The Best of NEWSWEEK's Top-Secret Election Project, Vol. I

Every four years, NEWSWEEK detaches a team of reporters to follow the presidential candidates from announcement speech to Election Day. The deal is simple. The "Project" staffers won't report what they learn until Nov. 5; in exchange, the campaigns give us unprecedented behind-the-scenes access. The information is so hush-hush, in fact, that no one who works on the weekly magazine--including yours truly--is permitted to read the finished product until a winner is officially declared. Which meant I was up until 4:00 a.m., reading away.

Today, the first chapter of "The Project" goes live on, as expected, it's packed with exclusive reporting and fascinating details. Since this is a blog--and not the Library of Congress--I won't post the whole (long) thing here. But I will highlight my favorite tidbits below. You ADD-types can thank me later. 

(The NEWSWEEK Election Project was written by Evan Thomas with reporting from Peter Goldman, Eleanor Clift, Daren Briscoe, Nick Summers, Katie Connolly and Michael Hastings; Holly Bailey and Jonathan Darman also contributed intel.)

I. Obama's 'Certain Ambivalence'

Obama was something unusual in a politician: genuinely self-aware. In late May 2007, he had stumbled through a couple of early debates and was feeling uncertain about what he called his "uneven" performance. "Part of it is psychological," he told his aides. "I'm still wrapping my head around doing this in a way that I think the other candidates just aren't. There's a certain ambivalence in my character that I like about myself. It's part of what makes me a good writer, you know? It's not necessarily useful in a presidential campaign."

These candid remarks were taped at a debate-prep session at a law firm in Washington. The tape of Obama's back-and-forth with his advisers, provided to NEWSWEEK by an attendee, is a remarkably frank and revealing record of what the candidate was really thinking when he took the stage with his opponents.

On the tape, after Obama's rueful remark about the mixed blessings of his detached nature, there is cross talk and laughter, and then Axelrod cracks, "You can save that for your next memoir."

Obama continues: "When you have to be cheerful all the time and try to perform and act like [the tape is unclear; Obama appears to be poking fun at his opponents], I'm sure that some of it has to do with nerves or anxiety and not having done this before, I'm sure. And in my own head, you know, there's—I don't consider this to be a good format for me, which makes me more cautious. When you're going into something thinking, 'This is not my best …' I often find myself trapped by the questions and thinking to myself, 'You know, this is a stupid question, but let me … answer it.' Instead of being appropriately [the tape is garbled]. 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'."

II. Cool Customer

A newcomer to the campaign in September 2007, Betsy Myers—sister of former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers and a former Clinton White House staffer herself—hoped that Obama, in town overnight, might come to headquarters to cheer the staff. "But he didn't," she recalled later that fall. "He went to the gym instead." She paused as she recollected. "He hasn't been in the headquarters in months. A lot of these people are young and really look up to him, and it would have meant a lot to them if he'd stopped by." Another pause. "Nobody would have had to tell Bill Clinton to stop by if he was just a couple of blocks away. You would have had to physically drag Bill Clinton out of there."

III. Hillary's House

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.

IV. Obama's Tears

Obama was not given to shows of emotion. But at the last debate he was asked an innocuous question about his New Year's resolution, and he launched into standard-issue boilerplate about being "a better father, better husband. And I want to remind myself constantly that this is not about me, ah, what I'm doing today. It's an enormous strain on the family … a-a-a-nd …" He paused, and for the briefest moment there was a hitch in his voice before he continued, "Y'know, yesterday I went and bought a Christmas tree with my girls, and we had about two hours before I had to fly back to Washington to vote …" Valerie Jarrett, the family friend who had become one of his closest political advisers, thought Obama was going to tear up. She had seen it before, at a book party for "The Audacity of Hope" in 2006, when Obama had started to say he was sorry to have been away from his family so much during his campaign for the Senate, and began crying so hard he couldn't go on. Obama was remarkably self-contained, but he was also palpably emotionally attached to his family. Jarrett knew that he had not been able to keep his promises to Michelle about getting home to see her and the kids, and that the strain was starting to show.

V. The Iowa Surprise

The Clintonites had vastly underestimated the turnout. Penn had originally figured 90,000 Iowans would turn out on a snowy night (the pollster/strategist later boosted the number to 150,000). On the night of Jan. 3, 250,000 came to stand around in crowded gyms and be herded into preference groups for one candidate or another. Some 22 percent were under the age of 25, an unusually high percentage from an age group not known for voting. Hillary won just 5 percent of their votes.

An aide approached McAuliffe and said the president wanted to see him. McAuliffe was escorted to the Clintons' suite by a Secret Service agent. He found Bill Clinton watching a bowl game on TV. The ex-president seemed perfectly relaxed and jovial. "Sir," said McAuliffe, "have you heard the news?" "What news?" Clinton asked. "We're going to get killed," said McAuliffe.

"What!" exclaimed Clinton, who then called out in a loud voice, "Hillary!"

Hillary emerged from the bedroom. McAuliffe recalled: "Nobody had told them. He thought he was going to have a beer with me and watch the game." Suddenly there was pandemonium.

VI. Hillary's Tears

In the bus afterward, she ranted at one of her aides, "We never should have gone to Iowa. I knew it. I knew we never should have gone." Now she fretted that she had doomed herself with a "Muskie moment," referring to the late Ed Muskie, the once front-running senator from Maine who had doomed his 1972 presidential campaign by welling up at a campaign event in New Hampshire. Penn had warned her not to show vulnerability. "I've been so wound up in doing the commander-in-chief thing," she said. Later that afternoon she stopped in at her Manchester campaign headquarters, where staffers were buzzing about how she had become choked up at a coffee shop. It played well, they assured her. Hillary thanked them. "Don't expect that too often," she said dryly.