On this week’s episode of my podcast, I Have to Ask, I spoke to Amy Chozick, a writer-at-large for the New York Times and the author of the new book Chasing Hillary: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, and One Intact Glass Ceiling. In it, she chronicles her years on the Clinton beat, all the way up through Clinton’s devastating loss to Donald Trump in November of 2016. Along the way, she paints a portrait of an unhappy candidate, surrounded by unhelpful and unfriendly aides, who’s unable or unwilling to ever truly be herself on the campaign trail.
Chasing Hillary is also an examination of the choices made by the press—including the Times—in how it covered Clinton. The book itself has engendered a fair bit of controversy, with Chelsea Clinton calling certain facts into question and with at least one of Chozick’s own colleagues taking issue with some of her opinions.
Below is an edited excerpt from the show, in which we discuss how Clinton reacted on election night, why the Clinton campaign was so prone to making mistakes, and whether the Times erred in its election coverage.
You can find links to every episode here; the entire audio interview is below. Please subscribe to I Have to Ask wherever you get your podcasts.
Isaac Chotiner: When did you first start reporting on Hillary Clinton?
Amy Chozick: I had been a foreign correspondent in Japan for the Wall Street Journal when my editor there became Washington bureau chief—this was 2007—and he said, “How would you like to go to Iowa and cover Hillary Clinton?” I was 28. I went to Iowa. I was having as much culture shock going there as I had when I moved to Tokyo. I thought, “Oh my God, Americans are huge.” I didn’t know what a caucus was, which I admitted to Hillary Clinton’s aides a couple years later, and they said, “That’s OK. We didn’t know what a caucus was either in 2008.”
Do you think it’s weird that newspapers send people to cover the Iowa election without knowing what a caucus is, or is that par for the course of how reporting works?
Actually, I don’t think that’s par for the course. I think that was an exception and I think it was a good one because I went to Japan without knowing anything about Japan. My editor’s idea was that fresh eyes would find new angles and new perspectives—things that either Japanese reporters or reporters who had lived there for decades didn’t think were strange. I thought it was a story and was interesting to readers. And I think it was the same thing getting to Iowa—I noticed things that I think when you cover politics and that’s all you cover … For instance I wrote a Page 1 feature about campaign hookups. This is something that, if you have covered campaigns, of course people hook up, and that’s just a normal thing, but for me it was an interesting thing to see. Secret Service and reporters and all kinds of hookups. So I don’t know. I think you find stories with fresh perspectives and there can be a danger in the opposite way when you start getting too cynical and things just don’t start seeming like stories, and things don’t seem exciting anymore. It’s like, “Yep, this is my fourth caucus, and I know everybody and know everything and I am writing just to impress my friends.”
To turn to 2016, when you were covering her campaign for the Times: You had a piece ready to go if Hillary had won, and you quote from it in the book, writing, “No one in modern politics, male or female, has had to withstand more indignities, setbacks and cynicism. She developed protective armor that made the real Hillary Clinton an enigma. But if she was guarded about her feelings and opinions, she believed it was in careful pursuit of a dream for generations of Americans: the election of the country’s first woman president.” This is written to suggest that what made her enigmatic, and what in turn led to her being such a flawed candidate, was the fact that she had been so mistreated over many years. Do you think that was the case?
Yeah, all of the scandals and meshugas that surrounded the Clintons for decades I think added to her building up a lot of protective scar tissue that in turn made her into an enigma and made her even more reluctant to kind of share the authentic parts of herself.
Hillary was known for many years to have a close circle of women advisers, but many of the paramount characters in your book are who you call “The Guys.” Do you think her circle became increasingly male, and what effect do you think that had on the campaign?
No, I think the women, her close coterie of her girlfriends they called Hillaryland in the White House, was with her throughout the campaign. The final day of the election, I saw Cheryl Mills, Maggie Williams, and Huma [Abedin], and these women who had been with her for years. So they were always there. I think the people who protected Hillary—I called it her court of flattering men, the people who interfaced with us, the reporters—were largely male, and a lot of that was before she became a candidate, after the State Department [when she] had some very protective aides controlling her coverage, or trying to.
You portray “The Guys” as often rude and condescending, telling you about “a target on your back” and just generally being obnoxious and misogynistic. But you also grant them anonymity. They are given nicknames, even as the media has had a parlor game of trying to figure out who they are. What is the point of not naming them, especially when some of their comments seem pretty gross?
The idea of calling them “The Guys” wasn’t really a journalistic one. It was more of a literary one. I was thinking about these characters and they all sort of looked the same: white men, clean-cut. And they all performed the same job, which was to control Hillary’s image and the campaign’s press coverage. I was thinking not of the reader in New York or Washington who knows who these people are, but of my mom’s book club in Texas. Do they need to have eight different characters who are all very similar and perform the same duties, or can I create this? What I wanted to create was this sort of tragicomic Greek chorus of this kind of multiheaded monster of The Guys, which I thought would resonate more.
You say in your author’s note that “having to remember the names of dozens of political operatives who all essentially perform the same purpose is boring.” But if there is a top aide to Hillary Clinton who makes a misogynistic comment to you, it seems newsworthy to say who these people are.
Yeah and I think my literary device is not about protecting anonymity. It’s not about granting anonymity. It’s pretty easy to guess if you know these characters. It wasn’t done to protect sources. It was done to create an image in people’s minds and keep these characters straight.
The politics editor of the New York Times during the campaign was a woman named Carolyn Ryan, who you thank in your acknowledgements effusively, and about whom you write “had a more natural ability to get the best out of her reporters than any editor I have ever worked for.” And you also write that she “had a more innate sense of what people wanted to read” than other editors, and “Talking to her set every brainstorming session off on rollicking tangents that included gossip collected in the congressional dining room, on the Washington softball field, and while waiting for the Times’ vending machine to spit out some stale Twizzlers. Unsubstantiated tidbits—particularly involving Bill and Hillary, Elizabeth Warren, and anything related to New York politics—would cause Carolyn to leap across her desk with a ‘No way!’ and ‘We gotta get that in the paper.’ ” You add that she could “weed through two thousand words of crap, pulling out a priceless treasure of an anecdote buried in graph fifteen.” I thought this was an interesting way of introducing the politics editor of the most important newspaper on Earth as it covers one of the most important elections of our lifetime, because it fits with a lot of critiques of the Times coverage, especially around the Clintons—that it was too gossipy and not focused enough on policy. But I thought you meant it basically as a compliment. How do you respond to that?
Oh, that’s interesting. I more meant it how enthusiastic Carolyn got about breaking news. Of course, the unsubstantiated tidbits would have to be reported out, effectively reported out, and sourced in order to get them in the paper. It is not that she wanted to put gossip in the paper. I just think she has a real excitement for breaking news, and we covered every one of Hillary Clinton’s policies, and all the characters—I’m sorry, all the candidates’ policies—but I think, yeah, I was there just trying to show she had really an innate sense of what people wanted to read. I talk about tension, and how the good story always has to have tension. And I would say, to Carolyn’s credit, the tension doesn’t have to be, “Oh Hillary is going to hate this story.” Sometimes the tension is my deep dive into her relationship with her father, who was a kind of difficult character, or the tension was when I went to Alabama and did a story about Hillary Clinton going undercover to investigate school segregation when she was working for the Children’s Defense Fund, and she could have been caught. So I don’t think the tension always had to be gossip, but there was something innate that captured the reader that she was good at.
When it comes to the issue of the emails, and the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s handling of it, you say about the Times that “there was an insatiable appetite for email-related stories. I can’t explain it exactly except to compare it to a fever that spread through every newsroom and made us all salivate over the tiniest morsels.” You say you regret and resent this, but what role do you think the Times had in how big a story it became? And do you connect the way you describe the “salivating over the tiniest morsels” to your description of Ryan and the type of political stories the Times wanted?
I don’t say that it spread through the Times. I say it spread through every—the insatiable appetite is clearly across all media. It’s not specific to the Times in the book.
You say it “spread through every newsroom and made us all salivate over the tiniest morsels.” That presumably includes the Times.
“Us,” the media, yeah, the media including the Times. I think a lot of the furor over the emails came from cable news and what was feeding cable, so I want to make clear that that section wasn’t just about the Times. Look, I understand Hillary’s supporters complaining about the veracity and volume of stories around the email server. But I think it’s hard to say that the leading candidate for the presidency of the United States being under FBI investigation is a nonstory, which seems like what some of her supporters have argued. You can debate the legitimacy of the FBI investigation, but it was definitely a big story. There is an easy sense of comparing it to the scandals on the other side, on Trump’s side, and saying, “Well, compared to what Trump has done, it’s nothing.” I think it’s a dangerous proposition to say, well, because the other guy is beyond the pale, we are going to ignore this other big story.
That said, I do write in the book that I regret and even resent that it became the only story. We would go to see these press conferences when Hillary did them—because she rarely did—and reporters would just scream at her about emails. There would be people trying to get other questions in and it just got completely drowned out. My best example of this is that I spent a year trying to talk to this woman Sarah Ehrman, who was this feminist firebrand Democrat who Hillary lived with after law school when she was working on the Watergate committee and she was moving down to Arkansas to marry Bill Clinton. And Sarah Ehrman offered to drive her down and on the three-day road trip she tried to talk her out of it. She said, “You are throwing your life away. You are the most gifted woman I have ever met. You could do anything you want to do.” So I had wanted to re-create this road trip to show readers this vulnerable, different side of Hillary, and it took me a year to convince Sarah Ehrman to speak on the record. I had to bring her babka and wine, and finally I get the story together, and it posts [online] and three hours later Comey sends his letter to Congress, so the story never even made it into the paper. It was impossible to get other sympathetic stories to break through in the environment we were in.
You write that, “Hillary and her campaign never had a strategy to change the conversation.” Can you expand upon that?
Look, I don’t want to blame the victim here. I do think the coverage was voracious about her emails. But I also think the campaign was not great at changing the conversation. I counted 47 interview requests that were turned down. We asked her for interviews about national security, about her work on the Children’s Defense Fund, about her economic policies. Every single time was either ignored or turned down, and I have to think that some of those interviews would have knocked emails off the front page and made news. So it was a frustration. At the same time, I understand their instincts: They were thinking that all anyone wants to talk about are emails, and she is in the lead, so why risk it? But I think some of those stories, if we had been able to get interviews, would have made the front page and put policy on the front page.
Even if the campaign is not cooperating—and we agree, as you catalog in the book, that the way her campaign behaved was not great in most ways—and even if they weren’t agreeing to interviews and giving access to certain things, the Times as an institution is still allowed to put other stories on the front page.
Yeah, and we did. One of my first stories out of the gate was how Hillary Clinton was consulting 200 advisers to craft her economic policy. We did cover all of her policies, all of her debates. Coming from the Wall Street Journal, where I interviewed her extensively during the financial crisis, I was very drawn to policy stories, and we did those. It was just very hard to get them to break through.
Right, it’s just—
You are saying we could have put that on the front page even if there was no interview?
I agree, but when you get a press release that the entire press corps gets on some policy that is being rolled out, it’s much harder to argue that this is huge news that needs to be highlighted in an important way. I don’t, obviously, make those decisions, or I would put all of my stories on the front page. But I do think, you know, you need news. You need something new. We covered all of it.
A lot of the Times coverage was fantastic. It just feels like when you talk to people at places like the Times, or people like myself at an admittedly smaller institution, we have some role in setting what the conversation is as well as writing about what the conversation is. The Times is an active actor here as well as a passive actor.
I would agree, and I don’t want to act like we are perfect. I am very self-reflective in the book. But there is a frustration that there’s this narrative that “All you covered was emails. You never covered policy.” And I’m like, “Well, you didn’t read my story about her tax plan or infrastructure plan.” I think you are right that the onus is on news organizations, and I think the Times has been really good about highlighting policy stories in new ways now with The Daily and with new digital tools.
But yeah, the onus is on us to get those stories to break through. We covered them, but I feel like we could have done a better job for sure.
You describe Hillary’s initial response when learning that she wasn’t going to win as her saying, “They were never going to let me be president.” What do you make of that response and what do you think it tells us about Hillary Clinton?
Yeah, I mean that response, initially, I thought, made a lot of sense for Hillary. She has been through these political storms her entire professional life, ever since she has been on the national stage, and she talked about that vast right-wing conspiracy and deep-rooted misogyny and this Hillary hate machine that has existed ever since she first came onto the national stage. So initially I thought “they” were all of these forces, and I would throw political reporters into it, who she called big egos and no brains, obsessed over salacious gossip and uninterested in policy.
I knew what “they” she was referring to, and then, as we have had more distance from the election, I have also seen “they” as these other outside forces: the Russian involvement, the Facebook ads, fake news. I don’t think that’s what she was referring to then because we didn’t know the extent of it. I think Hillary knew she was up against forces. All of her aides have said the person who was least surprised was her.
Do you believe that?
Yeah, I do. I think she thought she was going to win because in that final day I had really never seen her so happy. But I also think something sort of endearing about Hillary that people don’t really realize is that she is really insecure, even though she is so successful and so pulled-together. She would have an amazing debate and as soon as she got backstage would say, “How did I do? How did I do?” So I think she was probably the least surprised.
Chelsea Clinton has been tweeting about your book, saying a couple facts are wrong, like that she has never gotten “hair keratin treatment.” You have said the book was fact-checked. Do you know if the fact-checker reached out to Chelsea Clinton in the course of the fact check?
I can say I have a lot of respect for Chelsea. I have covered this family for a decade and I kept copious notes and am very confident in my reporting. Most books aren’t fact-checked, so I hired an independent fact-checker to go over all of my reporting. While I have got you, do you mind if I expand on that a little?
Growing up in Texas, I really saw myself in Chelsea. So I am just going to read a part [of the book]: “I even saw myself in Chelsea then. We were about the same age from neighboring southern states, both avid readers and uncomfortable in our own skin, with smiles full of braces, curls we couldn’t control, and frilly dresses with bubbly shoulder pads.” Flash-forward to 2015 and I run into her again and I write, “I no longer saw myself in Chelsea. She had grown into her celebrity with flowing straight hair and a permanent strawberry glow. Chelsea told Elle magazine that in her early 20s her curls had just naturally subsided, an affront to frizzy haired women everywhere. I also happened to know her New York hairdresser and a keratin job when I saw it.” So I think it is hard on Twitter when misinformation is being spread, but I did want to get the context in.