Clintons: Self-Inflicted Wounds

There are a number of reasons that Hillary Clinton was able to come back against Barack Obama in Ohio and Texas, but a big one is the "red phone" advertisement that began to air the weekend before the primaries. "It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep," intones the announcer. "But there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing. Something is happening in the world … Who do you want answering the phone?" Too late, the Obama campaign began to ask: exactly what world crises has Hillary Clinton handled? The Clinton campaign went on somewhat unpersuasively about the First Lady's peacemaking role in the Balkans and Northern Ireland during the Bill Clinton administration. The real answer is that Hillary Clinton was deeply involved in many of the crises faced by her husband as president, some of them of their own making.

She has implied that she shared a kind of co-presidency with her husband during her White House years in the 1990s. That suggests the co-presidency would continue in another Clinton administration. If the phone rings at 3 a.m. in the Hillary Clinton White House, will she awaken her husband to discuss what to do? (No one really thinks that a First Spouse would be deeply involved, say, in picking bombing targets in response to a terror attack, but the campaign rhetoric and red-phone ad do suggest experience in dealing with security crises.) In fact, a terrorist attack did occur late on the Clintons' first watch: in August 1998, Al Qaeda blew up two U.S. Embassies in Africa. At that time, Hillary Clinton may not have been as engaged as she usually was talking through the president's problems. A couple of weeks earlier, independent counsel Ken Starr had turned up the semen-stained blue dress in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and, at the time of the embassy bombings, the Clintons were reportedly not speaking.

When NEWSWEEK asked voters in a new poll, "Who would you most trust to answer the phone at 3 a.m.?", 45 percent said John McCain, 27 percent said Hillary Clinton and 18 percent chose Barack Obama. It is impossible for voters to truly know how a presidential candidate will respond to a crisis in the Oval Office. But there are clues in Hillary Clinton's background. She can certainly be tough-minded, and she has shown remarkable—and reliable—resiliency. The real wild card is her relationship with her sometimes domineering husband, who can offer good advice but be undisciplined.

The biggest crisis facing Hillary Clinton in recent times is her own campaign. Mixed and ever-changing messages and tactics have confused voters. The Obama campaign out-organized the Clinton campaign, especially in the caucus states. Reports of vicious feuds between her top aides have leaked into the press. It seems that Clinton has been saved mostly by her own gutsiness, not by any particular flair for strategy or for running a large organization. "The major reason she won is her own true grit, resilience and ability as a candidate," Patti Solis Doyle, who was ousted as campaign manager in mid-February, tells NEWSWEEK. Some top staffers have laughed over the comparison between Hillary Clinton and the Hollywood movie monster Freddy Krueger: you can run her over, stab her, shoot her—and she still keeps coming. With her devoted aides in "Hillaryland," Clinton can be full of slightly hokey Midwestern cheer and Methodist do-good stoicism. "If you're wringing your hands, you can't hold others," she'll say; in other words, stop whining and help someone. When things go wrong, she can get icy. "You … fix … this … now," she says in a stone-cold voice, recalls a longtime aide, who does not wish to be identified discussing a private conversation.

Hillary's doggedness is admirable. Her campaign, however, does not offer a model of good government. It has seemed to be afflicted with a siege mentality. The senator puts a great premium on loyalty, and she has kept a faithful coterie of advisers throughout the years. But two of her principal advisers, inherited from her husband's White House, cannot abide each other. The campaign's chief strategist, Mark Penn, is a larger-than-life, if widely misunderstood, character. Soft-spoken, with a high-pitched laugh, he often seems nervous. He sweats profusely under bright lights and, except for postdebate spin duty, is rarely seen on TV. Brilliant, he appears to compensate for his social awkwardness by shows of arrogance and contempt. In the movie, he would be the clumsy geek who gets tripped with a full tray in the high-school cafeteria and then spends the rest of his life getting even by becoming rich and successful (he is the world-wide CEO of the giant PR firm Burson-Marsteller). His arch foe is Harold Ickes, an equally brilliant and even more abrasive labor lawyer, a profane hard-core partisan who can't stand Penn's corporate-pollster-speak, with its talk of "target groups" and "persuadables." Last week The Washington Post published this exchange between the two antagonists: " '[Expletive] you!' Ickes shouted. '[Expletive] you!' Penn replied. '[Expletive] you!' Ickes shouted again." Solis Doyle, once the First Lady's scheduler in the Clinton White House, was ultimately unable to keep peace between the two men. Hillary Clinton, who does not like personal confrontations, chose to float above the feuding. (Penn declined to comment; Ickes did not respond to inquiries from NEWSWEEK.)

Biographies of Hillary Clinton during her White House years depict her as tense and rigid, suspicious of backstabbers and determined to keep the press at bay. Her aides say that she feels burned by exposure, and that her caution about showing her more human, sympathetic side is rooted in painful experience. During one of Hillary's trips to San Francisco last year, Susie Tompkins Buell, one of her close friends and top fund-raisers, tried to persuade Hillary to "show her heart," Tompkins Buell recalls. "I said: 'I think one of your strengths is you're so passionate. You need to show it more'." Clinton replied, "I know, I know, but it gets taken out of context." Tompkins Buell blames the campaign: "I think they tell her not to show her emotion because that looks like 'you're afraid'," she says. "Look how criticized she gets for things you never criticize a man about … her moods, her emotions, how she's looking, what she's wearing, her laugh."

Interestingly, Hillary's Senate office appears to be much more stable and better run than the Bill Clinton White House. Staffers say that she created a friendly competitiveness, though she could be a bit fastidious. She liked her staff to have clean desks and if she saw a messy one, she'd say, half humorously, "Do you know everything on your desk?" She liked to know the gossip, but stayed out of personnel matters, other than to issue a curt "Fix this" from time to time. On the morning of 9/11, she was calm and steady. Arriving as her staff was being evacuated from the Russell Senate Office Building, she reassured them, "It's going to be OK, you are all going to be all right."

Her campaign staff, however, has been disrupted by the influence of Hillary's husband, the former president. As Hillary's polls dipped in Iowa late last fall, some of her closest advisers, including Solis Doyle and ad maker Mandy Grunwald, advised her to show her softer side. They argued that voters wanted to see the former First Lady as a human being, and that Iowans especially did not like negative advertising. But Penn wanted to attack Obama, and he was contemptuous of what he called "the weepy stuff" advocated by Grunwald and others. During endless conference calls, the argument went round and round, recalls an adviser who wished to remain anonymous discussing internal deliberations.

Then Bill Clinton stepped in. He was frustrated and angry, says the adviser, because he thought that Obama was getting a free ride. At a Dec. 1 meeting at Senator Clinton's brick colonial on Whitehaven Street in Washington, the former president —a lover of polls—was examining Penn's data showing that negative messaging drove down Obama's ratings. At the end of the meeting, Hillary agreed with her husband, and the campaign essentially followed the Penn strategy of going negative. At a press conference on Dec. 2, the senator rather grimly signaled the onslaught by announcing, "Now the fun part begins."

It backfired in the land of "Iowa nice." After one speech, the campaign dialed back. Obama won overwhelmingly regardless—by doubling voter turnout. But while Bill Clinton ranted at the rotten press and the poor predictions of pollsters (including his friend Penn), Hillary stayed focused on the next stage, micromanaging, ordering staff around and—crucially—changing her approach. She took the advice of campaign communications director Howard Wolfson to jolly up the cranky reporters in the back of the plane. She allowed herself to get misty at a New Hampshire campaign event, revealing more passion for the campaign and the country than many voters had seen in her before.

For all his bad advice, Bill was not going away, however. Indeed, after New Hampshire, the former POTUS asked for an office at campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va., an arrangement that was sure to be too awkward and was abandoned after a couple of days. The campaign wanted to limit stumping in South Carolina as a mostly lost cause, but Clinton would not take orders. Through an aide, the former president informed headquarters that its plan was "crazy" and declared that South Carolina could still be won—if only he would go there. (A spokesman for Bill Clinton declined to comment.)

His tour through the Palmetto State was a disaster. Finger wagging, face reddening, he lectured reporters and appeared to clumsily play the race card, comparing Obama with Jesse Jackson. Senator Clinton lost badly in South Carolina and achieved no more than a draw on Super Tuesday. The former president took the hint from fund-raisers who told him to lower his profile. (A NEWSWEEK reporter who followed the president for the past two weeks was kept fenced off, along with other members of the national press, far, far away from the rope line.) It fell to Hillary to once again brace and buck up her troops. Right before a sure defeat in the Wisconsin primary in mid-February, she told her dispirited staff to stay focused on the battles ahead: "We can win this. I know we can win this." Solis Doyle fell on her sword and was replaced by Maggie Williams, a former Clinton White House aide with more stature and perhaps more ability to cope with strong egos. A campaign adviser who did not wish to be quoted for obvious reasons describes the campaign as "basically, just a mess" without any clear lines of authority. "There are way too many chiefs, power plays, inside games." But this adviser has some hope for Williams: "She's pretty quiet, she doesn't speak up a lot, but she is also in charge. She lets you know it."

The campaign's new (new) approach was obvious but necessary: to both sharpen the negatives against Obama and personalize Hillary. She has never wanted to go on "Saturday Night Live" or "The Daily Show," but in the days before Ohio and Texas she did both—and did well, showing surprising comic timing and self-deprecation.

Hillary is not, and will never be, a happy warrior. Her broad, fixed smile masks resentments not far from the surface. Though she sometimes lost herself to teary outbursts as First Lady—at least a few aimed at her husband—she has, by and large, controlled her emotions on the campaign trail, behind the scenes as well as onstage. An exception was her reaction to MSNBC reporter David Shuster's suggestion that the Clintons had "pimped out" their daughter, Chelsea. She was "extraordinarily upset," says a staffer who was on the conference call informing her of the journalist's comments but declined to be identified discussing conversations with the candidate. "Enough is enough," Hillary said, and threatened to pull out of an MSNBC debate (Shuster was suspended for two weeks and the debate went on).

Both Hillary and the former president share a world view that it may be necessary to tolerate the press from time to time but that in the long run, the media will never give them a fair shake. It is a dark, if perhaps realistic, view reinforced by Mark Penn, who counsels the once and possibly future First Couple to forget about the "impressionable elites," the know-it-all journalists, professors and think-tankers who are obsessed with "likability." Pay attention to the "jugheads," not the "eggheads," counsels Penn in his book, "Microtrends," the voters who make less than $50,000 a year and "know what it feels like to be without health insurance or a job."

Hillary Clinton has shown that she can handle the pressures of a relentless campaign. Her friend and adviser Sidney Blumenthal jokes that the press is in love with the "Perils of Pauline" storyline about Hillary that makes her seem like the heroine of one of those old silent movies, tied to the tracks while the locomotive bears down. The difference is that Hillary herself has slipped out of the bind without being rescued by anyone—certainly not by her husband.