New Hampshire. Hillary has now befriended Ailes, having somehow put the indignities inflicted by the "vast right-wing conspiracy" behind her. She hung out with him at Fox News' 10th-anniversary party in Washington. Bill Clinton even recorded a birthday greeting for Ailes' 60th birthday party. Ailes' boss, Rupert Murdoch, has become a big Hillary contributor since she won her Senate seat.
So maybe I should have been more skeptical when I saw what looked like Fox News piling on, playing the same clip of an uncharacteristically emotional Hillary over and over. It looked like Hillary was crumbling under pressure, and that she'd lose in New Hampshire, as she had in Iowa, to the more charismatic Barack Obama.
The pundits - especially on Fox - were arguing that her show of weakness would do her in. I'm no fan of Hillary Clinton. But like Katha Pollitt and Gloria Steinem, I didn't want to see the first serious female candidate for president go down that way.
But then Hillary won. And in her victory speech she appeared to take advantage of that emotional moment and women's strong reaction against the media onslaught. Watching her highly stage-managed speech in New Hampshire, I thought, "I've been had."
Clearly, Hillary has read You Are the Message (not to mention other helpful books, like How to Win By Losing). Her campaign is run by the nation's top spin-masters, including pollster Mark Penn.
I don't doubt they put a lot of thought into how to parlay her awful debate performance and her self-pitying moment in New Hampshire into a big sympathy vote. Thanks to the media presentation of the primaries, and the candidates' efforts to win what has become more and more like an episode of Survivor, entertainment values have taken over the Democratic race.
Ailes no doubt admires the Clintons' professionalism. Like him, they know a lot about the circus aspect of American politics.
Hillary, it's true, lacks Obama's ability to inspire. When she finally put some college kids behind her in that New Hampshire speech (replacing the ancient and battle-weary Madeleine Albright in the camera's eye), they looked distracted and bored - the opposite of the genuinely revved up Obama crowd. Her speeches are full of generalities, meaningless and bland.
But what Hillary lacks in genuine, grassroots enthusiasm, she makes up for in political shrewdness. Even Mitt Romney, after his poor showing in Iowa and New Hampshire, took a page from Hillary's book and got all misty-eyed in Michigan, talking about his father, the late governor of the state. I wouldn't be surprised if Roger Ailes had recommended it.
There's more Fox fodder to come, with the Clinton and Obama camps trading allegations about racial slights and sexist condescension. The modest policy differences between the top two Democratic candidates, both of whom have major backing from the usual big-money sponsors, are eclipsed by the far more interesting battle of personality and symbolism.
And the general election campaign has not even begun. Just wait until the Republicans start reaching into their bag of tricks.
There's a long road ahead to the end of 2008.
Ruth Conniff is political editor of The Progressive magazine.