CHASING HILLARY: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, and One Intact Glass Ceiling
By Amy Chozick. Harper. 400 pp. $27.99
Amy Chozick, the lead New York Times reporter on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, believes that the news media’s focus on Clinton’s private e-mail server — a story the Times broke and that Chozick would write about extensively — was excessive. She even grew to resent it. Chozick also thinks that reporting on campaign chairman John Podesta’s hacked emails turned journalists into “puppets” of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and she struggles to explain why they did it anyway. She contends that sexism played a big role in Clinton’s defeat but also encounters it first-hand among Clinton’s campaign staff. And while she hammers the candidate for having no clear vision for why she sought the presidency, Chozick allows that competence, experience and policy were hardly selling points in 2016, when it “turned out a lot of people just wanted to blow s— up.”
These are some of the revelations and contradictions permeating Chozick’s “Chasing Hillary,” a memoir by turns poignant, insightful and exasperating. It’s a buffet-style book — media criticism here, trail reminscences there, political analysis and assorted recollections from Chozick’s past tossed throughout — and while the portions are tasty, none fully satisfies. In the unending debate over what happened in 2016, and whether journalists contributed to Donald Trump’s victory, Chozick offers plenty of self-recrimination, but she still blames Clinton for not grasping how the game was played. “Trump understood our gluttonous short attention span better than anyone,” she writes, “but especially better than Hillary, whose media strategy amounted to her ignoring us.”
The “us” here includes Chozick and the other reporters following the Clinton campaign. She is indignant whenever Clinton disregards them, and she obsesses over what the candidate thinks of her. “I still wanted, more than anything, for Hillary to see me as a fair reporter,” Chozick worries early in the race. “She really, really hates me,” Chozick moans to her husband over the phone during a stop in Iowa. “The less I interacted with Hillary,” Chozick writes as campaign reporters seem to get less and less access to Clinton, “the greater her imperial hold on my brain became.”
Yes, she chases Hillary. But it is Chozick who gets caught.
Memoirs are supposed to be self-involved — that’s the point of the exercise. The thing about Chozick’s memoir, though, is that it’s also about being self-involved. In her mind, Chozick’s connection to Clinton assumes epic dimensions. “Ours was destined to be an impossible, tortured, and unrelentingly tense relationship weighed down by old grudges and fresh grievances,” she writes. “To Hillary, I was a big ego with no brain and no amount of cordial small talk could make up for the bad blood between her world and mine.” For a second you almost forget that Clinton is running against Trump.
When Chozick zeroes in on Clinton and leaves herself out of it, she can be perceptive, pithy and surprising. On Clinton’s apparent disdain for the electoral process: “If there was a single unifying force behind her candidacy, it was her obvious desire to get the whole thing over with.” On Clinton’s ambition: “Her only clear vision of the presidency seemed to be herself in it.” On how Trump threw Clinton off message: “Hillary had berated our pea-size political brains for being uninterested in policy. Now, Trump had made her as devoid of substance as he was.” And even on Clinton’s proclivities: “For all the lesbian theories, Hillary enjoys nothing more than flirting with a handsome, preferably straight man.” (Despite aggressively questioning Clinton about her e-mails, Ed Henry became a favorite: “She would regularly look past her almost entirely female press corps to call on the Fox News correspondent, with his cherub cheeks and Pucci pocket squares.”)
Unfortunately, too much of the book is devoted to Chozick’s worrying and whining — “Jesus did I whine” — about her status at the Times. In a chapter titled “I Hate Everyone,” she complains that editors bypassed her for big stories and that colleagues “bulldozed” her on primary and debate nights. She reproduces her favorite ledes and revels in her Page One bylines (“Despite all our talk about the web and ‘digital first,’ the six most beautiful words in the English language remained, ‘They want it for the front’ ”). Indeed, Clinton’s only rival for Chozick’s fixation is then-Times politics editor Carolyn Ryan, a “no-bulls— boss” and “master motivator” who became a source of inspiration as well as frequent anxiety and insecurity for Chozick. “There was nothing like the warmth of Carolyn’s sun when it shined on you,” she writes. “But when she went dark — casting her light on another colleague or hardly looking away from her screen in disappointment that we hadn’t brought her that killer quote or nailed down that delicious detail — life could be a cold, desperate place.”
Chozick throws in dutiful references to Times readers (“I just wanted to tell good stories that helped explain the world to people”), but Clinton and Ryan loom so large that it often seems Chozick covered the campaign for an audience of two.
“Chasing Hillary” offers some searing moments surrounding election night, as when the Clinton team’s data guru grasps that his Florida models were off (Latino turnout lower than expected, white turnout huge in the Panhandle), then turns to campaign manager Robby Mook and says, “But, Robby, if our models were wrong in Florida, they could be wrong everywhere.” Mook eventually delivers the news of impending defeat to Clinton. “I knew it. I knew this would happen to me,” she answers. “They were never going to let me be president.”
The next day, Times reporters consider what they’d missed — and why. “God, I didn’t go to a single Hillary or Trump rally,” a colleague of Chozick’s admits, “and yet, I wrote with such authority.”
Despite the book’s title, and despite the decade Chozick spent on some version of the Hillary beat, Clinton herself does not emerge too vividly here. Sharper are the profiles of Clinton’s entourage, particularly the longtime male press aides whom Chozick never identifies by name but simply calls “The Guys.” The women around Hillary — such as Jennifer Palmieri, Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills — rate full names and attributed quotes, but the men are dubbed Brown Loafers Guy, Policy Guy, Hired Gun Guy, Outsider Guy and the loathsome Original Guy, “the longest-serving Svengali and the most-devoted member of Hillary’s court of flattering men.”
The Guys constantly mess with Chozick, magnifying her self-doubts. “I don’t care what you write because no one takes you seriously,” Outsider Guy says. They suggest that a Times colleague is leaking her story ideas to a competitor at Politico and that more-experienced reporters in her newsroom will steal away her assignment. (“C’mon, you really think they’ll keep you on the beat with Maggie there?”) They ask if there are any other Times reporters, preferably male, that they could talk to instead of her. “They’d gotten in my head, and I let them,” Chozick admits. The undercurrent of sexism spills over when Chozick and Original Guy spar over whether a prior conversation can go on the record, and he randomly paraphrases a crude line from “Thank You for Smoking,” a 2005 film in which a reporter sleeps with a lobbyist for information. “I didn’t know I had to say it was off the record when I was inside you,” Original Guy smirks. (“The words hung there,” Chozick recalls, “so grossly gynecological.”)
Chozick doesn’t name him but later cites a Times story by Maggie Haberman revealing that Original Guy served as the Trump stand-in during Clinton’s debate preparation. “Hmmm, wherever will Hillary find a manipulative, sometimes-charming, often hilarious, possible sociopath?” Chozick muses. I won’t out Original Guy here, except to say that his name rhymes with “Philippe Reines.”
Chozick is indignant about the prejudice swirling around Clinton’s candidacy and fantasizes about defending her. “Bernie’s supporters, Republicans, and garden-variety Hillary haters always told me it wasn’t about gender,” she writes. “They’d vote for a woman, just not THAT woman. . . . I wanted to scream at every critic that thirty years of sexist attacks had turned her into that woman. That sooner or later, the higher we climb, the harder we work, we all become that woman.”
The fury is less evident when she mentions the harassing tendencies of Clinton’s spiritual adviser, whom the Clinton reporters nicknamed Hands Across America. “HAA exhibited generally creepy behavior, but seemed more pitiful and effeminate than threatening, which is why I tried to ignore his rubbing up and down my back,” Chozick writes. She does not name HAA in the book; more than a year after Trump’s inauguration, Chozick co-wrote a Times story about how Clinton kept spiritual adviser Burns Strider on the 2008 campaign despite repeated accusations of harassment by campaign staff.
In a chapter titled “How I Became an Unwitting Agent of Russian Intelligence,” Chozick grapples with the ethics of reporting on hacked emails posted by WikiLeaks and recalls a moment when she found an iPhone in a bathroom at Clinton campaign headquarters in Brooklyn. Seeing a bunch of calendar alerts pop up, she realized the phone belonged to a Podesta assistant. Chozick didn’t even think of taking a quick look through it and instead left it on the counter. “I can’t explain why in the heat of breaking news, I thought covering Podesta’s hacked emails was any different,” she writes. But, just a page later, Chozick does explain. “I chose the byline. I always chose the byline.”
The author believes that her own coverage of Clinton was “neutral to positive, with plenty of wet kisses thrown in,” even declaring once that “part of a campaign reporter’s job is allowing yourself to be used.” Yet Chozick acknowledges the Clinton camp’s enduring suspicion of the Times, dating to its Whitewater coverage in the 1990s. In the case of the emails story, she has some sympathy for Clinton. “Ever since that first news conference, 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. . . I never agreed with Hillary that her email server was a nonstory, especially after the FBI opened its investigation, but I would regret — and even resent — that it became the only story.”
Of course, several of Chozick’s unrelated articles provoked the wrath of the Clinton campaign as well, none more, she writes, than the September 2015 story headlined “Hillary Clinton to Show More Humor and Heart, Aides Say.”
It’s the “Aides Say” that makes it feel almost satirical. Almost.
The first time Chozick, as a young reporter covering the 2008 campaign for the Wall Street Journal, attended a Hillary Clinton town hall, she briefly stood up and started clapping when the candidate walked in. (“What the hell are you doing?” a colleague admonished, tugging at her coat.) The day after the 2016 election, Chozick sat in her cubicle and wrote the “how she lost” story. “Then I finally cried,” she writes.
When she felt insecure at work, Chozick would channel Clinton. “I adopted Hillary’s mood,” she recalls. “I went around despondent and aggrieved, pissed off at the world, at my editors, at myself for not being ‘likable enough.’ ” But that’s not the Clinton she wants to remember, Chozick concludes. She wants to remember the Hillary who “tried to hold it all together — her marriage, her daughter, her career, her gender, her country.” The Hillary who taught her about grit, to believe she could excel but also to allow herself to stop striving.
“Hillary taught me all of that,” Chozick writes in her final lines. “So what if she hated me?”
Reading this book, I often had the same question.