Your Guide To the Endless Newsweek Story on the Endless Campaign
Today, Newsweek posted the final chapter of their Special Election Project, the annual How He Did It book they've published for each presidential campaign since 1984 (when the answer was much easier: he just ran against Walter Mondale). The reporters assigned to the special project are embargoed from those publishing in the regular magazine, so they get jucier anecdotes, more hilarious quotes, and revealing stories, all of which are then packaged and in such a way as to make the winning campaign look like a well-oiled machine and the losing campaign look like a parade of idiots. Did you read the whole thing? We did! We'll share with you the funniest bits, the important takeaway, and the already solidifying conventional wisdom. In short, this is the story of the 2008 campaign: the Hillary Clinton campaign was a stressful psychodrama, the Obama campaign was an intellectual exercise, and the McCain campaign was a ragtag bunch of misfits who stumbled into an insane family nightmare from Twin Peaks, Alaska. Let's begin with Hillary and co. Hillary The Clinton campaign was beset by the vicious infighting among assholes, basically. The biggest and dumbest asshole was chief pollster/strategist Mark Penn!
According to other staffers, Mark Penn, Hillary's prickly chief strategist, had been all for the assault on Obama, but when he saw it backfiring he told Bill Clinton that he had not been involved, that it was Wolfson's fault. With Hillary Clinton, he suggested that perhaps Wolfson, who was cast in the press as a hit man out of "The Sopranos," wasn't up to the job of chief spokesman in a presidential campaign. For good measure he took a swipe at Grunwald, officially the campaign's chief ad person, though Penn regarded himself as the campaign's true image maker. "You have to fix this," said Hillary. Penn nodded. "We have to make him think that he's in charge of communications," Penn said conspiratorially, "the same way we made Mandy think she's in charge of ads."
In March, Mark Penn suggested that the campaign target Obama's "lack of American roots," and drape Hillary in the flag as much as possible. The idea seemed to be to subtly emphasize Obama's "otherness."
Sadly, the only politics Mark Penn actually knows anything about is office politics. He was terrible with messages:
Shortly after Williams took over, she called a major meeting for senior staff. Penn was given the floor, and he began to walk through all the iterations of Hillary slogans: "Solutions for America," "Ready for Change, Ready to Lead," "Big Challenges, Real Solutions: Time to Pick a President …" Penn marched down the long list. But then he seemed to get a little lost. "Um, uh, 'Working for Change, Working for You' …" There was silence, then sniggers, as Penn tried to remember all the bumper stickers, which, run together, sounded absurd and indistinguishable. "Ehhh … 'The Hillary I Know' …" Penn trailed off, and the meeting moved on.
And he didn't understand how "the primaries" worked:
Given the way delegates were apportioned, Obama had amassed a nearly insurmountable lead by the time of the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4. At one meeting around the time of Super Tuesday, Ickes tried-for the umpteenth time, it seemed-to explain the mechanics of proportional representation. When President Clinton said, "Oh, hell, we didn't have this stuff in 1992," Ickes nearly "fell off his chair," as he later put it, because the system had been essentially the same back then. Ickes grumbled to reporters that Penn didn't even know that California wasn't winner-take-all; Penn denied it.
Meanwhile, Hillary floated above it all, unable or unwilling to get her staff in line. She didn't even really want to be President that much!
On a cold midmorning in January 2007, Hillary sat in the sunny living room of her house on Whitehaven Street in Washington, a well-to-do enclave off Embassy Row where she lived with her mother and, on occasion, her husband. She was finishing a last round of policy prep with her aides before getting on a plane to Iowa for her first big campaign swing. In a moment of quiet, she looked around the living room and said, to no one in particular, "I so love this house. Why am I doing this?" Her policy director, Neera Tanden, and her advertising director, Mandy Grunwald, laughed, a little too lightheartedly. Clinton went on. "I'm so comfortable here. Why am I doing this?" Tanden spoke up. "The White House isn't so bad," she said. "I've been there," said Clinton.
As the primaries heated up, Bill began his prolonged, embarrassing meltdown. He began compiling an 81-page enemies list and complained endlessly about the press and about this stupid Obama kid, as he acted more or less like a petulant child.
The press was still in love with Obama, or so it seemed to Clinton, who complained to pretty much anyone who would listen. If the press wouldn't go after Obama, then Hillary's campaign would have to do the job, the ex-president urged. On Sunday, Jan. 13, Clinton got worked up in a phone conversation with Donna Brazile, a direct, strong-willed African-American woman who had been Al Gore's campaign manager and advised the Clintons from time to time. "If Barack Obama is nominated, it will be the worst denigration of public service," he told her, ranting on for much of an hour. Brazile kept asking him, "Why are you so angry?" [...] Sen. Edward Kennedy had a difficult phone conversation with Bill Clinton about his divisive campaigning. "Well, they started it," Clinton told Kennedy. "I don't think that's true," said Kennedy.
And the Clinton campaign's infighting only got worse:
Staffers were trying to work, sort of, and ignore the sounds coming from the office of communications director Howard Wolfson. "He's going to ruin this f–––ing campaign!" shouted Phil Singer, Wolfson's deputy. No one was quite sure who "he" was, but most assumed it was Penn, the chief strategist who was in more or less constant conflict with Hillary's other top advisers. Wolfson said something indistinct in response, and Singer cut loose, "F––– you, Howard," and stormed out of his office. Policy director Neera Tanden had the misfortune of standing in his path. "F––– you, too!" screamed Singer. "F––– you," Tanden started. "And the whole f–––ing cabal," Singer, now standing on a chair, shouted loudly enough to be heard by the entire war room. "I'm done." Within a week or two Singer was back, still steaming and swearing. "If the house is on fire, would you rather have a psychotic fireman or no fireman at all?" Wolfson explained to Williams.
Finally, Hillary was entirely convinced that Obama was utterly unelectable, and that is why she extended her campaign beyond when it was mathematically possible to win without the superdelegates. "He can't win!" she shouted to Bill Richardson, before he endorsed Obama. The Clintons probably continued to believe it even once they finally conceded, though they were never quite able to justify the tactics that belief led to in the last days:
"They live in a world where they think Hillary was the meanest she could be," the aide told a NEWSWEEK reporter. The Clintonista believed that Hillary had held back-noting that when Hillary was asked in a debate if Obama was electable, she said yes, which was not what she was saying privately.
Yes, well, being polite in a debate is one form of holding back, but it doesn't mean much when you're not holding back to journalists, superdelegates, and crowds of supporters, does it? The Clinton fundraisers were shifted into Obama's team, though they were upset that Obama didn't have titles and fancy ranks for them, which led Lynn Forester de Rothschild to call Obama an elitist. McCain The best part of the McCain campaign? Senator McCain's bestest friend in the world, Senator Lindsey Graham, who just follows McCain around like a puppy, all the time. Graham and McCain went to Iraq when McCain was dead last in Republican Primary Polls and helped inspire McCain's comeback. When they went down to South Carolina, home of McCain's embarrassing 2000 failure, Graham was there too, acting goofy.
In South Carolina on Jan. 19, McCain was on edge and his wife, Cindy, even more so. This was the place where the dirty tricksters had slimed the McCains in 2000, and Cindy could not shake off a sense of dread. The weather in Charleston was awful-sleeting rain-and McCain seemed caged, cooped up with his friend Lindsey Graham, who was annoying him by trying to "visualize" victory. By 7 p.m., Cindy and Graham were ready to "jump out the window," Graham later recalled. McCain's 95-year-old mother, Roberta, tried to lighten the mood by cracking jokes about how she wanted to marry Lindsey.
That surreal scene was only the beginning of the insanity to come, of course. Later, Graham helped formulate the "celebrity" attack against Obama ("Who the hell does this guy think he is? And who are all those Germans, and what are they cheering about?"), and suggested Lieberman as a running mate. Once Palin was on board, though, Lindsey continued to have fun, and also to be around, constantly, for no reason:
McCain loved the whole Palin family. They seemed to offer some relief, if not a touch of anarchy, to the Straight Talk Express, which had become a bit joyless. Piper, the governor's 7-year-old, thought nothing of crawling across Joe Lieberman's lap to get to her mother. Lindsey Graham mischievously enjoyed getting the child hopped up on Mountain Dew, a beverage to which he was mildly addicted.
When McCain heard the magical story of Joe the Plumber, he immediately called his friend Lindsey, at 4:30 a.m., to share. And then, finally, there was this:
Irrepressible, Lindsey Graham had started calling his Senate pal "Joe the Biden," which McCain found inexplicably hilarious.
Lindsey Graham, ladies and gentlemen. Then there was Palin. The usual strategist infighting and candidate nonsense took a backseat to the baggage Palin brought with her. The whole campaign just got weird.
The campaign was obsessively secretive about the choice. Charlie Black, one of McCain's senior advisers who was involved in the early discussions about Palin, was not told until very late Thursday night. Speechwriter Matt Scully and senior communications aide Nicolle Wallace were instructed to fly to Cincinnati and were given the name of a small, nondescript hotel. When they arrived they found Salter sitting on the curb, smoking, while Schmidt stared at his BlackBerry. The two men escorted them upstairs, saying virtually nothing. As they got out of the elevator Scully began to wonder, who the heck is behind the door? Colin Powell? Schmidt opened the door to the suite and said, "Meet our vice presidential candidate." It took Scully a few seconds to register who she was. Wallace, still a little dopey from painkillers from a root-canal operation, had no idea.
You have probably heard the famous towel story, but did you know it was just the set-up to this amazing Todd Palin routine?
At the convention in St. Paul, Palin was completely unfazed by the boys'-club fraternity she had just joined. One night, Schmidt and Salter went to her hotel room to brief her. After a minute, Palin sailed into the room wearing nothing but a towel, with another on her wet hair. She told them to chat with her laconic husband, Todd. "I'll be just a minute," she said. Salter tried to strike up a conversation. He knew that Todd was half native Alaskan and a championship snow-machine racer. "So what's the difference between a snowmobile and a snow machine, anyway?" Salter asked. "They're the same thing," Todd replied. "Right, so why not call it a snowmobile?" Salter joshed. "Because it's a snow machine," came the reply. Later, Schmidt and Salter went outside so that Salter could have a cigarette. "So how about the Eskimo? Is he on the level?" Schmidt asked. Salter just shrugged and took another drag.
Then, Palin just went nuts, babbling about terrorists and buying thousands of dollars of clothes, and "silk boxers" for Todd and self-tanner.
The sharpest jabs were aimed at Palin. An anonymous McCain staffer described her to Politico as "wacko" and a "diva." When Politico reported on Oct. 21 that Palin had spent $150,000 for clothes for herself and her family, the governor had been all wounded innocence. At a campaign stop in Tampa, she said, "These clothes-they're not my property, just like the lighting and the staging and everything else that the RNC purchased. I am not taking them with me. I am back to wearing clothes from my favorite consignment shop in Anchorage, Alaska." Publicly, McCain aides backed up Palin, saying that a third of the clothes had been returned immediately, before they were worn in public, and that the rest would be donated to charity. Privately, however, McCain's top advisers fumed at what they regarded as Palin's outrageous profligacy. One senior aide said that Nicolle Wallace had told Palin to buy three suits for the convention and hire a stylist, but thereafter Palin had "gone rogue," as the media buzz put it. She began buying for herself and her family-clothes and accessories from top stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. A week after she announced that she was going back to her consignment shop she was still having tailored clothes delivered. According to two knowledgeable sources, a vast majority of the clothes were bought by a wealthy donor, who was shocked when he got the bill. Palin also used low-level staffers to buy some of the clothes on their credit cards; the McCain campaign found out last week when the aides sought reimbursement. One aide estimated that she spent "tens of thousands" more than the reported $150,000, and that $20,000 to $40,000 went to buy clothes for her husband. Some articles of clothing have apparently been lost. An angry aide characterized the shopping spree as "Wasilla Hillbillies looting Neiman Marcus from coast to coast," and said the truth will eventually come out when the Republican Party audits its books.
By the end, Steve Schmidt was furious with her. She refused to talk to donors, Todd was apparently telling everyone to wait for 2012, Palin wouldn't appear on stage with pro-choice or anti-drilling Republicans, and she wanted to speak at his concession speech. McCain himself was kind of amusing cranky, the whole time. "What the f––– would I want to lead this party for?" he reportedly said in 2007. Oh, and here is the origin of the "HENNNGHH" noise he kept making, in the end: someone compared his campaign to the Pirates of the Caribbean movie and he became obsessed with pirates, like a little kid. McCain, of course, is still kind of a mildly misogynistic dick, all the time:
McCain's subversive instincts had long shown up in his speaking style. Before the 2000 primary in South Carolina, when he spoke in favor of flying the Confederate flag over the state capitol, he would pull a piece of paper out of his pocket and read from it. It was obvious that he didn't really believe what he was saying and was ashamed of his pandering. His aides had trouble coaching him because the very act of telling him what to do could incite a rebellion. When distracted or restless, a not infrequent occasion, McCain could be tempted to play the high-school prankster. Once at a press availability in Kentucky he spotted a large woman, who was wearing a black T shirt embroidered with two bedazzling martini glasses, standing behind the photographers. He asked her to stand by him at the podium, where she might have a better view. "Is this OK?" he asked. "This is fi-ine!" the lady replied, but as she saw a sea of cameras and smirking reporters, she looked stunned and slightly embarrassed. She started to sidle away, and McCain asked, with mock forlornness, "You leaving me?"
Tho some of his dickishness is aide Mark Salter's fault! When new-to-the-Senate Barack Obama pulled out of McCain's bipartisan ethics project, because Harry Reid made him, and then Reid leaked his letter regarding same to the press, Salter freaked the fuck out and wrote the crazy sarcastic letter about how "I hold no hard feelings over your earlier disingenuousness" and all that. Two family anecdotes: as McCain limped to his defeat, blogger daughter Meghan McCain "was increasingly, and sometimes profanely, complaining that her father was being poorly served by his advisers." And Cindy McCain is a fragile, sad lady, who will fucking cut you.
But Cindy never did. At a private gathering in Aspen, Colo., in the summer of 2007, a friend asked Cindy whether she would stab Rove in the back if he walked by. "No," she answered, "I'd stab him in the front."
Mark Salter and Steve Schmidt, the guys who ran the McCain campaign, were, of course, gruff drunk assholes who reporters loved hanging out with. They got wasted and sang karaoke all night after the town hall debate, and in the last days,
Salter entertained staffers with a shadowboxing match with Schmidt. The latter became a little overenthusiastic, however, and clipped Salter's aviator glasses, slightly cutting and bruising Salter's eye socket. When reporters asked what had happened, Salter pointed to the small wound and joked, "Vicious staff infighting."
Fun! Obama The Obama campaign was boringly well-run and drama free, so, really, all we can focus on his how hilarious and nerdy and cool and incredibly cocky and self-confident Barack Obama himself is.
On the eve of his speech to the Democratic convention in 2004, the speech that effectively launched him as the party's hope of the future, he took a walk down a street in Boston with his friend Marty Nesbitt. A growing crowd followed them. "Man, you're like a rock star," Nesbitt said to Obama. "He looked at me," Nesbitt recalled in a story he liked to tell reporters, "and said, 'Marty, you think it's bad today, wait until tomorrow.' And I said, 'What do you mean?' And he said, 'My speech is pretty good'."
Hah. While preparing for the Democratic Primary Debates, Obama bitched about how stupid the questions were, and how stupid his answers had to be to be politically acceptable.
So when Brian Williams is asking me about what's a personal thing that you've done [that's green], and I say, you know, 'Well, I planted a bunch of trees.' And he says, 'I'm talking about personal.' What I'm thinking in my head is, 'Well, the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I f–––ing changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective'."
The story of Obama's debate prep before the McCain debates is also great:
The Obama team was sure that McCain would criticize him for having said, in a Democratic debate in the summer of 2007, that he would be willing to meet with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Cuba's Fidel Castro. Obama was instructed to point out that McCain was so averse to personal diplomacy that he had declined to meet with the president of Spain. Obama can be a little bloodless and dull in his preternatural calm, but his goofy side showed up at debate prep. He would appear very somber and emphatic when he accosted Craig/McCain for refusing to speak to the president of Spain. "You wouldn't even talk to the president of Spain!" he would intone with mock gravity. Then he would begin to giggle. He was told that he should attack McCain for saying that it was enough to "muddle through" on Afghanistan. "Muddle through!" Obama would exclaim and dissolve into giggles. It was as if he refused to take the theater of mock indignation too seriously.
And, of course, everyone freaked out when insane Palin went on her "rile up the crazies tour '08" across the nation:
"I'm worried," Gregory Craig said to a NEWSWEEK reporter in mid-October. He was concerned that the frenzied atmosphere at the Palin rallies would encourage someone to do something violent toward Obama. He was not the only one in the Obama campaign thinking the unthinkable. The campaign was provided with reports from the Secret Service showing a sharp and very disturbing increase in threats to Obama in September and early October. Michelle was shaken by the vituperative crowds and the hot rhetoric from the GOP candidates. "Why would they try to make people hate us?" she asked Valerie Jarrett.
As for everyone else, Davids Axelrod and Plouffe are both serious professionals who have no hilarious anecdotes to share. Miscellany Campaign reporting is hard!
On Election Day, undecided women voters broke almost entirely Clinton's way. That night, in the press-filing center, New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza was putting the finishing touches on a 10,000-word story on Rocket Ship Obama. "I think I'm f–––ed," he said. "I have to write a completely different story."
The lobbyist-fucking story? Outrageous and uncalled for and specious and proof of liberal bias and also basically entirely true:
The next day McCain flatly denied any romantic involvement with Iseman and excoriated the Times. Schmidt's instincts were right: the story proved to be an embarrassment to the newspaper. The pundits turned on the Times for running a story with so little apparent evidence; the Times's ombudsman was also critical of the paper. There were a few awkward loose ends. The story claimed that McCain's advisers had warned him to stop seeing Iseman. McCain flatly denied this to reporters. But John Weaver-McCain's old best buddy, now in semi-exile though still talking occasionally to Salter-told the Times (and NEWSWEEK's Michael Isikoff) that he had met with Iseman at a restaurant at Union Station and told her to stay away from the senator. Speaking not for attribution, two advisers told NEWSWEEK that McCain had indeed been warned to stop seeing Iseman back in December 1999, when he was gearing up for a presidential run. But these details were largely overlooked by the mainstream press, which quickly lost interest in the story.
And the Obamas continue their habit of refusing to give any credit to any previous Democratic politicians or campaigns (which is fair becauase most of them are losers!):
Joe Trippi, the unorthodox political genius who created the Dean Internet juggernaut, often said that if the Dean campaign was like the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, then Obama was the Apollo program-in other words, in one cycle skipping over commercial aviation, jet travel and supersonic transport to go straight to the moon. (Asked about this analogy, Rospars replied evenly, "Not really, if you consider that Kitty Hawk was a successful flight, as compared to something that blew up on the f–––ing launchpad.")
Obviously there's a lot more good stuff buried in the zillion internet pages of the Newsweek piece, but here, you've got your cocktail narratives and representative anecdotes. Enjoy them, because we don't get to do this again for like six months. Secrets of the 2008 Campaign [Newsweek]