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Voices in Her Head

Inside Hillaryland’s fatal psychodrama

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

By the time Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle finally packed up her lovely corner office with its fresh blue carpet and mini-fridge full of Diet Coke, her exit must have come as a relief--even to many of her friends on Team Hillary. Since Iowa, colleagues had been conducting an uneasy deathwatch for her. New faces had begun popping up around Ballston (as Hillary HQ is called in honor of its suburban Virginia neighborhood), most notably Maggie Williams, Hillary’s chief of staff from her First Lady days. Initially, the campaign insisted that Williams was there merely to back up Solis Doyle, but, almost immediately, staffers began turning to Williams to solve problems and approve projects. When the inevitable strain of having two people atop the organizational chart became untenable, few questioned who would be the last woman standing. On February 10, the Sunday after Super Tuesday, Solis Doyle was officially out.

Leadership change brings disruption. And no one knows how to exploit disruption better than Mark Penn, the message master of Team Hillary. Long disdainful of Solis Doyle, Penn saw her departure as an opportunity to consolidate his authority, say insiders. He started hanging out in her old office, which had been transformed into a conference room, and taking over meetings and in-house e-mail chains she once handled (occasionally bumping up against similar efforts by Williams). At the same time, Penn’s colleagues from Burson-Marsteller, the p.r. giant of which he is chief executive, became more visible around HQ. “I think, post-Patti, he only got stronger,” says one in-house observer. Williams may have been the new chief, but Penn had his own ideas about how things should run.

Then came the news that Penn had attended a March 31 meeting with the Colombian ambassador to discuss his firm’s role in promoting a free-trade agreement specifically opposed by Clinton. In addition to undermining Hillary’s outreach to working-class Democrats, Penn’s corporate moonlighting laid bare long-festering concerns about his split loyalties and perceived conflicts of interest. On April 6, less than two months after Solis Doyle’s departure, Penn was relieved of his post as campaign architect. Once again, Team Hillary found itself trying to regain its equilibrium following an inner-circle loss.

Or perhaps not. Though Penn stepped down as chief strategist, he is still advising the operation. And, title or no, Penn is not a man who functions well as a team player. His sharp elbows, turf invasions, and control-freak tendencies are legendary and unlikely to be held in check, say current and former colleagues. Can his replacements--pollster Geoff Garin, who joined Team Hillary in March, and communications director Howard Wolfson--effectively defend their new turf with Penn still lurking? Don’t bet on it.

Rife with big egos and competing centers of influence--veterans of Hillary’s First Lady days, relative newbies from her Senate office, Bill’s ‘92 people, Bill’s ‘96 people--Team Hillary has never been a comfortably cohesive group. In happier times, discipline was easier to maintain. But, as this race has grown longer and rougher, the staff’s nerves and relations have been badly strained by persistent financial troubles and constant turf wars, not to mention one increasingly unmanageable ex-president. Some days, it’s hard to remember that, just six months ago, the campaign was regarded as a highly disciplined machine. More and more, it resembles an unruly rock band plagued by dysfunction and public infighting. From Williams’s arrival to Solis Doyle’s demise to Penn’s ascent, fall, and return, the ebb and flow of power in Hillaryland over the past few months has left multiple people acting like they are in charge--and no one really in control.

The clash was classic Mark Penn. In the run-up to Hillary’s February 25 foreign policy speech at George Washington University, her top strategist felt that the campaign’s speechwriters, overseen by policy chief Neera Tanden, were headed in the wrong direction. Rather than sitting down to talk with them, Penn- -renowned for his lack of interpersonal skills--struck out on his own, setting up a parallel speechwriting effort using outside scribes. Unfortunately for him, Tanden’s shop learned of his end-run and was royally brassed off. Fingers were pointed and accusations hurled, prompting Maggie Williams to hold an emergency conference call on the Sunday night before the Monday speech. Among those assembled to confer with Penn, reports one witness, were Tanden, her speechwriting team, and foreign policy gurus Andrew Shapiro and Lee Feinstein. But, when asked by Tanden and Williams to explain his problem with the address, all Penn initially could do was repeat over and over, “This speech doesn’t begin to meet the minimum standards of being acceptable.” And, “If she delivers this speech, she will lose.” Williams had to keep soothing Penn, prodding him to be specific about his objections, recalls the witness. Eventually, everyone had their say, and Tanden’s people were sent off to work out the final details. A full-blown meltdown was averted. But Penn’s relations with the rest of the campaign had suffered yet another blow.

It is no secret that Penn’s colleagues, including most of the campaign’s top advisers, have been rooting hard for his downfall for some time. Politically controversial and personally abrasive (he has a history of hurling cell phones, pagers, and Chinese takeout), Penn won few friends in the wake of Solis Doyle’s departure. While many had been frustrated with Solis Doyle’s leadership, there was also a sense that, if the campaign manager needed to go, so did the man behind the message. (Solis Doyle herself warned the candidate of this on her way out.) But, instead of lying low or reaching out to colleagues, Penn crashed ahead, publicly blaming the campaign’s deficiencies on others, including Solis Doyle; her recently departed deputy, Mike Henry; and adviser Harold Ickes, a Penn nemesis dating back to the Clinton White House. For all his p.r. savvy, Penn has always been a disaster at managing his own image. (A former colleague chuckles about an episode from some years back when “60 Minutes” wanted to report on Penn’s polling operation. Just as journalist Steve Kroft was scheduled to arrive, Penn freaked out and hid in someone else’s office, forcing his staff to lie and claim that he had forgotten about the interview.) So it was perhaps predictable that Penn set about digging the hole deeper--most toxically with his insistence to the Los Angeles Times that he had “no direct authority in the campaign” and was merely “an outside message adviser with no campaign staff reporting to me.” Such blatant buck-passing earned Penn only greater enmity from colleagues, ridicule from the chattering class, and outrage from donors, who started calling Ballston to ask why someone with so little authority was being paid so much. (News reports place the amount paid or owed to Penn’s consulting firm in the millions.)

Considering that even Penn’s strategic savvy has fallen into question of late, one might have assumed the Clintons would see his sit-down with the Colombian ambassador as the perfect excuse to ease him onto the sidelines. But, at this point, completely weaning themselves from Penn may not be an option for Hillary and Bill. For starters, Penn is a known and trusted quantity to a candidate for whom loyalty is a primary concern, and his work in the Clinton White House won him the respect and gratitude of a president said to be unimpressed with some of his wife’s counselors. More practically, both pro- and anti-Penn observers suggest that a forced withdrawal by the strategist and his people (two of whom, Josh Gottheimer and Jano Cabrera, have already been shipped back to Burson) could leave a vacuum. “Who else over there is qualified to be chief strategist?” one of Penn’s defenders demanded, just days before the adviser’s fortunes went south.

Indeed, while there is no shortage of brainpower on Team Hillary, Penn has fought to enmesh himself as deeply as possible in the campaign. Tanden’s speechwriting team is hardly the first group to face his meddling. Early on, Penn (unsuccessfully) lobbied for Burson to handle everything from designing the website to creating a new campaign logo. His ongoing battles with Mandy Grunwald over advertising and Howard Wolfson over communications are legendary, and even those operating outside his wheelhouse, such as Web guru Peter Daou, have had to fend off encroachments. Any efforts to shrink Penn’s own portfolio, meanwhile, have been met with fierce resistance. Take, for instance, the Direct Mail Melodrama: For Hillary’s 2006 Senate race, Michael Berland of Penn, Schoen & Berland (PSB, the polling firm he co-founded in 1975, now a subsidiary of Burson-Marsteller) oversaw all direct mail. But Berland and Penn parted ways in December 2006, with Penn subsequently suing his ex-partner for allegedly violating a non-compete agreement. (The suit was settled last July.) With Berland out of the picture this time around, the campaign found PSB’s early direct-mail efforts in Iowa unsatisfactory, so HQ moved to bring in direct-mail veteran Hal Malchow. But Penn balked, bad-mouthing the competition and threatening to quit the campaign if direct mail was taken from his control. Finally, when it looked as though he might lose the fight, Penn moved to bring Berland back into the fold. Under those conditions, the campaign relented: Malchow was allowed to continue the Iowa mailings--under Penn’s oversight as chief strategist, of course--but, afterward, direct mail was returned to PSB. One insider describes the cajoling required to resolve the matter as “very painful.” But, at the end of the day, Penn held tight to the campaign’s direct-mail business--making it that much harder for the Clintons to dislodge him now.

And Penn hanging around in an ambiguous role can mean only one thing: no let-up in the internecine intrigue. Relations between Penn and Wolfson can most politely be characterized as fraught, while Garin, who has never worked closely with either Clinton, is a newcomer to the inner circle. For all his interpersonal deficiencies, Penn is said to be a master at organizational politics. “Penn is very good at holding onto power and staying in the inner circle,” explains one strategist who has worked with him. Observers say Penn is a shrewd “courtier” who “manages the client” with considerable care. As former mentor Dick Morris puts it, “Penn is obsequious to those above him, competitive with his peers, and tyrannical to anybody below him.” During his days in the Clinton White House, Penn prepared a weekly strategy memo to be distributed to the president and senior staff at the Wednesday political meetings. But Penn always made sure the president’s copy had an extra two or three pages attached, addressing some private questions Clinton had posed and outlining what Penn saw as the most pressing issues. According to a close colleague from that time, the extra material was always along the lines of “I understand these are the sort of issues people are talking about but, for whatever reason, you need to know this, this, this--and this is really the right way to go.”

What’s more, being The Man With The Data gives Penn a formidable edge in any debate over strategy. It is almost impossible to argue Penn down, say colleagues, because he brandishes his polling data like a weapon. And so, his fellow advisers explain, in the eternal debate over whether to keep the message focused on Hillary’s strength and readiness or to try and humanize her, Penn would simply whip out data showing that “readiness” was the way to go. When anyone argued against going negative on Obama, Penn would point to more numbers.

In his quest to maximize his influence with the principal, colleagues say Penn is constantly on alert for signs that an adversary (meaning anyone else advising the candidate) is ripe for knee-capping. “Mark is a huge political animal,” recalls a former PSB employee (and semi-defender). “When he senses the fact that somebody’s out of favor with the candidate and the candidate is not really listening to their advice, Mark will step in and try to fully take over that piece of the campaign.” For instance, in February 2007, when the campaign was criticized for its aggressive response to Clinton-cum-Obama backer David Geffen’s unflattering remarks about Hillary, communications director Howard Wolfson bore the brunt of the blame internally. It was a situation Penn actively encouraged, say insiders, despite his having played an equally aggressive role in the response--or perhaps because of it.

A troublesome chief strategist might be expected to cast the longest shadow across an ordinary campaign. But, for Team Hillary, there is always Bill. Campaign insiders acknowledge that the former president has never been wholly manageable--despite the best efforts of some longtime Hillarylanders (who see this as their turn to shine, dammit!). As one adviser observes, “You can question him, but you can’t ever tell him what to do.” Most notable, of course, are the public outbursts. Team Hillary members, for instance, are quick to stress that Bill was completely off the reservation with his toxic remarks in South Carolina. More recently, the former president horrified a private meeting of California superdelegates by reportedly going on a red-faced, wide-ranging rant after a Hillary supporter voiced her distress that James Carville had compared Governor Bill Richardson to Judas for endorsing Obama. And the president’s repeated attempts to defend Hillary’s misstatements regarding her 1996 trip to Bosnia have been so bumbling that even he has publicly admitted his wife gave him a talking-to about keeping his yap shut on the matter.

But public pronouncements are only a fragment of the picture. As Hillary’s campaign struggles, an obviously frustrated Bill and “his people” have taken a greater hand in operations. Immediately post-Iowa, veteran Clintonites like Steve Richetti, Doug Sosnik, and Roy Spence became major players. The president himself announced that he needed an office and would be coming in every day to make phone calls and get “involved.” He settled into the space originally shared by Penn and Grunwald (Penn has since taken over “the old kitchen,” which is where much of his staff set up camp) and began attending meetings, sitting in on calls, and just generally hanging around. As one insider notes, “Obviously, it’s very noticeable when he is there, because there is Secret Service everywhere.” Many around Ballston saw the situation as disruptive and unsustainable, and there was a collective sigh of relief when, after a short while, Bill’s heavy campaigning schedule took him back out on the road.

In the meantime, out went Solis Doyle--never highly regarded by Bill’s crew--and in came Williams, who, though a loyal Hillarylander, also has a close and mutually respectful relationship with the former president. Bill’s influence waxed further, say insiders, as Williams brought in her team, which included a number of folks considered as much “his people” as Hillary’s. Former Clinton Deputy White House Counsel Cheryl Mills, the campaign’s general counsel, became heavily involved in setting up meetings, organizing staff, and generally “playing more of a chief-of-staff role for Maggie,” say insiders. Craig T. Smith, a Clinton White House political director (whose history with Bill goes back to Clinton’s gubernatorial days) was brought on to advise on political matters, and Howard Paster, a veteran Bill adviser (and key liaison with Congress and organized labor), moved from informal counseling to overseeing operations and budgets. More casually, old White House communications hands like Jim Kennedy, spinmeister during the impeachment saga, and Don Baer, a former speechwriter and communications director now working with Penn at Burson, were seen buzzing about HQ. For her part, Williams raised a few eyebrows when she set up shop on the largely unpopulated third floor of Ballston (common rooms, staff offices, and the War Room are all up on four) alongside Tina Flournoy, assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers and deputy campaign manager for Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection, as well as Laura Graham, Bill’s chief of staff. None of which may mean much by itself, but all of which has fed the perception that Bill remains ascendant. In the eyes of some insiders, he and “his people” have achieved at least a partial “takeover.”

A campaign’s “layering” on of reinforcements, as Team Hillary calls its staff adjustments, has both obvious advantages and significant drawbacks--starting with the fact that some of these folks distrust, disdain, or even flat-out despise each other. Howard Paster is said to be resented by some of Bill’s people, not to mention some of the staffers he has been “layered over.” (Bizarrely, after originally tapping him as incoming COO in charge of, among other things, budgets and consultant contracts, the campaign is now downplaying Paster’s arrival and insisting that he will only be generically helping out.) Some of the more devout Hillarylanders regard Bill’s people with contempt, and vice versa. Williams is viewed with unease by many remaining Solis Doyle loyalists. Some younger campaign hands simply don’t know what to make of old- guard Hillarylanders, like Melanne Verveer and Evelyn Lieberman, who drift through now and again. And, of course, everyone hates Penn. In recent weeks, with Williams busy folding fresh recruits into the team and re-prioritizing operations, with Penn orchestrating his power grab and then enduring his own mini-scandal, and with Bill making public waves as well as welcoming more of his people into the heart of the battle, it’s a wonder Hillary could keep a grip on her message at all. Echoing multiple colleagues, one campaign adviser ruefully acknowledges that the candidate’s successes have come “despite Ballston, not because of it.”

At the same time, lower down the food chain, the campaign continues to suffer regular defections, as exhausted, dispirited staffers take their leave. In addition to high-profile resignations by deputy campaign manager Mike Henry and director of operations Jessica O’Connell, lesser-known hands have been trickling out as well. Recent departures included Carolyn Hahn, director of correspondence; Sasha Bruce, Jason Houser, and Alea Brown from Guy Cecil’s political shop; Crystal Patterson and Kevin Thurman from the Web team; and Hailey Arends, Matt McQueeney, and Lauren Fitterman from Compliance and Accounting. As they head out the door, refugees say they’re fielding numerous calls from other folks thinking of following them. People complain that the chains of command are too fuzzy, with incoming advisers not so much rejuvenating certain operations as setting up parallel systems or further complicating old ones with new (at times conflicting) layers of bureaucracy. One particular pocket of frustration is said to be the finance department, which has been feeling neglected of late. Staffers there have vented to friends about not being able to get a meeting with Williams and about her failure to check in for updates and projections--hardly a promising situation for a campaign with money troubles. More broadly, multiple insiders say Williams is often nowhere to be seen around the office, and the campaign manager’s habit of taking off Fridays to travel back to Rhode Island (where she lives) and New York (where her consulting firm does much of its business) rubs many the wrong way. The hope now is that Paster’s late-March promotion will improve the situation and stem further losses. Although, notes one adviser, at this point it seems a dubious p.r. move to have budget matters handled by Paster, who is executive vice president of WPP Group, parent company of both Burson and Dewey Square, one of the campaign’s major vendors.

And so the jockeying and layering and squabbling grinds on, even as Hillary’s chances of capturing the nomination grow ever more remote. From the outside, the struggle for control of a campaign that likely won’t be around much longer may appear absurd. In Ballston, however, the sense of looming loss seems only to feed the fury, as advisers grab for what may be their last chance to right the ship. Whether driven on by dedication, desperation, or delusion, some of Hillary’s not-so-happy warriors find themselves unable to give up the fight--not just against Barack Obama, but also against each other.