Somewhere in between the stacked boxes of laminate flooring and the discount pots and pans, it hit me: This Virginia Costco, where hundreds of people lined up half a mile from the Pentagon Saturday morning for the chance to meet Hillary Clinton, is the best symbol of the upcoming 2016 presidential election I’ve yet seen.
The throngs of people were officially there for Clinton to sign their discount copies of “Hard Choices,” the former Secretary of State’s book about her time in the Obama administration. In reality, Clinton herself was the least visible part of the whole, circus-like event. The average Costco patron couldn’t even sneak a glimpse of her, as her book signing took place behind a giant fortress of water bottles and paper towel rolls, built by Costco employees using forklifts in the wee hours of Saturday morning. All that traveled over that bulk-product brick wall was the occasional laugh — was it Clinton’s? Or someone else’s? It was hard to know for sure — and the sound of clicking press cameras. Clinton fans weren’t allowed to bring theirs past the security checkpoint.
Meanwhile, outside the fortress, it was daylong, bumper-sticker-distributing chaos -- beginning hours before she arrived and lasting long after she left – as parties with political and financial stakes in Clinton’s bid sought momentary advantage in the store and its parking lot.
There were strict rules for the people in line to secure one of the 1,000 wristbands that would allow them to get their books signed by Clinton. Along with cameras, pens, photos, gifts and any book other than “Hard Choices” were verboten. Fans were warned to leave their personal items in the car; those who didn’t had to leave their possessions in giant plastic bins at their own risk. Personalization of books also was not allowed, neither were photographs with Clinton, according to giant posters situated within the store. The most die-hard Clinton fanatics arrived as early as 11:30 p.m. Friday night, according to a Costco assistant general manager, to secure a spot in line, and spent the night on the sidewalk of the suburban big-box store.
But there were no rules for anyone else at the Costco, and the pro- and anti-Clinton camps made full use of the availability to press their agendas. The Republican National Committee had commissioned a squirrel mascot to follow Clinton’s book tour, of which this was the fourth stop. Both the squirrel’s T-shirt and the RNC’s corresponding handouts and bumper stickers declared, “Another Clinton in the White House is NUTS.” The flyers, largely given out to unassuming Costco shoppers who were not there for Clinton, tossed out accusations against the former secretary of state. “HILLARY CLINTON CAN’T NAME HER OWN ACHIEVEMENTS AS SECRETARY” and “BENGHAZI IS STILL THE DEFINING MOMENT OF CLINTON’S TENURE” were the all-caps headlines. Both the squirrel’s shirt and volunteers at the event pointed passersby to the RNC’s handle for their anti-Clinton efforts: @HRCSquirrel.
Designers for the Ready for Hillary PAC, for their part, had slapped the now iconic picture of Clinton texting while wearing sunglasses on not just the back of their Ready for Hillary bus, but on buttons and posters fans could take home for free. Beyond a row of plants at the other end of the parking lot from where the Ready for Hillary folks had parked their bus, a small handful of Benghazi conspiracy theory demonstrators hoisted homemade signs with messages like “Her legacy: Written in BLOOD, from Arkansas to the White House” and “History has proven: The Clintons LIE.” One of the demonstrators blasted country music, which competed with the tunes coming from the Hillary Bus.
A Republican Senate staffer spotted me in the store as I counted water bottle cases in hopes of estimating of how many formed the base of the fort (more than 32,000, based on my back-of-the-reporter’s-notebook math). He was just there to shop, but had placed some bumper stickers from the Stop Hillary PAC distributing them outside the store into his shopping cart.
Also making an unexpected appearance: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who told reporters within the fort she was just doing her regular shopping and did not know her Hillary Clinton would be there. The justice and Clinton embraced, looking genuinely excited to see each other. They exchanged pleasantries about both of their respective books.
And so it went at the “This Town” Costco of choice. The area surrounding the Costco, like much of Northern Virginia, is a Democratic stronghold. In 2008, Obama won 69 percent of the vote in Arlington County, where the store is located.
Hillary Clinton had done a book signing here before, as has her husband, former president Bill Clinton. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former first lady Laura Bush, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and even former GOP presidential hopeful Herman Cain have all done book events here.
Civil Rights hero and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., lined up with the hoi polloi to get his copy of Clinton’s book signed.
A few aisles away, a man named Rick made smoothies with a Vitamix blender, handing out samples and trying to convince customers to spend $499.99 on the kitchen gadget. Hundreds of Clinton fans snaked around his booth on their way to the fortress.
“They are very focused. I haven’t really had more customers than usual,” Rick, who declined to give his last name, told me.
It would be easy to view the events Saturday in the context of bottom lines. Costco was selling books, and many of the 1,000 they guaranteed would be signed came from their shelves. Clinton and her publisher were set to profit, too. The Ready for Hillary bus, even though it is not affiliated with a campaign — because, of course, one does not exist — collected signatures and email addresses from those waiting for their moment with Hillary in exchange for their swag and in hopes that there might one day be a use for all of that data.
But the people in line themselves seemed excited to meet one of their heroes, even as the political organizers cast them as e-mail addresses, potential small-dollar donors or primary voters. There were dads holding babies, students and friends of all ages looking for something to do with their Saturday afternoon. Nearly all who were asked said they hoped Clinton would run, though few had nuanced reasons as to why.
Three girlfriends in town on summer break from Princeton, all interning, one at the US African Development Foundation, one at the Millennium Challenge Corporation and another at a social entrepreneurship firm, got in line at 9 a.m. A group of friends who work together at Verizon made the signing their Saturday social event. And then there was Gillian, a 12-year-old from Arlington who attends Swanson middle school, clutching a Ready for Hillary placard and a copy of “Hard Choices.” Her mom Rayna, for whom English is not a first language, directed my questions to her.
“I want to be just like Hillary when I grow up and do what she does and I thought it would be nice to come up here and see how she is,” Gillian tells me.
She says that she wants Clinton to run and that she looks up to her “because she is a woman and she fights really well for her ideas and everything and it’s really cool.”
She won’t be old enough to vote in 2016, but she hoped to get some tips for Clinton and thought she could help in other ways.
“I’ll make my parents vote for her,” she said.