On this episode of Recode Media, journalist Rebecca Traister talked with Peter Kafka about how she got interviews with Hillary Clinton both before and after the 2016 election. Clinton is not Traister’s only topic — she writes about gender and politics for New York magazine and other outlets.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at the link above, or listen to it in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me. I’m part of the Vox Media Podcast Network. I’m sitting here with Rebecca Traister. She’s an author. She’s the writer at large at New York magazine. You may have seen her stuff at The Cut, which is also New York magazine, so go to New York magazine to read her.
Rebecca Traister: It is, though it’s its own thing.
You’re also at Elle. You write many books. When I think of you, I think of gender. That’s your focus, right?
You’re an author and reporter or journalist who focuses on gender and women specifically, right?
Yeah. I used to describe myself: “I write about women in politics, media and entertainment.”
That’s a better way than saying gender.
Well, it’s a lot of gender. It’s a lot of race. It’s class. I wrote a book about unmarried women. I think in the past couple of years, journalistically, it’s been a lot more about women in politics, in part because there was a presidential race.
Heard about that.
Right. It’s felt like it’s more political, but historically, I was also writing about women in pop culture and cultural criticism from a feminist perspective. I write from a feminist perspective.
I want to talk about all of that, and I also want to talk about Hillary Clinton. There’s two great pieces about Hillary Clinton. You’ve written a bunch but two seminal ones. One was about a year ago.
It was exactly a year.
One was a couple months ago now or maybe a month and a half ago.
Listen to the rest of the podcast, and then go [read] these pieces. They’re great pieces. One of them, I made sure that Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg read prior to interviewing Hillary at Code a couple of weeks ago.
They did a great interview.
It was a really interesting interview. I want to start by talking about how you ended up on the Hillary Clinton beat. I think you just spelled it out, right? It’s just a logical extension of what you were doing.
Yeah, to some extent. I was very lucky. You really want to go back a little bit?
We can go awhile, all the way back, but one of the important things about both of these articles is you got a lot of access to Hillary Clinton, who famously doesn’t like the press. The most recent article, you had her first major exit interview.
Right. That actually brings up an interesting thing about the evolution of my writing about Hillary Clinton. How I wound up writing about Hillary Clinton or then more largely women in politics goes back actually to 2003 and 2004 when I got a job at Salon.com, which at that point was not known totally for its reporting. I’d come from the New York Observer.
This was the original, webby commentary.
It was a webby. It was a lot of cultural criticism. Jake Tapper had been there as a political journalist. There was political reporting, but the job that I was hired for, I’d come from the New York Observer where I’d been a fact-checker and I’d written about the film business. I was not writing about gender.
Didn’t you get tossed out of a event by Harvey Weinstein?
That was the dramatic highlight of my early journalistic life. I was hired to write for the Life section of Salon. That was what had used to been called Mother’s Who Think. It was everything that didn’t fall under the category of politics, business, movie, book criticism. It was a squishy category meant to say women’s stuff, right. At that point, 2003 and 2004, there was not a robust feminist media. We forget that because we now have a feminist blogosphere, right, and a feminist media. Major outlets have their own feminist staff writers. That was not the case.
Rattle off what feminist media means today in 2017.
Today, it means that there are writers at every publication, whether you’re talking about Michelle Goldberg at Slate, whether you’re talking about me and many of my colleagues at The Cut and at New York magazine. Jezebel is a publication that was an offshoot of Gawker that publishes entirely content about women from a largely feminist perspective. Those who are there now might disagree with my characterization of it, but that’s certainly historically what it’s been.
Media properties, websites, and then people whose beats within some of the broader websites or publications whose job it is to write about women from a feminist perspective. We’re to assume that’s the case.
Right, whether or not they use the word feminist, they’re looking at gender and power.
I think you see that even in what we might consider straight political journalism at major publications more now than we did.
That beat exists now. It didn’t then.
It certainly did not. It existed. Katha Pollitt was writing at the Nation, and she had written through [a feminist lens]. Ariel Levy, who was then writing at New York Magazine and is now at the New Yorker, was beginning to write pieces specifically from a feminist perspective. Mostly that didn’t exist.
When I went to Salon to do this squishy category that was going to be about sex and, I don’t know, kids and school, women’s stuff, I came to it with a personal feminist perspective and interest in gender politics. My editors there shared that interest, but there’d just been no market for it for a long time. We were coming out of real backlash years in the United States where there was a tremendous anti-feminist backlash, and that had gone very much out of fashion.
I began to write some of my stories at Salon from a feminist perspective. That was really at that period that was like, let’s look at Britney Spears and Paris Hilton and Whitney Houston. It was very pop culture oriented. I was really hired to do cultural criticism or cultural reporting to the degree that it was reported.
Which is still a thing.
It is still a thing. Insofar as I wrote about presidential politics, I was writing about the wives and daughters, Teresa Heinz Kerry in the 2004 election, the Kerry daughters, the Bush daughters. In about 2006, my editor came to me and said, “You’re going to need to write a piece about Hillary Clinton. It looks like she’s going to run for president.” Now, after a decade of Hillary Clinton running for president, we’re like, of course she’s running for president. She always runs for president. At the time, it was like, “Really?” I was not a fan of Hillary Clinton. I was a critic of Hillary Clinton. My politics, I felt, were very much to the left of hers.
She was a senator then.
She was a senator from New York. It was 2006. It was ramping up. There was pressure on her to run. There had been pressure on her to run in 2004, and she hadn’t done it. In retrospect, she probably should have. In 2006, my editor said, “You’re going to have to write a piece about this.” I was very critical. Many of the feminists I was reporting on, because I was also looking at the abortion politics, what remained of an old-style feminist movement, and so I started to write about Hillary Clinton at that point. Pretty critically because there were a lot of feminists who were very critical of her. It was not the, “Oh, we’re going to have a woman running for president.”
Because she wasn’t liberal/left/feminist enough, and maybe she was, but at least publicly she didn’t present that.
Well, she’d done a lot of contorting in the Senate.
This is the very long and complicated history of Hillary Clinton when she was First Lady and when she had come into the White House ...
Right, she would tack back and forth.
She was perceived as super left wing, feminazi radical, which of course was never accurate to begin with. That was a mischaracterization. There are all kinds of ways in which — from doing her hair to supporting some of her husband’s, to my mind, worst policies — that she tried to fix that version of herself.
As a senator from New York, one of the things that she did, she did a lot to play well within the Senate. She really apprenticed herself to a lot of the old, senior guys there and made them like her on both the right and the left. She made a lot of compromises, got behind stuff around flag burning and violent video games that were like, what? She voted, of course, to go to war in Iraq, as did many Democrats. She never apologized. It took her a very long time to say, “I made a mistake and regret that.”
There was a lot that those on the left, really, didn’t like about Hillary Clinton going into a potential run in 2008. I started writing about that in 2006. I wrote a very long piece about many feminist questions about Hillary Clinton.
You were critical of her. Did you come to her? Over time, did you go, “I need to think this through”? Did she send people to you? Were there emissaries?
Oh no, no.
Oh no, no, no, no. Until 15 months ago ...
You had to come around to being appreciative of her at some point.
Coming around to being appreciative of her, I actually did in the midst of the 2008 race. It was in part because I found myself chronicling this incredible antipathy to her. I’d been a teenager when she was First Lady. I knew academically and I’d observed slightly how much hate had been directed at her from the right, especially in the 1990s, and then I’d been part of the criticism leveled at her from the left.
In 2008, I went in, and I’m an opinion writer. I get to be an opinion writer and a reporter, so I get to talk about this stuff. I’ve written about it extensively. I was a John Edwards supporter. His politics matched mine. I’m very proud. I obviously made the correct decision, Edwards ’08. When he dropped out, I wrote, and I was writing a lot about this. I was trying to get in touch with her campaign, but they didn’t want to talk to me. I was a reporter and writer at Salon. They didn’t care. I was like 12. They didn’t know who I was.
Move along, yeah.
I didn’t write for the New York Times. Nobody ever returned my calls from the Clinton campaign in ’08. The Clinton campaign in ’08 was a disaster.
How do you end up on her radar? How do you end up with enough access so that you were on the trail?
Well, I wrote a book. I wrote a book about the 2008 campaign and about my process of ...
Plug your book. That book’s called?
That book is called “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”
Good, because there’s two.
There are two, yeah. That was a 2010 book about the 2008 election.
That’s Hillary. It’s also Palin.
It’s Palin, and it’s Michelle Obama. It’s about the intersections of gender, race, class, and how those all played into how America received these three historic women, all of whom were playing unprecedented roles. In it, it’s not about me, but I do chronicle the evolution of my reaction to all of them.
Certainly people on her team knew about that book, and they also knew at a certain point about the writing that I was doing, which was very much from outside. I was not a political reporter in 2008. I was writing opinion journalism, and to the degree that I was reporting, I was reporting from the margins on how the media was behaving in reaction to these historic candidates, how supporters were behaving, how they were treating each other, the ways that gendered, racialized, racist, classist language was being deployed between supporters of opponents. They knew about that. I’d written the book, and I’d continued to write about her ramping into what seemed increasingly likely to be her next run in 2016. Then I really had to knock on the door of the campaign every day.
That’s starting when?
I mean, 2015, the day she ...
How do you think you got that because again, she ... Is despised the press the wrong word?
No, I think that’s the right word.
Despised the press. She has a lot of reason to be wary of the press, not naturally charismatic with the press. Again, you guys will go and read this story if you haven’t read it, but you are with her on the trail. You’ve got several intimate moments with her. This was a year ago and again now. How do you get that entree? How do you negotiate for it? Why is it you instead of, I don’t know, Amy Chozick at the Times, whose job it is to write about her every day and I think has a relationship with that family as well?
Well, I can only venture a guess on this based on what I sense happened within the campaign. Because of my writing in 2008, which was pretty widely read by people who cared about Hillary Clinton, who cared about politics, I’d like to think it’s pretty nuanced and smart about the various complicated dynamics and a lot of the history in play. One of the things I’m very interested in my writing is making sure we put things in historic context.
Right. It doesn’t just happen.
Right. I think that’s very hard to do for a lot of reporters, writing with short spaces and for a quick, contemporary audience. I have a luxury that a lot of writers don’t get to do. I also get to have my voice in there a lot more than straight reporters like Amy Chozick gets to do. I have a very lucky job where I get to write at length and with a lot of detail and with nuance and I get to say what I think at the same time that I get to report. That means that I get to write a different kind of thing.
I think that some of the young people who worked on her campaign, maybe some of the older ones but I really only knew the junior people, had liked and thought that I was smart about the history of Hillary Clinton and way she fit into the story of the United States, and it’s progress and regress when it comes to gender and race and progressivism in general. I think there were people within the campaign who were advocating that she talk to me. That’s certainly part of what I was hearing is that there were people, not her tight higher-ups who I still to this day don’t know though I’ve now met some of them more, but that a lot of the more junior people were saying, “I think you should talk to Rebecca Traister.” This is what I’m guessing.
It bubbles up.
It bubbles up, and it took a long time.
At some point, you still got to get through the top gatekeepers.
I was asking in 2015. I was saying, “Please let me spend time with her.” I was making very direct arguments about ...
You’re hearing people from the lower rungs of the campaign saying, “We’re making the pitch for you.”
I don’t want to undersell them as super lower.
No, but it’s not Huma, right?
It’s not Bill, right?
People below them in the org chart are pitching on your behalf.
Are you mailing notes?
I am calling them every day.
You call them.
I mean, probably not literally every day, but I am calling them multiple times a week saying, “How about now? How about now? How about now? Is now a good time to talk to her?”
What tips the scale?
I don’t know.
How do you get in?
Well, this is people saying it was toward the end of the primary that they finally said, “Okay, we’re going to do this.”
Do you meet with her before you start doing reporting or you just show up one day and you’re trailing her?
I show up one day as part of the press pool, which has very little access to her. It’s kept very distant from her.
Literally roped off.
Yeah. When I was there, there wasn’t a literal rope, but there was a literal bus that was separate from her literal bus.
There was a rope line at one point of the campaign, yeah, and the different bus. She’s not pretending to be glad-handing with the press.
No, no. There was a period where I did that, where I was with the traveling press. Then there were a couple days, this is all from 2016, so it’s the end of her primary against Bernie Sanders. Then there were a couple of days that I had a different kind of access where it wasn’t sitting down for lengthy interviews, but it was getting to be near her as she walked in. I got to be next to her as she walked into events, which was incredibly ...
Have you been approved at this point or you’re still earning your ...
Yes. Oh no, at this point, there had been a decision made that, okay, Rebecca Traister’s going to do this piece. She’s got to get her access.
You know that this is ... you are getting something extraordinary that no one else has yet.
I’m trying to think. It’s not that nobody else ... Ruby Cramer had written a terrific piece at that point for BuzzFeed where she’d obviously had access to Hillary Clinton. Lots of the other people had had some access for direct interviews. I know that I’m writing a different kind of piece than has been written. I guess to that degree, and I did know I was getting something that I was pretty pleased to be getting.
I’m just getting deep in the sausage making because people don’t normally get to see this stuff. It’s interesting to me so hopefully to listeners. When you go to them and you say, “I want to do this. This is my proposal. I would like this kind of access,” are you saying, “And by the way, I’m either going to promise not to write this sort of thing”?
No, I made no promises.
You’re not dumb enough. Sorry, that’s the wrong phrasing.
I might be dumb enough, but no, on some things.
You’re not going to say, “I will not write this thing.”
You also, there’s another way of saying, “I’m interested in this kind of ...”
Because what they want to know is, is this going to be a hit piece?
Oh sure. No, I was not telling them, “This is going to be a hit piece.”
Without saying, “I’m not going to stab you in the back.”
No, I can tell you exactly the pitch that I made. I’m not shy about that.
How do you give them reassurance that in addition to seeing your work that they can’t guarantee that they’re going to get the kind of piece they want, but they also have some comfort level with you?
Well, I think the comfort level in part is based on the work.
You’ve seen what I do. This is what I do.
“You’ve seen what I do.” I had written at that point literally a book about Hillary Clinton. Also, I can’t imagine but 24, 30, 2,000-word or more pieces about her. There is no secret about my evolving feelings about Hillary Clinton, about my criticisms of Hillary Clinton. They were always very aware, because I had historically criticized her from the left because even in my contemporary writing about her going into 2016, I had expressed some ambivalence about her. I’d written a piece for Elle that was about my ambivalence.
A lengthy paper trail.
Lengthy paper trail.
Everything you’ve thought about her is on paper.
Also, a piece for the New Republic, by the way, urging both Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand to run against her. I have been both open about what became my support for her in ’08, and about my ambivalence about her going into 2016. There’s no secrets. That was one of the things I said, like “Look, you’re not getting any surprises from me. I have written oceans on Hillary Clinton.”
I also made very clear that the piece I wanted to write was putting her in the context of American history. There was no promise about it’s going to be good or it’s going to be bad ever, of course. What I did say is, “Look, I think this is a crucial historic moment.” I thought there would be more coverage in the press that made careful note of that, that tried to position this, this first woman nominated by a major party who’s going to run in the general election. The first woman in a 51 percent female nation that purports to be a representative democracy in 230 years. I thought there was going to be more historicizing this moment, and there hadn’t been at that point.
“I’m going to give this the treatment it deserves.”
What I’m going to do is try to put her in the story of America.
That wins them over in the pitch.
That was what they were signing on for. There was no further, and then I was like, “I’ve got to see what she gives me before I can ...”
Right. Then you progressed from the bus to be near her.
The bus to be near her, which was actually I at first rolled my eyes when they were like, “Oh then you’ll have a few days where you’re backstage.” I was like, “Great.”
That’s great stuff, right?
In fact, that was the most elucidating. That was the best stuff. I was so naïve to not understand that that was the best kind of access.
Spell out why that’s the best access.
Because what I saw was the thing that you never see when you’re in the crowd, and that because of the distance that the press was often kept, that the press didn’t get to see unless they were backstage with her, which was her doing the business of retail politics. It was shocking to me. I had no idea. I accepted because she’s not the easiest or most elegant or most charismatic speaker. We know all about it, and I’ve written about the stuff about how she speaks, especially compared to Barack Obama, compared to Bill Clinton. Watching her go through the halls, greeting people, shaking hands, remembering names, talking to kids, hugging babies, so smooth.
You get to see her doing the work that isn’t captured on cameras.
Everyone says she’s great in the room. It’s also, I imagine, you get to see her doing her actual work and interactions with her aides.
Yes, I get to see her interact with her staff.
Where she knows she’s being observed, but it’s also different than you sitting across a table from her with a microphone or a recording device where she knows, “All right, now this is an interview. I’m going to switch into interview mode.”
It’s that near/middle distance that’s a sweet spot for that stuff.
Yes, and it was extremely naïve of me to have ever doubted that that was the best kind of access. That was the best. I had several days of that.
Eventually you were granted time on the couch.
Eventually ... It was always, “You’re going to get the interview.” The interview that we had in 2016 was at one of these events where I’d been having a day where I was backstage with her. Then it was like, “We’re going to do it at some point today.” I knew it was going to be that day. I had my printed piece of paper. I was terrified, all of it. Then they said, “We’re going to do it after the speech.” We wound up, we were in a school gym in Bridgeport, Connecticut, so they said, “We’re going to go into the locker room.” We sat in the locker room where there was a weird couch.
Yeah, you said, “It smelled bad.”
It did smell terrible.
I was trying to imagine what it smelled like.
I still remember it. It was like, woof. That interview was 40 minutes.
That leads to great story No. 1. You’ve done other great stuff in between that. Great story No. 2 is post-election. Same approach, or she’s seen the piece, she knows ...
Totally different. Totally different. Well, I should also say that I was pushing to do another piece. I didn’t want that one story in 2016 to be my only story with access to Hillary Clinton. I was desperate to do another big piece on her with access and with an interview in the weeks leading up to the election, and I was pressing for it. I was not succeeding. It’s interesting because when people have criticized my approach, and this happens quite a bit on social media, and there’s this assumption that because I have written positively about her that I’m like working for the campaign or whatever.
I was like, oh man, if you knew, if you knew the amount of daily agita about just let me have her for five minutes. Let me have her. No, I couldn’t get her again. The weekend before the election, I was writing a very big piece because I thought it was a possibility. I was never one of those people who thought she was definitely going to win, never. I certainly thought that there was a possibility that on a Tuesday we were going to be electing the first woman president. This was my job.
This was my job.
You were one of the big voices that said, “It’d be irresponsible not to have written that piece, what it all means.”
I was working on that piece. Look, to say that I wasn’t sure she was going to win, all signs were pointing toward the fact that she was going to.
Though I wasn’t sure about it and I was terrified, I also felt more than a chance. There was going to be a good possibility that I was going to have to write a cover story, that I wanted to write a cover story about how we’ve just elected the first woman president.
I’d been doing a lot of reporting on a very long feature for weeks leading up to that, to the election. I’d traveled with the press again in Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania the weekend before the election. I was at the rally the night before. I’d been with the bus. I actually did my only moment that has ever approached any kind of gonzo, I’m just going for this journalism was getting off the bus the Sunday before the election. I was traveling with the press. I was desperate to interview her and wasn’t getting anywhere with the campaign. I had to go home, and I got off the press bus in Philadelphia, and then I noticed that a bunch of vans were leaving separately. I just got into one. I knew it was somebody in the campaign, and I just got into one. It was Dan Schwerin who was her speech writer and Jen Palmieri. I’d never dealt with Jen Palmieri actually, and she was the top communication.
You force your way onto their van.
I got on their van. Nick Merrill, her press person, looked and was like, “Rebecca Traister’s in your van.” I was stranded in a parking lot with a bag. What were they going to do? I tried to talk them into letting me talk to her.
“Let me talk to her.” No. I got a vague, not promise, but suggestion that maybe on Wednesday because I was writing for New York Magazine, which would close on Friday, that maybe the day after election day I could talk to her for a few minutes. I was hopeful that was going to happen. That did not happen.
Right. That does not happen.
Does not happen.
At what point do you go to her and that team and say, “I want the first significant story post-election,” and then it’s months afterwards?
I should be really clear that I didn’t say I want the first.
No, but I want the story.
Of course, I did want the first.
That’s never how I approached it. Because I had written so much about her, I was in touch at that point after the election with a lot of people who I hadn’t been in regular touch with. There were some people on her campaign who reached out to me to talk. A lot of people who were themselves, I think, shocked by her loss and also still processing some of the stuff that they felt they had learned during the campaign, working for her, a lot of it about gender, a lot of it about other stuff, a lot of it about sexism, what they perceived to be the double standards that they’d been working with and then culminating with this loss — which is not to say that these were people were saying, “It was just because of sexism.”
I’m not being that reductive, and neither were they. They wanted to talk to somebody who’d done some extensive writing on this. I actually was in touch with a couple of people who said, “I just want to talk to you about this stuff and like what just happened and what I’m thinking.” Of course, I spoke with some of them. During those conversations, a lot of them actually had questions for me about the press, which was, “Why hasn’t anybody written in depth about the gender dynamics of this since the loss?” It’s not that nobody had. Rebecca Solnit wrote a terrific piece. There were people who’d been writing about sexism, but not this very long treatment of how gender worked. It was sexism. Again, I really want to avoid this reductive, mono-causal explanation.
Also in part, right, because one of the reasons they weren’t writing about it was because the narrative immediately switched to it’s this poor, overlooked, white, working class. We have to go to Appalachia. You could debate whether or not that actually is what tipped the election or it’s the Obama voters in Michigan who tipped it over.
Gender went out the door as something people wanted to talk about.
Nobody wanted to talk about gender.
They may not have wanted to talk about it to begin with but certainly afterwards.
Right. This is my view on this, and in this case, I’m only representing my view, not the view of any of these people I was talking to at the time, is that nobody in America wants to talk about sexism or racism as a contemporary thing. We’re only comfortable talking about them when we can safely put them in our past. We could talk about race around Obama because he won, and then we could tell a happy story about race moving forward. There was an aversion during Hillary’s candidacy to talking about sexism, and I think that aversion came from both the right and the left because nobody wanted to make it simple. There’s a perception that if you talk about ...
The campaign right?
You talk about this as well, right ...
Well the campaign was mixed on this. The campaign was very mixed on this.
Because she specifically didn’t run as the woman.
Right. In ’08, it was like Mark Penn told her, “Nobody wants a first mama, but they would take a first papa who’s a woman.” It was so confused, like gender stuff in ’08. In 2016, they were much more willing to and eager to run Hillary as the first woman and as a historic figure, but they were also anxious because that campaign talked to women very early on, and this was women, who said, “Don’t emphasize the historic nature of her gender and the fact that she’d be the first woman for two reasons. One, I think men are going to be repelled by that, and two, I don’t want them to see me as this totally feminized, as my affiliation for her as feminized.”
It’s very interesting. That is something to really pick apart. That is not as simple as when people have these conversations about, was it sexism or was is because she was a woman? We don’t even get to something like that where you really have to pick off the layers of ... these are women saying, “I don’t think you should do that strategically because men are not going to like it, and they’re going to see me differently.” That an investment in electing a woman president, a woman with whom you agree ideologically and politically or on policy issues, I don’t want to have feminine stink on me.
As you say, we’re several layers down, right?
At the top, we’re back to, “She’s running against Donald Trump.”
We’ll get to this eventually, but there’s still a discussion of what kind of candidate she was, etc. It’s not unnatural for the media to be almost entirely focused on Trump because we’ve never seen anything like this.
Certainly not a successful version of it.
Right. Well, my attitude about Trump was always that she didn’t win him in a lottery. It’s not an accident that the Republican candidate to run after two terms of Barack Obama ...
Is a pussy grabber.
Against Hillary Clinton is a man who ran a campaign rooted in part on open calls to racism, misogyny, xenophobia, right. Donald Trump is not some quirk of nature. People treat him that way still. They say, “Oh, she lost to Donald Trump. I mean like anybody could’ve beaten Donald Trump,” without acknowledging that America created Donald Trump because he is the specter of the reaction, not just to Hillary Clinton, but to Barack Obama. A lot of that stuff, Donald Trump was summoned to fight Hillary Clinton, and he did effectively because that’s a big part of what America wants.
Rebecca, I said we were going to go half and hour. We’re going to go way longer than that.
It’s okay. I’m all right.
We should stop right now for a brief word from our sponsor. We’ll be right back.
We’re back here with Rebecca Traister. We were deep into the history of the 2016 election. By the way, I think it’s relevant to be talking about this now. First of all, we should talk about it for a long time because it’s historic. Also, because I don’t think people have gotten their heads around what happened in the fall of last year.
This is a media podcast. We should talk a bit about how the media has covered that election, how they’re covering it now, how they’re covering Hillary Clinton now is still relevant. We were talking about how you got into the second piece you wrote for New York Magazine that came out recently, which you should read.
The second piece stemmed from these conversations I was having with people around the campaign. Let me tell you, personally at about 8:45 on November 8th at the Javits Center, I knew that I would need to write a post-election profile, hopefully with a lot of access to Hillary Clinton. Whether or not it wound up getting to be the first, I know that was my job here in 2016 would not be done until that piece or one like it was done. I knew that that’s something I wanted. This was not a case where on November 9th I called the campaign. On November 9th, I was scrambling to rewrite the piece that I wound up writing about the election. I was like many ...
People in horror for a long time. There are stretches of the fall that I don’t really remember clearly. It was not a case of being on the phone this time like every day through December and January. It was in the new year that I started to talk to people. We started to talk about how there hadn’t been coverage of gender and the role that it played, why there hadn’t been in-depth coverage of this. In those conversations, I said, “Obviously this is a piece that I want to write.” Now, I was a person in this case who was saying something that reporters don’t usually say, which is, “I don’t want to write it now.” I was saying that to the people who ...
You’re saying this to Team Hillary?
Yeah. Again, this is not like me on the phone with Jen Palmieri. I was not in fact on the phone with Jen Palmieri at any point, ever. This is me talking to some people, some of whom had come to me, some of whom I’d bumped into and who were saying to me, “I don’t understand why there hasn’t been this coverage.” I was agreeing, and we were talking about it. I was giving my perspective as somebody who has written about also even Hillary Clinton in loss before, that I thought that there are periods where these things are still so fresh when you want to go back and look at some of the dynamics involved, where it’s so fresh that you can’t see it clearly. My guess in, I don’t know, January or February was that it wouldn’t be until at least the spring.
You say to them, “Give me some time. Let me come to her in this frame.”
Yeah, although in this case, it’s not even that mercenary.
What I was saying is, “I’m going to write this piece, and I would obviously like to talk to her about it.”
It needs to marinate.
Not even marinate. I said, “I have a file open,” and this is true. I had a file open on my desk. That was true since November where I was putting my thoughts about gender. Again, this was not based on, oh, I’m going to get a long interview or lots of access to Hillary Clinton. It was, I am going to need to write a piece down the road, and I want to remember what I was thinking at these various junctures. I just kept a Word document open on my computer for all those months where I would put paragraphs or thoughts or references or links to stories or whatever. That was open, and I told people who I knew were vaguely in her orbit. Of course, there was no formal campaign structure at that point, so a lot of these people didn’t necessarily have any contact with her anymore but who I knew.
I said, “I am planning to write this piece. I will write this piece. I probably am not going to do it until the spring. I have to wait and see when the moment seems to be the right moment when people can begin to hear it.” I knew that from my experience in 2008. At the end of the primary when she finally dropped out after having stayed in through the entire primary, there was so much acrimony. We don’t even remember it. In some ways, it was so much more bitter than even the Hillary/Bernie stuff, although that has turned out to be much more long lasting. The Hillary/Obama stuff was acrimonious and so torn and so divided. At the time, I remember somebody said to me, “Are you going to write a book about her candidacy?” This was in the spring of 2008, and I said, “No, nobody’s ever going to want to hear the name Hillary Clinton again.”
She was so vilified. Anybody who’d supported her was pretty vilified. About six months later, when McCain had picked Palin and tempers had cooled, suddenly people were able to say, “Wait, we love Obama, and we’re excited he’s the nominee, but a lot of the intensity with which we hated Hillary seems weird now.” There was this perspective that then people were like, oh, maybe we can talk about this now. That’s when I decided to write a book, and by the time it was published in 2010, people were very weirdly suddenly very eager, again, to look backwards and say, “Oh, what we did there, that was fucked up, right? Not that we picked Obama. That’s terrific.”
That informs your idea that this has to sit.
I thought this time, six months, maybe we’ll be ready to talk about it. Then at some point I began making more formal requests. I guess March, I think March was when I said, “Okay, are we going to do this? I really want to be able to talk to her for this. I’m writing this piece. I’m going to write it.” Again, there were no specifics about timing. It was like, “I’m going to write it in the next couple months. Can we talk about me getting some access to her?” At some point, I got a, “Yes, she would like to talk to you for this piece.”
Did I imagine that you talked to her in her bathrobe at some point? Is she walking around ...
In her bathrobe?
No, I never talked to her in her bathrobe.
There is story ...
She is in repose. Her guard is down. She’s wearing less makeup.
Oh, well that was the very end of the process. Again, what I got, as she began to travel and give speeches. She emerged. She gave a couple speeches right after the election with no makeup and everything. It was tremendous, the Marian Wright Edelman award and everything. Then, she’d been a little bit underground.
The walking in the woods.
In the woods. Starting in March, she began to do some traveling to give bigger addresses. There was one at Georgetown, the Institute on Peace at Georgetown, Melanne Verveer’s institute. There was a Texas speech that she gave. There was a Girls Inc. speech in New York City, a Planned Parenthood, a Ms. Foundation. At first, it was that access, the backstage. There was no traveling press with her at that point.
It was getting to be with her at these events, which was again, tremendous access. That was over the period of, I think, it started in March, and it was through April and through May. Through all of this, I kept saying, “And then we’re going to need to do a real interview. We’re going to need to do a real interview, yes, yes, yes,” but that didn’t happen until 10 days before the piece ran.
You have that piece. It’s a great piece. Again, go read it. I gave it to Walt and Kara. I said, “You guys are going to interview Hillary in a couple weeks or days. You should read it.” They did. I’ve been dying to ask you about this ever since the interview because you are the most informed Hillary person I know. Walt and Kara and Hillary do this, I’m biased but I’m also correct, I think it’s a really good interview.
It was good.
At the beginning of the interview, Walt says, “We’re going to talk about a lot of stuff. I want you to tell me one thing you think you did wrong during the campaign.” I haven’t talked to Walt precisely about this, but I can’t imagine that she hadn’t heard that this was going to come up, that they hadn’t prepped for some reason. She refuses to acknowledge that she’s done anything wrong. Then because it’s the first question and she hasn’t really answered it, they have to go around a couple more time, two or three times. I can’t even remember how she gets out of it. It seems like the kind of thing that if you are a professional politician or even just someone who gets interviewed professionally, you would have some sort of response ready, either a real answer or a joke answer about cheese curds in Racine or something. Why do you think that she’s so insistent on not admitting fault?
Well, I think a couple things. First of all, some of these are just guesses and armchair psychology about a person who I’ve done a lot of writing ...
Informed guesses, yeah.
Yeah, I’ve really thought about her for 10 years. I think the first, most practical, and fact-based reason for this is she’s writing this book. I think that the fact that she’s given lengthy interviews to Kara and Walt, to me, I think she’s probably — this is a guess, I don’t know what’s in the book — is waiting to do some of that in the book and have that be the part of the break of the book, right. That’s one guess.
There’s some good stuff, but you’re not going to get it yet.
You’re not going to get this. The second guess is a pretty well-informed guess. What you just said is like, okay, you’re a professional politician. This is one of the first times in 25 years that Hillary Clinton has not had to be a professional politician. There is a viral video that went around before the election of 25 years of Hillary being asked the same question, which was, “Can you talk about the fact that you’re hated? Why do you think people hate you so much?” Do you remember that video?
No, but I can imagine it.
I don’t remember who produced it. It was going from Katie Couric on the Today Show. It was going from Arkansas. There was some footage from the ’80s in Arkansas of somebody being like, “The people of Arkansas are just wondering, what do you think is wrong with you?” When I wrote my piece, I actually went back and looked up the number of times that the question, not just oh, we obsess about Hillary, but the question of whether or not Hillary Clinton has apologized has been its own meta news story.
Not just did she apologize, but how did she apologize, right? The most recent was over the server, and there was a piece in the New York Times that was getting to sorry. It was a ticktock of how we got Hillary Clinton to apologize for the server.
By the way, that was her first response when asked was, “Well, I didn’t realize how unfairly I’d be treated over the server,” not “I screwed up with the server.” When asked, “What did you wrong?” It was, “I was treated badly.”
Right. Looking back, and I’m trying to remember now, when I got them counted, there were 10 individual instances. The big ones, server, Iraq war vote, which I’ve already mentioned in this interview that she didn’t apologize for the Iraq war vote, Tammy Wynette from when she said something bad about Tammy Wynette. When she ran for the Senate in 2000, on the trail, they were at a diner and one of her aides didn’t tip a waitress. There was a story about how it took two days for Hillary to apologize for that. There was a thing after health care in the ’90s failed when she said to her staff, “I’m really sorry that this didn’t work,” and there was a piece criticizing her for weakness for saying, “I’m sorry.” She should have apologized, and women should apologize.
This is not a defense. Just putting it in context, the degree to which Hillary Clinton’s willingness, her willingness to say, “I fucked up. I’m sorry,” and to self-flagellate has been an object of media fetishization for a quarter century. There’s some degree to which I am guessing: First of all, I don’t think she’s great at it. You’re right. She is acutely aware of the fact that this has been a fetish, and she’s also acutely aware of the fact that she has been ill treated by the press for decades, which is rooted in truth; whether or not you think she should be so defensive and aware of it is another question. I think this is a point where she’s like, “I don’t have to do this anymore.”
Right. That was Kara’s theory is like, “I don’t want to grovel. I’m not going to give you guys the satisfaction of watching me apologize.”
Right. That is my best guess. I think in her view, it has been 25 years of people saying, “Tell us again why you’re bad. Tell us again why you’re bad. Tell us why people didn’t like it. People just didn’t like you enough.” One of the most amazing descriptions of her, was it after the Recode interview? No, it was before because it was in my story. I hope I don’t get this wrong, I think it was David Gregory who, after she’d given the Christiane Amanpour interview where she had said, “Look, I take responsibility. I was the candidate.”
“Comey hurt me.”
“I’m not going to detail,” and then she said, “But I would’ve won except for the Comey hearing.” Then she also said, I think she said, “I’m saving it for my book.”
“I’m not going to slag my staff.”
“I’m not going to run through the individual, specific reasons why I was bad.”
“I will never say anything other than positive things about my campaign,” she told you.
That’s for me, yeah. After that — this was while I was reporting the story — there was just a heap of criticism that came her way.
“She doesn’t take responsibility.”
We were worried in the wake of that, that for the Code interview that she would clam up because she’d been so pounded after that interview.
Well, she did. We can talk about this. I think that she did clam up a little bit because it was so brutal. One of the best locutions, and I don’t know if I’ll cite it exactly correctly, but I think it was David Gregory whose criticism of her was, “She hasn’t taken responsibility for the fact that she was not what America wanted.” Right. I think there’s a point where you haven’t ... Again, I don’t mean to defend here. It is frustrating. There is this thing where it’s like, could you just say it?
Just deflate the balloon.
It’s prophylactic. Why don’t you just ...
That’s all I’m saying. You don’t have to do a full flagellation.
Just make a joke just so ... because they can move.
This is what I was getting to is that the rest of her presentation was very well thought through. She was speaking candidly, but also, she thought a lot about it. She clearly wanted to focus on Russia, very detailed. By not letting them move on from that first question, she detracted from the rest of that interview, I think, and left it started off.
I think it would be smarter for her ...
We all here agree in this room.
To do a little like, here’s this, this, this. I also think that it is very hard for any of us to conceive of what it might feel like to have truly been asked for 25 years over and over again and in a million instances, “Tell us everything bad about yourself.” Especially if you believe, and she truly does, and this is really important, she’s not alone in this, right. She does believe that she would’ve won if it weren’t for the Comey letter. She does believe that we’ve experienced an attack, an aggressive attack by Russians on our democracy. She does think she won the popular vote by three million. I think again, just trying to imagine those circumstances, which must feel like if you’re the candidate and these are the circumstances you’re looking at and then what everybody wants to know from you is, “Tell me again, list your failures and please be specific.” I think she’s just at this point where she’s like, “I don’t have to do this anymore.”
Do you think the next significant female candidate for president will be treated significantly differently than her?
Is that because she was the first or it’s because she’s Hillary Clinton and there’s baggage that’s specific to her?
She’s Hillary Clinton because she’s the first. There’s no way to separate. One of the things that everybody always like to say is, “It’s not about because she’s a woman, it’s because she’s that woman.” She’s that woman, and she has the baggage that she has. This includes how she behaved during her husband’s administration, the various ways that she was attacked during it and the ways she responded, how she behaved in the Senate. She is an incredible figure, historically speaking. Her life bridges this massive shift in possibility for women and especially white, middle-class women. So much of her life from her marriage, her career, she was often anomalous and the first woman or the second woman in very male worlds.
You cannot live that life, and for Hillary Clinton it was extremely high powered, right. It’s the Legal Services Corporation. It’s law firms. It’s the University of Arkansas. It’s in the Senate. It’s as a First Lady, the first First Lady who had a career outside of her husband’s. All that, you can’t live that life and not be shaped by it. Her baggage, and again it doesn’t excuse it, is shaped by her firstness. She’s done a lot of the work of having been the first woman president without ever having been president.
When the next person steps up ...
Which I assume will be in 2020.
Do you think that the press will actively think through, “All right, we got this part wrong. We did this part wrong in the way we covered or didn’t cover gender”? Or do you think a lot of what they did is baked into who they are and how they write about and cover things?
It’s yes and no, because the press behaved very differently in 2016 toward Hillary than they did in 2008. In 2008, if you go back and look at the clips, your jaw will hang open. It was people just easily talking about how ... Well, not even the press, John Edwards making a job about her jacket in a debate and then complimenting her on her husband’s policies. I look at that now, and I’m like, did that happen? It was NPR producers comparing her to Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction.”
They’ve shaped up.
They were terrible in a way.
Also, Trump did all that for them this time around.
In 2016, it was an entirely different thing. They got cleaned up a lot of that very obvious witch, bitch, ex-wife, carping stuff. It was more subtle. There wasn’t an eagerness to address the fact that she was different from other candidates. There wasn’t an eagerness to actually dive into the historical obstacles that she was up against. There was a willingness to accept a lot of narratives about her that weren’t necessarily false but that were a lot more complicated than the ones that were presented. It was a very different kind of bias. It was there. There was also the impulse — and this is a real debate to be had — to treat Clinton and Trump as given equal challenge, equal criticism. That’s the sign of journalistic fairness and objectivity is we’re being equally hard on them.
Well, that’s a weird proposition when you’re talking about Donald Trump, who is a political novice and who is Donald Trump, versus Hillary Clinton, who’s been under a press spotlight, which doesn’t mean give her a free ride. It does mean do they actually merit the same level of investigation and doubt when it comes to how we evaluate them as presidential candidates? There are those kinds of questions. Now, the next woman who runs, first of all, I hope there will be more than one the next round. I hope we see a primary where we have multiple women running against each other, presumably on both sides. Well, I guess we won’t barring some craziness, there’ll be just Trump.
That’d be very crazy, yeah.
Well, somebody could primary him, and that wouldn’t be stupid, but we’ll see. I hope on the Democratic side we see multiple women. That’s also what I wanted this time because I think the burden of being only, of being singular, is part of what gets us to a lot of these challenges. If we normalize the idea that women can run for president just like men, including against each other on the same side and with similar politics, which is what happens in primaries, that it’s going to ease some of this. We’ve never had a woman president. It’s crazy we don’t think about this every day. We’ve never had a black woman governor. There are things I just want everybody to wake up every morning. Until Kamala Harris, only one black woman in the history of the United States had ever served in the Senate, and now two. These are things that we can’t just say, “Oh, it’s going to go away.”
I wanted to ask you about something, and sorry to interrupt, but it’s something I wanted to ask you about the work you do in general. When you point out that we’ve only had one black woman senator prior to Kamala Harris, I know people — and a lot of them are well meaning — who say, “Why do you have to focus on race and gender? Why do you have to make that a thing? Why can’t I just like that person or not like that person?” I would assume that you probably get some of those questions about your work.
Why are you focusing specifically on gender? Why not just write about media or politics? What’s your response when you get that question?
Well, there’s no way to write about American politics without writing about race and gender.
Well, it’s one thing to say it’s in there. It’s another thing to say I’m going to focus on it, and I’m going to focus this piece or I’m going to focus my life’s work on it.
The practical response, speaking personally, is that has been my interest, is the way that gender dynamics — and then you can’t do gender dynamics without talking about race dynamics, economic inequality — has shaped American culture, society, politics. The history of the United States is a history of gender and racial inequality, right. To me, it is impossible to say, “Can we just leave these things out?” The country’s built on them.
There’s two versions of that, right? One version of that question is a well meaning, come on.
Aren’t we past that or aren’t things better? There’s another version, which is cynical, right, which is, “Barack Obama made race relations worse.” The people who are saying that, at least at the Fox News level, don’t actually believe it.
They just know it’s red meat. I do think there’s a big swath of the population that isn’t craven, that believes some version of that. When they hear that you focus on gender, they’re not going to talk you. You get what I’m getting at, right?
I assume that even among the readers of New York magazine, there might be people saying, “Well, why make this the focus?”
Right, and I don’t assume that that response is craven or malevolent or in any way ill-intentioned. I do think that this is one of the reasons I do the job I do is because I think the far easier and thus more commonly shared experience of living in the United States and thinking about its politics and its culture and its pop culture is to not do that. Whether it’s something that you’re so obviously saying, like “I don’t see race, or I don’t see gender. I just evaluate the person.” Right, that’s a kind of happy way of dealing with it. Whether you’re not even going that far, you’re just saying, “Look, why do we have to look at the world that way?” I understand that, and I understand that it does not always come from an ill-intentioned place. Occasionally it does.
The whole reason I do the job I do is because I am dissatisfied with that view of the United States. I think it’s actually incorrect. I think there’s no way to look at the country and its power structures and its politics without everything about our every day, the jobs, the education, early childhood education, paid leave, minimum wage, our health insurance, our infrastructure. Everything that we live in this country every day is shaped by policy that is influenced by racial and gendered inequality and that has been made historically, nearly exclusively by white men, who are a minority population in this country. There is no way that we can say, “Look, why do we have to talk about this? Why do we have to worry about the representation?”
That is not to say I have never ever made an argument that says, “You should just vote for or support the black woman over the white man regardless of the policies they support.” That’s a straw man argument that is often made in response to people worrying about identity and in political representation. Look, as I said in 2008, as somebody who was already professionally invested in these things, I supported the white guy over both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton because I thought his policies better addressed the inequities that I’m very interested in addressing. To just talk about it doesn’t mean that I am suggesting that the only approach to rectify this is to always support the person who’s not the white guy.
I could very easily support a white guy over any number of women and people of color in 2020. I can see that happening, but I do not think there is a way to have an honest political conversation about this country or how we live, the neighborhoods we live in, the schools we send our kids to, without saying, “We have to think about how gender and racial inequality shaped our everyday lives in this country.”
You’re going to keep on this beat.
No, I was thinking of writing about maybe traffic.
Is there a book coming?
Yeah, there is actually.
I’m assuming it’s a Hillary book.
No, you’ve moved on.
She’ll be in it.
She’ll be in it. Oh, we talked about this off air. You want to briefly tease what the book is about?
Yeah. It’s weird coming off that last rant.
Yeah, it was great. It was good. It’s a good segue.
I’m writing about women and anger and politics.
I love it. I love it. I love it.
It’s weird. I don’t know why. I’m writing a book about women and anger but specifically in terms of politics. It’s not going to be all about 2016. It will certainly have reference to it.
It’s out when?
Oh, don’t ask me that. I’m writing it right now.
I know. I just want to give you anxiety. When it’s out, will you come back and talk to us?
I’ve been wanting to talk you, as you know, for a long time. I’m glad we made it happen.
Thanks so much for having me.
Thanks for coming.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.