I just wanted to tell good stories that helped explain the world to people.
Every time I read another campaign trail or White House memoir, I tell myself that’s enough. Then a new one comes out and I can’t seem to resist. Longtime traveling journalist on the Hillary Clinton beat Amy Chozick’s Chasing Hillary is the latest, and it’s quite a good read even if you feel you’ve spent enough time in this well trodden territory. Chozick covered Clinton’s 2008 campaign as a Wall Street Journal reporter. By the time her 2016 run came around, Chozick had moved to the New York Times.
The book is a funny but informative chronicle of her career trajectory (these parts are entertainingly written and never go so personally deep that it’s boring, more serving to show how the campaigns consumed her life) and the day to day of the campaigns themselves. The narrative offers comparisons between 2008 and 2016, including how Hillary and her team tried to learn from their mistakes and do better the second time around. Chozick’s analysis and the examples she pulls are excellent, she lays out the problems more clearly than I’ve seen elsewhere. It’s interesting to see the campaign steps through her eyes – getting inside reactions from Clinton & Co. when big news broke, for example.
It’s a breeze to read – I was intimidated by the 400 pages in my epub copy, but it flies by. I liked Chozick’s writing style a lot – it’s smart and polished and she’s adept at revealing anecdotes that illuminate Clinton’s campaign, what was visible behind the scenes, and the experience of being in the traveling press, tailing Clinton and her often frosty campaign staff. It’s funny because we know how Trump treats journalists, and Katy Tur’s Unbelievable details the other side of this campaign through her experiences covering him, but I was surprised to learn how antagonistic the relationship between Clinton’s staffers and her press were.
In the ten years she spent alongside her, Chozick describes all of her direct encounters with Hillary, and they’re countable on two hands. Sometimes Clinton went out of her way to do warm, thoughtful things – sending Chozick a heartfelt letter when she heard her grandmother died – and elsewhere it’s frustrating that she didn’t use the opportunities a captive press provided to show the relatable, kinder side that her family and friends promised us was there. I didn’t need to see it to believe she was the better choice for leader than Trump, but plenty of Americans did.
Even so, Chozick relates experiences traveling with the Clintons personally, and how it helped shape opinions about complicated issues:
I saw things in Africa that made me less cynical about the Clinton Foundation. Under tamarind and mahogany trees, aid workers set up a station where deaf children from the local villages could be fitted with their first hearing aids. It’s hard to care about whether some sleazy foreign donor wants something from the State Department after you’ve seen a child hear for the first time.
In private settings, which include closed-press fund-raisers and paid speeches to Wall Street banks, Hillary exhibited a dry, acerbic wit that didn’t easily translate into lines made for mass consumption on the campaign trail.
“I would rather underpromise and overdeliver,” she told 460 people at the Five Flags Center in Dubuque.
The underpromise line made Brooklyn cringe. It didn’t take a room full of pollsters to know that American voters preferred to elect charismatic men who wildly overpromise. But Hillary didn’t want to be like them. She was a realist, or as I called it, a radical incrementalist.
Of course, that was part of her problem all along – Hillary’s a workhorse and as described here, an introvert, more suited to throwing herself into the work many politicians only promise to do. Unlike Trump she didn’t have the sound bites, unlike Obama she didn’t have the stirring speeches – she just had her work, and a personal distance that came off as cold, impersonal, unlikeable – however voters perceived her.
What Hillary didn’t understand—or didn’t want to accept—was that Trump could lick his fingers after eating a bucket of greasy KFC on board his 757 and maintain the aura of the workingman—even if he did spend most of his business career screwing over said workingman. Meanwhile, Hillary, who regardless of what you thought of her personally had detailed policy plans and a real determination to “lift middle-class wages” and “put Americans back to work,” couldn’t shake her image as a rich lady from Westchester.
There’s a lot of material here about how the Clinton campaign completely underestimated Trump’s popularity. Chozick describes being in a bubble while campaigning as a reporter, and it seems to follow that the staff themselves would be. It’s an immersive world of its own weird making with little connection to the outside, or reality.
But those glimpses from inside coupled with Chozick’s intelligent analysis and unfortunately, the wisdom of hindsight, make compelling reading even if little is new or groundbreaking.
Hillary sometimes needed to unleash on them in private. “You want authentic, here it is!” she’d yelled in one 2016 prep session, followed by a fuck-laced fusillade about what a “disgusting” human being Trump was and how he didn’t deserve to even be in the arena.
WHY is that not on tape. A fuck-laced fusillade might’ve worked in her favor.
Ultimately, as much light fun as I found the book to be, I felt uncomfortable with so many mentions of the goal being her byline on front page stories. She describes the discomfort in the newsroom when Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood video broke, but otherwise there wasn’t much touching on how important it was that the president not be this person. I understand her crushing disappointment that she wouldn’t be moving on to cover the first woman president (FWP, as abbreviated here) but the stress is about her career.
She apologizes multiple times, recognizes where she made mistakes – easy with hindsight. She explains that she’d always tried to pitch stories that showed a more human, relatable side of Hillary, because after all, it’s clear she’s a supporter.
Before the 2016 campaign even started, I wrote about Hillary working to craft an economic agenda that would address growing inequality and stagnant wages. For the next two years, I wrote about every one of Hillary’s major policy rollouts—taxes, infrastructure, immigration, gun control, early childhood education, and others—all the while knowing that these stories would go virtually unnoticed by my editors, by readers, by the campaign.
And I gravitated to lengthy features about little-known chapters of Hillary’s life. This was not easy to do with a presidential candidate who’d first been featured in the Times in 1969, five years before the paper first published the name Bill Clinton, and who remained in the public eye ever since.
The rationale seems to be that the campaign, so controlling of information and narrative solely on its terms, blocked her every way she tried it. And the news wants what it wants and she had to publish – so that’s why she wrote stories about emails, which, she readily acknowledges, played a part in Hillary’s downfall. I see her point, but it’s hard not to feel annoyed anyway. Looped into this is Chozick’s own likeability problem – namely whether Hillary likes her. That’s probably just human nature, but also feels uncomfortable.
The other, smaller drawback was Chozick’s attention to inside media world matters, which I think aren’t all that interesting for anyone outside of said industry. Luckily, Chozick covers a lot of ground (literally – 48 states, she counts; and figuratively here) so the topics keep moving quickly.
Witty and immensely readable look at ten years’ of coverage of two Clinton campaigns and the toll they took on a journalist trying to do right by a female candidate and by herself, offering a lot of insight into the weird world of politicking and Hillary’s image and likeability problems via her relationship with the press. Verdict: 3.5/5
Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, and One Intact Glass Ceiling
by Amy Chozick
published April 24, 2018 by Harper