Control the message. This is arguably the first rule of politics. Set the terms of the debate. Stick to your talking points. Minimize leaks. Do not let the opposition define you. Avoid process stories. Win the news cycle. Never let them see you sweat.
In the era of the YouTube election, in which every campaign stumble has the potential to become a “macaca moment,” the pressure on candidates to keep an iron grip on their image is extreme. Quirky, let-it-all-hang-out romps like John McCain’s straight-talking quest for the Republican nomination in 2000 may be charming, but tight-lipped, brutally disciplined efforts like George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 runs are the stuff of which legends—and presidents—are made.
Among the 2008 field, no one recognizes this reality more than Hillary Clinton, whose every word, deed, and hairdo of the past fifteen years has sparked bitter national debate. Not coincidentally, she has spent this time assembling a network of advisers who share her views on loyalty and discretion. “Hillaryland,” as the members of this mostly female clique call themselves, is less a campaign entity than an extended sisterhood defined by its devotion to its namesake. Even so, the group’s protective ethos dominates her presidential campaign, where loyalty is demanded, self-promotion frowned upon, and talking out of school, especially to the press, punishable by death. (Just kidding—though staffers point out that the campaign’s Arlington, Virginia, headquarters is in a former INS detention facility that still has cells in the basement.) If any campaign has a shot at Total Message Control in ’08, it is Team Hillary.
But is this a good thing? Hillary is, after all, a candidate with very particular, personality-driven challenges. Unlike Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, she lacks the natural ability to make voters feel as though they have a personal sense of her in a 30-second sound bite. Polls indicate that even people who like Hillary don’t necessarily trust her; she is seen as too cautious, scripted, and opportunistic—in short, too much the slick pol. Dispelling such concerns is no small challenge for a political team dominated by loyalists who for years now have shared, and even enabled, the candidate’s obsession with privacy and control.
Hillaryland originally referred to the young, shoestring staff assigned to Mrs. Clinton during her husband’s 1992 presidential run, but it has expanded and mutated to the point where trying to determine members’ spheres of influence can seem a little like mapping the human genome. There’s Maggie Williams, Hillary’s first White House chief of staff and now her campaign co-chair, who is the person said to know what keeps Hillary up at night. Huma Abedin, Hillary’s beautiful, enigmatic “body person,” spends nearly every waking minute with Hillary and so has the best sense of her daily rhythms and routines. Lissa Muscatine, a former Hillary speechwriter and erstwhile book collaborator, is a walking catalogue of everything the candidate has ever said about anything. Cheryl Mills, who as deputy White House counsel defended Bill Clinton in his impeachment trial, has returned to the fold as Hillary’s campaign lawyer. Some members, like Hillary’s Senate chief of staff, Tamera Luzzatto, deal with legislative duties; others, like senior campaign advisers Ann Lewis and Minyon Moore, are focused squarely on ’08. “It’s concentric circles,” offers Melanne Verveer, Hillary’s chief of staff during Bill’s second term.
At the center of all these circles stands Patti Solis Doyle. The first person Hillary hired during the ’92 race, Patti, as she is universally known, worked as her scheduler for eight years, steadily amassing duties and influence. At this point, no one embodies the culture of Hillaryland more than Patti, now the campaign manager of Team Hillary. The 42-year-old Chicago native is direct, focused, and disciplined. She has a quick laugh, a sharp, teasing wit, and little patience for any sort of media attention. (“I’m Mexican, for crying out loud,” quips the first-generation American. “I just want to do my job.”) Officially, Patti is charged with overseeing every aspect of Hillary Inc., from hiring to fund-raising to crisis management. Unofficially, she serves as the eyes, the ears, and the voice of Hillary. While the campaign has its share of political geniuses who are more seasoned and more famous, Patti’s authority flows from having achieved a sort of mind meld with her boss. “Patti almost channels Hillary,” says Kim Molstre, Hillary’s perky and openly starstruck campaign scheduler. Hillary, in turn, seeks out Patti’s counsel. Says policy director Neera Tanden, “On any major decision, the first and last person Hillary talks to is Patti.”
Patti is also the chief enforcer of the family code: no leaks, ever. She expresses admiration for the way George W. Bush’s campaign team controlled its message, and, given her druthers, would run this race no differently. “We are a very disciplined group, and I am very proud of it,” she says with a defiant edge. Patti cites as one of her biggest achievements the fact that Hillary’s campaign launch in January was planned and executed with military precision. “There were so many eyes and ears waiting for her to say something about whether she would run. That what we managed to pull off was a creative, professional rollout of a presidential campaign without anybody really knowing about it [in advance]— I don’t want to say it was the hardest thing I’ve done, but it was one of the things I’m most proud of.”
And pity the poor wretch whom Patti suspects of violating the code. Former Hillary press secretary Neel Lattimore (who is now with the Children’s Defense Fund but still cherishes his status as “the first man in Hillaryland”) vividly recalls the ass-chewing he received in 1997, when Patti thought he had leaked news of the First Lady’s 50th-birthday surprise party to the Chicago media. “She was at the airport on the phone screaming at me, and I was screaming back,” recounts Lattimore. “I told her, ‘Patti, I didn’t do that!’ She was like, ‘You did! I know you did! Just tell me you did it!’ ” Terrified that Patti didn’t believe him, Lattimore phoned the reporter in question, begging him to confirm that Lattimore hadn’t been his source. “Never cross Patti Solis Doyle,” Lattimore jokingly cautions. “I would rather throw myself in front of an Amtrak train.”
Of course, the tight-lipped tribalism isn’t Patti’s doing alone: It trickles down from the top. Capricia Marshall, who began working for Hillary in 1992 and now serves as a senior campaign adviser, “remembers fondly” a meeting in early 1993, when the then–First Lady gathered her staff in the correspondence office of the East Wing for a modified pep talk. “It was one of those, ‘Look to your right. Look to your left. This is your teammate for the next few years. We’re going to back each other up. We’re going to help each other out. The only way we can do this in this pressure cooker of a place is to help each other. No stabbing each other. No gossiping.’ ” The circle-the-wagons mentality was intensified by the barrage of political brawls and scandals and scorching media coverage during the White House years. (“Another day, another book,” quips campaign media guru Mandy Grunwald.) So protective of the First Lady’s privacy were her aides that they never referred to her by name in public, recalls Lattimore: “We referred to her as Herself.”
There is a significant Go, girl! aspect to working for Hillary. She represented a bold new model of First Lady, and many of these women were drawn to her record of advocacy on behalf of women and children. “There was the feeling that this was a very new and different kind of person trying to do something more with the position that really spoke to women in a larger sense,” recalls Muscatine. “Suddenly, you were invited to be part of this—this movement.” Hillary, in turn, has always taken a close, personal interest in her staff. With eerie uniformity, Hillarylanders proffer heartwarming anecdotes about how she is there for them during the good (weddings, births), the bad (illness, deaths), and the ugly (breakups, weight gain).
As a small female subculture fighting for its agenda within the male-dominated West Wing, Hillaryland swiftly developed a let’s-show-’em attitude. “Sometimes we would initiate something and the boys would take credit for it” even if they had initially fought it, recalls Melanne Verveer with equal parts amusement and annoyance. She points to Hillary’s speech at the 1995 U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing, in which she famously asserted that women’s rights must no longer be considered separate from human rights. Coming in the wake of human-rights dissident Harry Wu’s arrest by Chinese authorities, the First Lady’s appearance was opposed as politically risky by many in the West Wing. “They gave us lots of flak,” says Verveer. But in the end, the speech was hailed as a triumph, and Verveer reports that people have since told her that as the president’s staff watched from the West Wing, “they were saying, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing,’ and then basically saying, ‘We’re so glad we told her to go.’ ”
Whatever the origins of the bond, Democratic observers say that the ring of protectors Hillary enjoys has no analog in party circles. And opinion differs as to whether this group dynamic is healthy. From a campaign standpoint, the advantages are clear. Having a network of loyalists helps avoid the drama and disarray suffered by past nominees such as Al Gore and John Kerry, both of whom had few trusted, longtime advisers who could be counted on to put the candidate’s interests above all else. “There are people who say that the downside is you shut out advice,” says Carter Eskew, chief strategist for Gore’s 2000 run. “But the problem in a campaign is never a lack of advice. The problem is too much advice.” Mistakes occur in even the best-run race, he notes. “If you don’t have an atmosphere of trust, it makes it difficult for the campaign to recover. You just eat each other instead of moving on.”
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.