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Hillary Control

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Thus far, the Hillaryland model appears to be serving its candidate well. Recent polls show Hillary’s unfavorable ratings staying flat and her favorables inching upward. “She may be managed, but the managing is working,” says pollster and focus-group guru Frank Luntz. Luntz’s research indicates that Hillary’s image as aloof, prepackaged, and calculating is beginning to fade. “She’s overcome all that,” he contends. “She’s gotten good. She has showed a level of humanity that did not exist a year ago, and that’s why she’s begun to rise again in most polls.”

Of course, what serves Hillary’s electoral prospects doesn’t necessarily serve the public interest. Although Hillarylanders are quick to catalogue their friend’s acts of kindness, they remain loath to offer deeper insights, such as how she makes decisions, mediates conflicts, handles mistakes, or builds consensus—in other words, how she leads. The group insists that Hillary demands to hear all sides of an issue and relishes candor, but they remain allergic to sharing specifics.

Moreover, what makes for effective campaigning can prove disastrous for governing—as the Bush-Cheney administration has demonstrated. “The insularity is inevitable,” says Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “There tends to be a kind of groupthink around any high public official. People know what to say. None of the people want to lose their status in the circle.”

Hillaryland’s history suggests it is not immune to such hazards. During Hillary’s years as First Lady, the pride her office took in its unified, leakproof subculture promoted an isolationism, even from the rest of the White House. “There certainly was a very distinct and not even particularly cordial relationship between Mrs. Clinton’s and President Clinton’s staff,” understates Harold Ickes, a longtime adviser to both Clintons, who was one of the few to move easily between the two camps. “We were bossy, and we were controlling,” allows Lattimore. “There was sort of an air of ‘We know what’s best,’ when you may not always know what’s best.” As a result, he says, “you shut off access to other ideas, and you don’t trust others.” Certainly, Hillary’s antagonism toward anyone she viewed as not on her team helped undermine her health-care crusade, during which she declared war on legislators of her own party. Likewise, her impulse toward secrecy underlay some of the costliest missteps of her husband’s tenure, including the refusal to release Whitewater documents in that scandal’s early days.

Hillarylanders, naturally, reject such concerns—or at least insist they are dealing with them. “We’re not stupid,” says Patti, noting that no inner circle, no matter how “fabulous,” can run a presidential campaign alone. “We’re smart enough to know we’ve got to bring people in,” agrees Tanden, ticking off a handful of outside hires, including deputy campaign manager Mike Henry. As for a Hillary administration, the candidate herself has said she made mistakes during her time as First Lady, says Patti. “She learned from them. And when she’s president, she won’t do it again.”

That said, don’t look for a cultural overhaul of Hillaryland anytime soon. Most members dispute the basic premise that their group is secretive—as opposed to “highly disciplined”—much less that it needs to loosen up either now or once in the White House. “I understand what the read is out there on us,” says Patti. But on the whole, she contends, the campaign’s code of honor “is for the better, not for the worse.” Message received.

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic.

Email: mcottle@tnr.com.


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