Hillary Clinton’s campaign had it all: near-death moments, hard-won triumphs, dysfunctional relationships—and a staff consumed with infighting over how to sell their candidate. It was a battle that revealed why she came so close to victory, as well as why she didn’t make it.
by Gail Sheehy August 2008
Are you here for the Deathwatch?”
That was how my friends in the traveling press corps welcomed me into the bubble of the Clinton campaign plane. It was three days before the March 4 Democratic primaries in Ohio and Texas, and they were boarding the 737 with the sullen obedience of inmates after an outing in the yard. Some had been following the once inevitable front-runner since the January 3 Iowa caucus when she was first pronounced to be in a “slump.”
But Hillary was radiant in an electric-blue jacket as she welcomed me and a few other journalists to cross the line from the quarantined section for the press into her forward cabin. After suffering through a February string of nonstop losses to her rival, Barack Obama, she did not seem the least discouraged.
As the author of a mostly sympathetic biography, Hillary’s Choice, that had nonetheless put me on ice with the Clintons for several years, I was surprised to get her signature wide-angle smile, synchronized with the eye-pop of recognition, and a full five-knuckle handshake—one of the strongest I’ve ever felt. “Hi, Gail. I’m so glad to see you out here!”
I asked how confident she felt about Ohio, where only two weeks before she had enjoyed a commanding 18-point lead over Obama that was now down to a mere 4 or 5 points. “I feel good,” she replied, the note of resignation in her voice immediately suppressed by the internal whip planted early on by her self-made, midwestern father. “Just keep on working, keep working, keep working. Ohio is a bellwether state … Ohio is America, so I feel good that we’re doing well there—just keep working at it.”
“Are you going to keep going right down the road to the last super-delegate?” I asked.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” she insisted. I knew right then she would never throw in the towel until the last possible moment, no matter how many times she was counted out.
For weeks she had been pulling 12- to 18-hour days, bouncing back and forth between Ohio and Texas in a plane full of national press who were writing drafts of her political obituary. “Senator Clinton has been carrying this campaign on her own back for a long time,” sympathized Geoff Garin, the easygoing pollster who would later be hired to try and rein in Hillary’s bullying chief strategist, Mark Penn. The campaign had slammed into a wall on February 5—Super Tuesday. Her brain trust had hoped to pocket most of the 24 states that day and force her competition to fold. Clinton herself had publicly proclaimed on December 30, “I’m in it for the long run. It’s not a very long run. It’ll be over by February 5th.”
But the man with the mysterious, foreign-sounding name, Senator Barack Obama—who, Hillary would slyly tell 60 Minutes, was not a Muslim, “as far as I know”—had followed their near tie in delegates won on Super Tuesday with a run of stunning victories in 11 states. She had fallen disastrously behind in pledged delegates, behind in the popular vote, behind in the number of captured states.
Some on Hillary’s campaign staff were already sending out feelers for new jobs, despite their boss’s implacable mantra: “We go on.”
I had a flashback to another plane ride with her some 16 years before. It was January 1992, when she accepted that it was up to her, as Bill Clinton later acknowledged, to bring him “back from the dead,” after rumors of his philandering surfaced in the mainstream press. We had landed in Pierre, South Dakota, and I watched Hillary flip on the motel-lobby TV only to see Gennifer Flowers mesmerizing a press conference by playing tapes of her steamy sex conversations with Governor Clinton. It was as much a crucible for Hillary as it was for Obama when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright gave his scene-stealing performance at the National Press Club, in an attempt to kill off his prodigal son.
Hillary had ordered her tearful male assistant to get Bill, who was unconcerned, on the phone. Back on her tiny chartered plane, sitting knee to knee with a woman who showed no evidence of emotional wounding, I listened to Hillary vent about Republicans who were now using “paid political character assassination.” After a seething monologue of maybe 30 minutes, she hit upon the strategy she would use all through the White House years, after she had given birth to the “war room.” “What Bill doesn’t understand is, you’ve got to do the same thing: pound the Republican attack machine and run against the press.”
Now, confounded by Obama’s non-belligerence, she resorted to that same fierce attack mode to bring her own campaign back from the dead.
“Team of Rivals”
Any campaign is a mirror of the candidate. Hillary’s need for a bulwark against all the secrets she’d kept over the years prompted her to surround herself with a tight cabal of loyalists, mostly scandal-scarred survivors of the Clinton White House bunker. “People who go through a battle together basically bond. They know their survival rests with staying together,” explains Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, but he adds, “It probably diminishes their efficacy as staff, because they’re more like family.”
Hillary’s choice to oversee her presidential campaign was Patti Solis Doyle, a 43-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants who grew up in Chicago. Doyle had been working for Hillary since she was 26, when Hillary took her under her wing in Arkansas and joked that she felt like Patti’s adopted mother. After serving as the First Lady’s scheduler in the White House, Doyle had moved to New York to help run Hillary’s Senate campaign. She was never formally appointed campaign manager for the presidential run, she simply morphed into that position. But Hillary vouched for Doyle, the first Hispanic woman in such a high campaign post, as “a natural choice.” The political operation of the first half of Clinton’s campaign, such as it was, depended on Doyle and her deputy, Mike Henry, who had helped revive the Democratic Party in Virginia.
Hillary, as always, had surrounded herself with brilliant, egocentric, hypercompetitive men. Harold Ickes, the legendary 68-year-old political street fighter who had helped to design Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election victory, had also led Hillary’s ascendancy from battered First Lady to junior senator from New York. His job on Hillary’s presidential-campaign staff was to hold tightly closed budget meetings and to hammer the super-delegates into line. Ickes put his heart into the campaign, as he had 40 years before, during the civil-rights movement, when he was beaten by a gang of white segregationists in Louisiana and lost a kidney. I asked him, looking at the possibility of the first black president, if he ever had twinges of guilt not supporting Obama. “Look, I worked for Jesse Jackson in ’84, ’88. What about the first woman, Gail? What about the first woman! Let me just say, they are on equal footing on that score.”
Chief strategist Mark Penn, 54, a studiously rumpled pollster, first became a Clinton insider during the ’96 campaign. As a solitary numbers cruncher he was ideally suited to the chaos that perpetually surrounded the Clintons. During Hillary’s presidential campaign, he was in frequent one-on-one communication with both Clintons, as he claims to have been on a daily basis for the last decade. That intimacy was a source of jealousy and suspicion among other senior staff.
Blunt-spoken Howard Wolfson, 41, handled (or manhandled) press. Mandy Grunwald, 50, daughter of celebrated Time-magazine editor Henry Grunwald, as always, ran the ads.
Ickes was the only member of the Big Five to have ever run a national presidential campaign. “The rest hardly knew a delegate when they saw one,” says a top adviser sarcastically.
But the real flaw in Hillary’s presidential campaign was the lack of any clear lines of authority. Her “team of rivals,” as she thought approvingly of them, assured she would remain in total top-down control. But it is often necessary to tell a candidate what she doesn’t want to hear in a cold, hard, neutral manner. With Hillary, the word among her staff was “I don’t want to get spanked by Mama.”
And she had a new Bill problem. “Bill Clinton was out of control … even the night she won in New Hampshire. Even Hillary couldn’t control him,” a Clinton fund-raiser tells me. “He began calling me directly,” says one of Hillary’s Big Five, “and you don’t talk back to the president of the United States.” Not only did Bill give “advice” directly to Penn, Wolfson, and Doyle, he wanted to set up his own shop in campaign headquarters, but the team persuaded him he was better used out on the stump.
While Bill proved to be a magnet for rural voters, he turned off some super-delegates with his imperial assumptions. He didn’t make his first pitch to one Pennsylvania super-delegate, Jason Altmire, until the afternoon of the Ohio/Texas votes. He sounded giddy, recalls Congressman Altmire. “?’We’re going to win Ohio for sure, and Texas looks good, and we’re coming to Pennsylvania,’ he said. ‘Keep your powder dry. Don’t endorse anybody—just wait it out.’?” The flattered first-term congressman said he was concerned that Senator Clinton might not play well on the top of the ticket. “President Bush won my district twice … “
Clinton interrupted him. “How well did I do in your district?”
“You won it twice.”
“Well, there you go,” Clinton said, gloating.
There was silence for a while, and Clinton assumed he had won his case.
“With all due respect,” Altmire finally said, “you’re not on the ballot this year.”
It was impossible to find anyone who could lay out the hierarchy of Hillary’s campaign. Almost everybody had veto power, but no one could initiate. The group was about as effective as the U.N. Security Council. After Super Tuesday and Obama’s remarkable run of February victories, it was clear their arrogantly defended strategies had failed. They became consumed with trading personal invective, hurling expletives, and trashing one another in print.
Penn and Ickes especially hated each other. Penn was a protégé of the most poisonous character in the Clinton White House, pollster Dick Morris. Leon Panetta, who had battled against Morris’s morally empty advice in the ’96 campaign, compared Penn to Karl Rove and saw Hillary’s dependence on Penn as an ominous sign. “Morris had no lines between right and wrong,” says Panetta. “There are moments when [the Clintons] want to hear from the dark side because that may be the only way to win Losing is not part of their vocabulary. They know no limits when it comes to the energy and tactics they will use—no matter how distasteful.”
Nor was Ickes a slouch in the sharp-elbows department. Morris himself told Vanity Fair in 1997, “Whenever there was anything that [Bill] Clinton thought required ruthlessness or vengeance or … frankly, skulduggery—he would give it to Harold.”
Hillary wound up many of her rallies by claiming, “This is the longest job interview in the world. Think about the decision as a hiring decision!” But if she couldn’t control her campaign team, how, one wondered, would she run an operation as complex and fraught with rivalries as the White House?