• August 18, 2018
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books

Followers of a lost cause

Two emotional accounts of Hillary Clinton’s poll defeat — from Jennifer Palmieri and Amy Chozick — veer from lachrymose to wickedly readable

Reviewed by Peter Conrad
14:11 May 16, 2018

For Amy Chozick and Jennifer Palmieri, the world ended early on November 9, 2016, when Hillary Clinton tersely phoned Donald Trump to concede defeat. Chozick had spent a decade reporting on Hillary for the New York Times; Palmieri served as her “communications director”, although — as Chozick discloses — she balked at communicating the bad news to her boss on election night.

Both Chozick and Palmieri were traumatised by the unexpected result — perhaps more so than Hillary, who in a petulant transference of blame declared: “They were never going to allow me to be president.”

“It was on us to save America and we let her blow up,” said Palmieri, apocalyptically.

“I don’t know anything,” Chozick decided in numb misery, as she trudged home.

Chozick slumped into depressed inertia, while Palmieri resorted to indignant denial, asserting that Hillary actually won the election because the popular vote put her ahead.

Thanks to therapeutic book contracts, both women are currently in recovery, having reacted differently to their psychic trial. Palmieri, awash in tears but trying to be brave, now fantasises about what might have been by composing an open letter to a future female president whose identity is as yet unknown. Aghast at the errors of an overconfident campaign, Chozick revisits the past to analyse what went wrong, or — since rage goads her to fire off a fusillade of spluttering expletives — WTF happened.

Chozick attributes Hillary’s failure to her defensive, impersonal public demeanour. She disguised her rightful ambition as a mealy-mouthed craving to serve others, which is the ancestral female mission; everyone admired her crestfallen speech on the morning after the election because, as Palmieri remarks, surrendering gracefully is what women are meant to do.

To cover up her geeky command of policy, Hillary settled on “pabulum political talk” and made “vanilla remarks”, as if maternally feeding pap to the voters. She gets no credit here for her nonchalant unflappability: noticing that she never sweats, Chozick cattily intimates that this may have been a side-effect of Botox jabs. She also suspects that Hillary consulted her briefing books during sessions of supposedly relaxing yoga. Trump, by contrast, shrugged about his lack of prep for their televised debates, declaring: “I don’t need to rehearse being human.”

More self-woundingly, Chozick blames the media for allowing Trump to manipulate the news cycle with his headline- or chyron-grabbing antics. While Hillary hoped to make history, Trump concentrated on making journalism: every day he took care to satisfy “our gluttonous short attention span”, and misbehaved for the sole purpose of provoking clicks and retweets. Trump, Chozick argues, only pretends to hate the press, whose attention he craves; Hillary, however, kept a snooty distance from the female reporters who wanted her to win and relied on her to assuage their own professional insecurities.

Denied access to Hillary, Chozick once allowed herself to be suckered by Trump during a smarmy confidential phone call. She also unwittingly became a “puppet in Putin’s shadowy campaign” of sabotage, and she now regrets that her “overhyped coverage” of the hacked Democratic party emails released by WikiLeaks helped to erode Hillary’s lead in the polls.

Another of her interventions undermined Bill Clinton’s charitable foundation: Chozick had witnessed its good works in Africa, but couldn’t resist writing an exposé of its corrupt quirks, singling out the first-class airfare it paid for Natalie Portman’s pet yorkshire terrier to accompany her on a humanitarian mission of mercy.

Journalists, Chozick knows, are innately treacherous, always liable to betray a source. When a colleague remarks that she is “a [expletive] killer”, she takes it as a compliment. She calls herself a “presstitute”, resigned to her shameless trade but determined, like Stormy Daniels, to exact her due from the politicians who use and then discard her. These dodgy ethics are what make Chasing Hillary so wickedly readable: like Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury it’s a nonfiction novel, in which scenes have been “recreated from memory” and identities concealed by pseudonyms, “sometimes to protect the innocent but usually to protect the story” and keep it from sagging into tedium. But how can journalists hold Trump to account for his whoppers if they also artfully elasticise the facts?

Palmieri, who has intermittent walk-ons in Chozick’s book, fights back: there’s an uncomfortable moment when she sniffs a rank “stew of desperation and self-doubt” in Chozick’s quest for a scoop on Hillary’s choice of running mate.

This professional ruthlessness establishes Chozick’s affinity with Hillary, who, like Lady Macbeth demanding “Give me the daggers”, briskly disposed of Democratic rivals. Her shrewd manoeuvrings kept Joe Biden out of contention; she preferred the rabid mobs at Trump’s rallies to the idealistic but unkempt kids who cheered Bernie Sanders, because “at least white supremacists shaved”.

Chozick’s infatuation with her subject is personal as well as professional, and Chasing Hillary might have been entitled Stalking Hillary. It’s the sad, comical tale of an unreciprocated love that slithers into disillusion, before belatedly lurching back to implore forgiveness.

During the campaign, she sees more of Hillary than of her new husband; the poor fellow may have felt that he was being cuckolded by the pantsuited candidate, who is praised for behaving like “a badass hombre” or having the swagger of “a heavyweight champ”. Chozick defers pregnancy because, as she says, Hillary matters more than her ovaries, and she hugs her laptop instead of cradling an infant. Circumstances force the two women into a sometimes embarrassing intimacy — especially when Hillary surprises her in the unlocked loo of her chartered plane — but, as interview requests are consistently rebuffed, Chozick moans: “She really, really hates me.” Her editor reminds Chozick that, for a journalist, the alternative to being hated is being irrelevant — wise advice, but it leaves her even more soddenly disconsolate.

These snarled emotions dramatise the difficulty so many voters had with Hillary, who seemed capable but not likable, and failed to notice that American politics had become a reality show — a succession of trumped-up crises and cliff-hanging finales, with entertainment replacing the dull routine of government.

Although Chozick began life as “a nice Jewish girl from Texas”, the spicy diction of her book makes her one of the boys, a match for the dudes of the newsroom. Her sharp tongue also allows her to retaliate when online trolls advise her “to take it in the ass like a man”.

Palmieri is more demure. Redolent, as Chozick says, of “grapefruit-scented bath salts”, she belongs to the self-proclaimed “sisterhood of Hillary” — a nun-like order that once evangelised across the nation, but now spends its cloistered days praying for its martyred founder, who, Palmieri insists, suffered “torture” at the hands of her detractors.

Much weeping and wailing can be heard from inside the sanctum. “I am a pretty big crier,” confesses Palmieri, and she encourages sobbing on the job, which she calls “the ultimate female power play!” Chozick thinks that Hillary should have let out a “cathartic scream” in protest at Trump’s seamy record of sexual harassment; Palmieri’s recommendation would have been some misty-eyed sniffling in commiseration with the victims.

The tone of Dear Madam President is moistly pious, extending from the lachrymose to the religiose. Palmieri often seems to be performing karaoke versions of the uplifting hymns sung by matriarchs in the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Adverse polls present the sorority with “another mountain we would have to climb”: doesn’t the abbess in The Sound of Music exhort Maria to “Climb ev’ry mountain”? Elsewhere, Palmieri advises her presidential addressee to “keep your head (and your heart) during a storm”, which paraphrases You’ll Never Walk Alone from Carousel. Perhaps, as well as directing communications, she programmed Hillary’s iPod.

Chasing Hillary ends with Chozick having her long-delayed baby and resuming the life she suspended for Hillary’s sake. Palmieri’s conclusion is initially sadder: torn by conflicting loyalties, she allows the election to delay her farewell visit to a terminally ill sister, who in dying rejects a society over which Hillary would not be presiding. Then comes the visionary expectation of a brighter tomorrow. “We can now write our own happy ending,” says the transfigured, transported Palmieri. “This movie ends with women running the world.”

Let’s hope that happens, and soon. But, with apologies for lowering the mood, I would point out that we’re not in a movie: back in the real world, the more immediate outcome might well be the rapture — happy for evangelical fanatics, but for the rest of us merely an abrupt, catastrophic end.

–Guardian News & Media Ltd