Amy Chozick has been reporting on Hillary Clinton for more than a decade as a reporter at the New York Times. The two presidential campaigns she covered were so intense that she considered freezing her eggs to preserve her fertility until after the 2016 election was over. In the aftermath of the groundbreaking election, Chozick wrote a book about her experiences following Hillary through her greatest victories and toughest losses. Now an author and a new mom, she spoke with Cosmopolitan.com about the most stunning moments she witnessed on the campaign trail.
You kind of stumbled onto the Hillary beat on the first campaign. What was the first thing you learned covering her 2008 campaign?
I came [to the 2008 presidential campaign] from being a foreign correspondent in Tokyo, and coming to Iowa to cover the caucuses was like an almost equally foreign experience to me. I definitely had impressions of Hillary and I found her to be this really inspiring figure. But I didn't know anything about the process or how her press apparatus would work. When I got to Iowa, everything was new. [I noticed that] everyone's hooking up on these campaigns! You know? And people were like, yeah, that's what you do in a campaign. So I wrote about it.
Yeah, you write about the secret hookups where the secret service guys just sneak into reporters hotel rooms - that was nuts!
It was funny. When you look at the men to choose from, you're like, all these reporters with bad posture who are as sleep-deprived as I am? And you can't hook up with someone on the staff because that would be really bad. It made perfect sense that the Secret Service guys would sneak into reporters’ hotel rooms.
There's so much to write about when you're with her campaign all the time. How did you decide what to cover?
It was hard. With Hillary in particular, because she was so famous, finding new stories, telling people things they didn't know about her was something I really tried to do, [during both the 2008 and 2016 elections]. I spent a lot of time in Arkansas. I wrote about how long I spent courting the woman who drove her to Arkansas to marry Bill Clinton. I just try to find the fresh perspective, like, 'What can we tell voters about this woman who everyone thinks that they know?'. And on the other hand, you're competing with all these other journalists. There's a mentality, like you don't want to get scooped on Hillary choosing John Podesta to be her campaign chair.
What was a story you did that you thought really showed a new side of her?
One of my favorite stories ran during the primaries around Christmas . It was about when Hillary went undercover in Alabama in 1974 to investigate segregation. There was a private academy where she went undercover and pretended to be a mother enrolling her son and she went through this whole like, kind of role-playing thing with the administrators and then said, 'Is this going to be a segregated school? Can you promise me?' and they did. Obviously that was illegal after the Supreme Court decision, so she was working for Marianne Wright Edelman and went back to file paperwork on this school. It didn't end up closing or losing its tax exempt status, but to me that so quintessentially Hillary. It was really brave in those days to do that. But that's so Hillary. She identified a problem, she went to investigate and then she tried to change the law. I think that that's sort of how her activism has always shown itself.
On her 2008 campaign, you write that Hillary seemed much more comfortable with reporters than she was 8 years later. What's your favorite "showing her real self" story from the '08 campaign?
She came back on Valentine's Day and felt really bad about keeping us away from our significant others so she called a bunch of our boyfriends, girlfriends, fiances, to say sorry. It was a very genuine thing to do. I also remember she was like taking shots at the inn or something and everyone's like, 'Oh, she's just pandering!' and I was like, 'No, she really knocked those shots back!' She was having fun and liked to drink and would. She definitely would come back on the plane with like, a very tall glass of very bad wine. It was like, you know, on more than one occasion. So, that was fun.
And then I think about when she cried in the diner in New Hampshire. Women get exhausted and beat down and you just want to cry. It became such a big moment but I remember sitting a few feet from her in the diner and my editor was like, 'Is she faking? Can you tell?' I'm like, 'No, she's not faking, she just came in third place in Iowa when she thought she was gonna win!' You know, she was exhausted! There were so many stories like that from 2008.
Something that struck me in your book was how seemingly sexist Hillary's press team, who were mostly men, were towards you and other female reporters during the 2016 campaign. Was that surprising to you?
I think they tortured men too, but there did feel like there was this bullying, you've got a target on your back, sort of gendered thing happening with the press team. There were a lot of times when Hillary was picking up a lot of awards from women's groups and going all over New York and California giving speeches. She would give advice to young women and I would find myself applying that advice to dealing with her own press apparatus. Some of her lines of wisdom about like women being tough and picking yourself up and I'm like, 'Wait, I'm applying, this to your own press team!'
One of the things that's interesting about Hillary is she does like to have men around protecting her. And that comes from all the storms that she's been through. She really values that kind of loyalty. I call it "Hillary's Court of Flattering Men": these kind of witty guys who can be very tough at times.
One thing you talk about is how she was flirty with men, which, probably most of America doesn't think of her that way.
She’s flirty. I mean, it's so funny. These lesbian conspiracies couldn't be more wrong! She does have girl friends, it's not like she doesn't like women or isn't around women, but at the State Department she really gravitated towards a lot of the generals and really got along with a lot of these men. On the campaign, she had a good rapport with a lot of the male reporters. I read about how she was very flirty with David Muir at ABC. She's always talking about how she married a man more attractive than she is. I don't really agree with that, but it was something she said often. She was very proud of that. She likes men hanging around I guess. Who doesn't?
It's true. But another interesting side of her you wrote about is what you call "Saint Hillary," that religious side of her. Can you explain that?
I think a lot of people would be surprised by how religious she is. You strip away all the politics, all the public perception, she really is in her heart a Methodist and rooted in the social gospel. I think when you become a politician, if you talk about religion too much you're pandering or something. And it was so personal to her, that she didn't really even talk about it that much. We went to church with her almost every Sunday.
In 1993, she was going through moving to the White House and the Whitewater investigation and health care was a mess and it was like this really brutal adjustment for her, and also her father was dying in a hospital in Little Rock. But she committed to giving this speech in Austin that she couldn't get out of. And she gave this speech that was very new age-y, it weaves in religion, it talks about people being driven to find meaning in their lives as a community. It's definitely not what you would expect from a First Lady, but it's fascinating and I think really genuine and I think a glimpse into what she really believes. So flash forward a few months later, the Times magazine does a big story, they put her on the front cover in a white suit and it says, "Saint Hillary" and it's a pretty mocking profile of her. It makes her seem really sanctimonious. And it was just like, ridiculed all over the place.
She was very scarred from that experience. She didn't wear white for years in photoshoots. And she really stopped talking that way. She hid that part of herself, and in 2016 you finally you saw like a little peek of it when she would talk about how the country needs more love and kindness. She came up with that and it was sort of like her little glimpse of Saint Hillary.
On the topic of her faith, you and Maggie Haberman recently broke a story about allegations that Hillary's 2008 faith adviser, Burns Strider, had sexually harassed a young woman, and that Hillary protected him. Why did that only come out now?
This is something we investigated during the campaign and so I knew about it, but I think in order to get it to the level of sourcing necessary to put it in the New York Times, it took a while. And I also think that, with Harvey Weinstein, and the subsequent #MeToo movement, in which every industry had people coming forward, I think it made people who are very protective of Hillary very reluctant to talk. After more people started talking, we had a chance to circle back and say, 'Hey, he's still working in Democratic politics and people should know this,' and sources were more convinced that they should talk to us. It just took a lot of chipping away. It's not like we were sitting on it, we just couldn't nail it down.
By 2016, Hillary had a mostly female press corps, and you write that she told aides that she knew women reporters would be harder on her, which I found really interesting. Looking back, do you think that was the case?
I don't think so. We had an obligation to cover [Hillary] the way we would any other candidate.
You also grappled a lot with thinking she hated you during the campaign. Why does that bother you so much?
It's complicated. On one hand, the people we cover aren't supposed to write us and send us flowers. It's supposed to be, at times, combative. But that said, I spent all my time [awake] - and asleep - dreaming about this woman! I gave up all this, my whole life to cover her and see her become president. So it did weigh on me that she hated me. But I don't think I could have done my job for the Times and somehow have her love me. But still, you know? It kind of beats you down. I mean, at times I don't blame her, I would've hated me too after some of those stories.
I definitely had mixed feelings about how aggressively everyone covered those emails. And certainly, I write about stories I could've done a better job at. Like getting followed to the bathroom at CGI, I probably could've skipped that story. And that story made Hillary really hate me. It was like a blog post. I think people don't realize in retrospect there's a lot of, 'You didn't cover Hillary's policies!' but I wrote about every one of her major policy plans, it's just those stories didn't get much attention. So I say most stories were neutral. There were the few ones that were negative and then there were a lot of positive ones.
Another source of hostility was from Bernie Bros online. I was surprised by the volume of harassment and threats you got.
Now that we're in the Trump era people forget how toxic that primary was. But there was certainly a huge volume of online bullying. This is the irony right? Hillary's press guys are mad at me, I think she hates me, at the same time the Bernie Bros are beating me up because they think that I'm trying to get Hillary elected, you know? It's like, both sides are pissed off. But yeah, the Bros were like a nonstop drumbeat throughout the campaign. They either thought we were ignoring Bernie or we were colluding with the DNC or we were giving Hillary too much positive coverage.
I never felt physically threatened. It was just more like psychologically, every time you look at Twitter it's like getting punched in the face repeatedly. Certainly you had to be careful at the convention or when you're at protests or things like that.
From Bernie Bros to Trump, the 2016 election was largely characterized by misogyny. How did you see that sexism evolve over the course of your three years covering it?
I don't think I anticipated how difficult it would be, how much misogyny we would see. And I don't think a lot of people on her campaign team did either. They thought, 'We elected Obama, we've broken the racial barrier' and I think the Bros sort of started that. And then it was just such a remarkable turn of events. The first woman nominee is running against the first Republican nominee to be caught on tape bragging about sexual assault. The contrast between the candidates could not have been more different. Before the election, I always said I don't really think about my gender or Hillary's. I'm a reporter and she's a candidate. But you could not get through 2016 without constantly being reminded, both of her gender and the women who cover her. We all got bullied by the Bros.
You write that the whole female press corps was emotional right after Hillary lost, not to see her lose but because a woman had come so close and not succeeded.
Yeah, I think [Hillary’s] loss just sort of highlighted things in your own life and your own career. Whether you're in your office and the unprepared, bombastic guy got the raise when you were more prepared. I think a lot of women saw the dynamic that happened on election night in their own life in some small way.
I went home to Texas for a couple weeks after the election and I had a lot of emotions about, did I become the elite media and miss how other parts of the country were feeling? I had so many mixed emotions, and so [writing a book] in a way was kind of great in that it was cathartic and therapeutic, and I fought through a lot of those feelings on the page.
Do you have any regrets about your coverage of her, looking back?
There's just frustration, because her friends would say, 'If only people saw the real Hillary, the warm, witty, fun, Hillary.' If she didn't show that to the press, how could we communicate that to voters? That was a constant frustration of, 'Well I want to see that Hillary so that I can communicate that Hillary to voters,’ but she very rarely showed that side of herself. I think there was a lot of caution and a lot of overthinking things. I mean, the most appealing version of Hillary we've seen in years was her walking her dog in the woods with no makeup on in her Lululemons. And there were people in her campaign who suggested, 'Why don't you just go to a diner in Chappaqua in your sweatpants and no makeup, or little makeup?' And she and Huma would always shoot it down. Hindsight's 20/20, but I wish that we'd been able to see that side.
If you could have a sit down with Hillary now, what would you ask her?
I would just kind of honestly ask her about this relationship that has mostly been in my head, you know? For years. I want to know how I let her down, what I could have done better, why she never saw a gray area. It was like, you wrote one negative story and you're an enemy. And then I'd write a positive story and it didn't matter.
I'd want to get back to her "Politics as Meaning" speech and I'd want to ask her about whether the country still has the crisis of meaning, and why she stopped talking that way. The Saint Hillary way. I think she'd have some really interesting thoughts on it if she was just comfortable going to that Saint Hillary place.
Amy Chozick's book, Chasing Hillary: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, and One Intact Glass Ceiling, is available now.
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