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The Nation: Clinton Campaign Strategists Closely Tied to Union Busters, GOP Operatives, Conservative Media

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A new expose in The Nation magazine finds that while Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton is publicly trying to win support of unions in her presidential campaign, behind the scenes she is being advised by a team of strategists closely affiliated with union busters, GOP operatives and conservative media. We speak with the reporter who broke the story. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In campaign news, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton reached out to members of the Culinary Workers Union on Wednesday during a stop in Las Vegas. The union represents casino and hotel workers. Senator Clinton said it should be easier for unions to organize and that private equity firms should honor union contracts after buyouts.

While Clinton is publicly trying to win the support of such unions, behind the scenes she is being advised by a team of strategists closely affiliated with union busters, GOP operatives, conservative media and other Democratic Party antagonists. This, according to a new expose in The Nation magazine titled “Hillary, Inc.” written by Ari Berman.

AMY GOODMAN: Much of Ari Berman’s article focuses on Senator Clinton’s top strategist, Mark Penn, who heads the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller. Among other things, the company helps firms fight unionization efforts. Up until March, the labor section of Burson-Marsteller’s website read, “Companies cannot be caught unprepared by Organized Labor’s coordinated campaigns.” Mark Penn’s list of previous and current clients reads like a who’s who of corporate America. Juan, maybe you could take it from there.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Texaco, Eli Lilly, Microsoft, Proctor and Gamble, Monsanto. To talk more about “Hillary, Inc.” Ari Berman joins us in Washington. He’s a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and Puffin Foundation writing fellow at the Nation Institute. Welcome to Democracy Now!

ARI BERMAN: Hi. Thanks for having me.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, give us a rough overview of “Hillary, Inc.”

ARI BERMAN: Sure. Well, I mean, “Hillary, Inc.” is, first thing, about the money that she takes, and, you know, I say in the piece that Hillary, compared to her democratic rivals, is more reliant on corporate money and large donations, but it’s also primarily about the people that she chooses to have around her, the people that will run and execute her campaign and have prominent positions in the White House. And these are people with very, very, very significant business ties, some of which are still ongoing.

As you mentioned, her chief strategist, Mark Penn, not only is a major pollster, which means he polls for all sorts of industries, like the pharmaceutical industry and the oil industry, which don’t necessarily see eye to eye with the Democratic Party, but he also is in a very strange position of running a huge, very Republican-friendly PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, which puts him at odds with many of Senator Clinton’s public statements on organized labor, for example. And then, there’s also another very big lobbying firm, the Glover Park Group that’s cozied up to Rupert Murdoch and a whole other host of people in the pharmaceutical industry again. And that’s all Clintonites, including a number of people that are now essentially running Hillary’s campaign, including her spokesman Howard Wolfson.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk to us a little bit about the evolution of Mark Penn, in terms of his growing influence in national political circles from the early days of the first Clinton presidency?

ARI BERMAN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Mark Penn, you know, back in the ’70s, his first major client was Ed Koch, you know, the mayor of New York. Then he became a sort of standard Democratic pollster, and then went to work in the corporate world, you know, made a lot of money advising people like Eli Lilly, etc. And then, Dick Morris brought him into the White House when Clinton was stumbling in the polls in preparation for the ’96 election.

And it was Morris, before he had, you know, the falling out with the Clintons in his publicized, you know, sort of tiffs with the call girl — they brought Penn in, and it was Morris and Penn that coined the strategy of triangulation, which pushed Clinton to the right, co-opted Republican issues like welfare reform and tax cuts, and basically said make the election about school uniforms and V-chips. And then, after that, he very aggressively expanded his corporate business, while advising Bill.

His company was bought in 2001 by a giant group, the WPP Group, which owns Burson-Marsteller. And in '05, they made him CEO of Burson-Marsteller, which, I said, is a very unique position for a Democratic pollster to be in. All the while, he became Hillary Clinton's chief adviser. So he’s always been balancing the corporate world and the political world, I think, you know, as my article alleges, pretty uneasily. And it’s somewhat surprising that Hillary doesn’t have any problems with the corporate work he’s still doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Rupert Murdoch and the Clintons?

ARI BERMAN: Sure. Well, Hillary basically made a pretty conscious effort after winning in 2000 in New York to try to court Murdoch and defang his opposition, because the New York Post and everyone else was going after her so hard. Around the same time, a few years later, in 2004, there was this campaign to try to change the way Nielsen would measure TV viewership ratings, and Fox feared that it would cost them a lot of money in advertising revenue, so they turned to the Glover Park Group, this lobbying firm that’s very tied to Hillary. And what this advertising firm said is — basically they launched this huge campaign under the guise of this minority front coalition, which is a classic strategy that PR firms and lobbying firms use, basically saying this will disenfranchise minority viewers, low-income viewers, which wasn’t true, but that was the campaign they ran. And it didn’t end up working, but, you know, Murdoch established close ties to the Clintons even more through that firm. And then, last July, he held a big fundraiser in News Corp.’s tower for Senator Clinton, and a number of Democratically affiliated News Corp. execs have also held fundraisers for her this year.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the New York Post clearly — a Murdoch publication — has been much more friendly to Hillary Clinton in recent years than it had been in the past, just by observing its day-to-day coverage. But some of the people who were from the [Glover Park] Group that are part of the Hillary campaign, could you talk about that?

ARI BERMAN: Well, yeah. I mean, basically what happened is this firm was started in '03 by a lot of very major Clintonites, including Joe Lockhart, Bill's major spokesman, a number of other people. And basically what happens is, when you jump off the campaign, you go and work at the Glover Park Group. You essentially cash in. And then, a lot of them jumped back and now are on the Hillary campaign once again, Howard Wolfson, her spokesman, being the most prominent one. And he’s actually the one who secured the contract with Murdoch. You know, Wolfson has taken a leave, but, as I said, you know, this firm lobbies Hillary. They would lobby a Hillary White House. They’re the go-to firm for a lot of industries. They were the fastest-growing private company in Washington in 2005. They’ve doubled business since the '06 election. I mean, they're really becoming quite a powerhouse, and there’s all these — it’s basically all Clintonites. So, you know, it’s the kind of thing where they say business is business, but it’s hard to know where business ends and politics begin with them.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, can you talk about Hillary Rodham Clinton and Wal-Mart?

ARI BERMAN: Sure. Well, Hillary was on the board of Wal-Mart for seven or eight years, I believe. And, you know, it’s something that really didn’t get a lot of attention, what she actually did, until two major newspapers, the L.A. Times and The New York Times, wrote big articles about it. And basically Hillary was brought on, you know, to diversify the board. She was the only woman on the board at the time. And it, you know, was a tough position for her, because there’s a lot of people with more seniority, more status. But, as these articles allege, she didn’t really shake up the system very much. You know, she pushed them to be a little more fair to women in hiring, but she didn’t do anything, for example, or didn’t try to do anything about, you know, their anti-labor reputation. And indeed, that’s not why she was brought on board.

And there was an interesting part of the debates in the first Democratic debate. They asked Senator Clinton about Wal-Mart. You know, she said it has a mixed record. Then she went on, very interestingly, to sort of rail against the power of corporate elites and how middle America is invisible to corporate elites. And this is something that Senator Clinton actually does sort of well, but I thought it was sort of ironic, because if she wanted to curtail the power of corporate elites, maybe she should start with the advisers to her own campaign.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Your article also mentions the Entergy Corporation, which owns the Indian Point nuclear power plant, and the relationship of Mark Penn’s organization to Entergy. Could you talk about that, as well?

ARI BERMAN: Well, absolutely. I mean, Indian Point is located just outside of New York City. A lot of people want it to be shut down for the obvious safety hazard of having a huge nuclear power plant right outside Manhattan, and it’s failed a lot of safety ratings, and environmentalists have been trying to shut it down for years, in fact. And, you know, this is an example of when Mark Penn’s work sort of comes on Hillary’s terrain, because Entergy actually hired — which owns Indian Point — actually hired Mark Penn’s firm to do a huge ad campaign for them after 9/11, talking about how safe it is. Now the ad campaign centers around how Entergy and Indian Point helps fight global warming, because it’s nuclear energy. And it won the _PRWeek_’s actually — you know, Ad Campaign of the Year a few years ago. And Mark Penn’s polling firm polls for the Nuclear Energy Institute. There’s a whole lot of overlap there. And one of the main things that they’re saying is that now if you close Indian Point, it will cost low-income and minority jobs. Dirty power plants will go up in, you know, minority areas, sort of the same arguments that Glover Park made on behalf of Murdoch. And I think that’s scared a lot of lawmakers. And while Spitzer, Eliot Spitzer, and a number of Democratic lawmakers have called for Indian Point to shut down, Hillary has called for an independent safety assessment, but hasn’t called on the plant to be closed.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Ari Berman, there have been some pieces in Newsday on the close connection between President Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Clinton’s private jet travel, this piece from the Associated Press. Senator Hillary Clinton saying Wednesday she followed all Senate rules when she accepted rides on a private jet from a longtime benefactor. The benefactor is Vinod Gupta, who was recently sued by his stockholders, his corporation InfoUSA, for his vast support for President Bill Clinton, both in contributions in the Clinton library, etc., and the amount of plane fare or private jets he’s making available to the Clintons now.

ARI BERMAN: Well, yeah. And it’s interesting, you know, that the shareholders were saying, basically, “This is too much. It’s not worth it. You’re spending too much time wining and dining and flying around the country, you know, Bill Clinton.” But this is actually indicative of a larger thing that, you know, Bill has made a lot of money since leaving the presidency, giving speeches to people like Goldman Sachs, big Wall Street firms, and giving them counsel. These are also people that house Hillary’s largest advisers, people like Bob Rubin and Roger Altman, and it’s also the people that give the Clintons a lot of money. So there’s a lot of ties to Wall Street, a lot of ties to business. And this kind of [inaudible] just sort of when you see it spilling onto the front page.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

ARI BERMAN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Ari Berman is contributing writer for The Nation magazine, a Puffin Foundation writing fellow at the Nation Institute. His piece in the latest issue of The Nation magazine is called “Hillary, Inc.”

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