David Axelrod, a top Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to President Obama, believes Hillary Clinton made the controversy surrounding her health worse by not disclosing her pneumonia diagnosis earlier.
"Obviously her penchant for privacy is what led her to have a separate email system, and there have been other occasions in her public career in which she's tried to create a zone of privacy," Axelrod told NPR's Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition. He tweeted a similar sentiment on Monday:
"Once she had to pull down her schedule, it seems to me that there was an obligation to share quickly what the set of circumstances were. And I honestly think they unwittingly played into a larger story," Axelrod continued. "I don't think health is as big a challenge for her as stealth. She is a relentless, indefatigable person, I can attest to that. But the concerns that people have run to the other thing, and they ended up creating a bigger story than the one they were trying to avoid."
The Democratic presidential nominee was diagnosed with pneumonia last Friday but didn't disclose the illness until she fell ill during a Sept. 11 memorial service on Sunday, having to leave the service after she became overheated and dehydrated. She took a three-day hiatus from the campaign trail, and is set to return today with a stop in Greensboro, N.C. On Wednesday, Clinton released more information about the pneumonia, which her doctor said she is "recovering well" from, and her overall health.
A statement from Clinton's campaign didn't come until hours after that incident on Sunday, which only fueled conspiracy theories that the 68-year-old was hiding information about her health and was suffering from a serious illness.
Axelrod said that while Clinton only fed the public perception she was hiding something — exacerbated by the ongoing controversy over her private email server at the State Department — she's being held to a tougher standard by the media than her GOP rival Donald Trump.
"She does have this reputation for being zealous about guarding her privacy, and that leading to challenges," he noted. "But the other thing is that she is being judged as the likely next president of the United States whereas her opponent often gets covered as kind of a sideshow and doesn't get the kind of scrutiny that she gets."
"He's been even less revealing about his health, he's been un-revealing about his personal finances or his business finances, which conceivably pose a much larger conflict of interest than anything that Hillary Clinton has been involved in," Axelrod continued, "and yet he seems to skip around that whereas she gets very intense scrutiny. And this is a source of great frustration to her."
Trump taped an interview on Wednesday with controversial TV host Dr. Mehmet Oz, set to air this afternoon, where the two discussed his recent physical examination, but the results haven't been released widely. And he has yet to release his tax returns, as is the custom for presidential candidates.
Axelrod's suggestion for Clinton was to view the media as a necessary evil.
"The media may be a dirty filter at times , but it's the filter through which you communicate to the American people," he said. "It impedes your effectiveness if you view this as a relentlessly adversarial relationship."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We have one perspective now on Hillary Clinton's relations with the media. The Democratic presidential candidate has a history of fending off reporters. As long ago as 1994 as first lady, she admitted this problem and went to see the media.
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HILLARY CLINTON: I just didn't understand enough about being accessible to all of you or being accessible in Washington. And so I came to that realization, and that's why I'm here.
INSKEEP: It was also in the 1990s, in a talk on ABC, that Clinton suggested a reason to hide information about herself.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")
CLINTON: You know, we've had people accuse us of murder, accuse him of drug running, accuse us of everything under the sun. And I have to believe that it is in large measure motivated by people who just flat out disagree with the kind of politics and policies that my husband believes are best for America.
INSKEEP: All of that is some of the backdrop for 2016. Clinton faces Donald Trump, a candidate who has failed to release tax records. This very week, Trump said, on TV, he would release numbers from a physical exam and then abruptly did not do it. But it is Clinton who is under pressure for keeping too much private after her campaign was slow to disclose she had pneumonia.
David Axelrod got a lot of attention this week for saying that Clinton helps to cause her own trouble here. President Obama's former adviser said on Twitter that antibiotics can take care of pneumonia but not an unhealthy penchant for privacy.
DAVID AXELROD: Well, obviously, her penchant for privacy is what led her to have a separate email system. And there have been other occasions in her public career in which she's tried to create a zone of privacy. But once she had to pull down her schedule, it seemed to me that there was an obligation to share quickly what the set of circumstances were. And I honestly think they unwittingly played into a larger story. I don't think health is as big a challenge for her as stealth, as she is a relentless, indefatigable person. I can attest to that. But the concerns that people have run to the other thing. And they ended up creating a bigger story than the one they were trying to avoid.
INSKEEP: OK. You just hit on something really interesting there, David, because in covering presidential campaigns, you do notice that people in the media, us, go for narratives. And when there's already an established narrative, it's very easy for us to pick up on any event, any fact and just slam that narrative again and again and again and again and again. Does that happen with Hillary Clinton? Does she have a reputation and, therefore, the media extend the reputation?
AXELROD: She is disadvantaged in two ways. One is she does have this reputation for being zealous about guarding her privacy and that leading to challenges. But the other thing is that she is being judged as the likely next president of the United States, whereas her opponent often gets covered as kind of a sideshow and doesn't get the kind of scrutiny that she gets. He's been even less revealing about his health. He's been unrevealing about his personal finances or his business finances, which conceivably pose a much larger conflict of interest than anything that Hillary Clinton has been involved in. And yet, he seems to skip around that, whereas she gets very intense scrutiny. And this is a source of great frustration to her.
INSKEEP: Well, that's what I'm driving at here. Is this simply because the media have a narrative and it's easy to extend that narrative? And her narrative is she hides things, so anything that happens people jump on that.
AXELROD: Well and I think that when the media gets a sense that a candidate is being unforthcoming, that only whets the appetite for the narrative because the job, after all, of the media is to report. And if they feel like they're being thwarted in getting the information they need, then you're going to get a ferocious backlash. And she's seen that.
INSKEEP: Is it hard, if you're Hillary Clinton, to trust people?
AXELROD: Well, look, she has a lot of battle scars after 30 years in public life. And, you know, that's obvious. She's had some negative interactions. But she has to overcome that. The media is - it may be a dirty filter at times, but it's a filter through which you communicate to the American people. It impedes your effectiveness if you view this as a relentlessly adversarial relationship.
INSKEEP: Is she held to a different standard because she's a woman?
AXELROD: My view is that she's held to a different standard but not because she's a woman. She's held to a different standard because she's been in public life for a long time. And so she has gotten a more intensive level of scrutiny than Donald Trump. And now, as these polls tighten, the question is whether the media shifts its focus and treats them both to the same level of scrutiny.
INSKEEP: David Axelrod, always a pleasure. Thanks very much.
AXELROD: Thanks Steve.
INSKEEP: He's director of the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics and host of "The Axe Files" podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.