POLITICS

Hillary Clinton Has An Office

Scenes from this week's breakneck race to go nowhere and learn nothing.

Hillary Clinton's campaign has an office. It's in Brooklyn, a New York City borough famed for its high rents, like all New York City boroughs. People work in that office, at desks, with laptops, doing campaign stuff. When asked, those people all express a willingness to be there.

That's basically the "too long; didn't read" version of this week's important race to chase the big story, in which Bloomberg and Politico competed to be the first organization to get "exclusive" access to Clinton's campaign digs. The race ended in a draw. Why was the existence of a campaign office, and the need to be temporarily embedded within its prosaic confines, of such importance to these institutions? Therein hangs a semi-boring story!

See, a few weeks ago, a great hue and cry was raised after reporters at a Clinton campaign event in New Hampshire were corralled by Clinton campaign staff in an actual rope, held by those staffers for the purpose of keeping the press at arm's length from the campaign. This was, justly, a moment of marginal embarrassment for the Clinton campaign, as it reinforced an already existing meme about Clinton as a politician: that she is press-averse, and that this aversion has led to a toxic relationship with the media.

All of this happened over the Independence Day holiday weekend. Also happening that weekend: Hillary Clinton was meeting with the New York Times reporter and This Town author Mark Leibovich, a gifted profiler of public figures and media professionals. Leibovich's piece, which was published in the New York Times Magazine less than two weeks later, specifically burrowed into this meme, capturing Clinton as a veteran politician striving for a fresh start both with voters and with the media.

I think that part of the fun of being Mark Leibovich is getting to see what part of his article becomes the thing that everyone decides is "the big takeaway" and being amused by this decision. This time out, he was surely not disappointed. Upon the profile's publication, the hive mind of the political media, which broadcasts its collective unconsciousness on Twitter, decided there were two things worth remembering about Leibovich's story. The first thing was that Hillary Clinton had once eaten moose stew. And then there was this part:

In June, I visited Clinton’s Brooklyn Heights headquarters to interview Robby Mook, her 35-year-old campaign manager. The meeting had been arranged through Jesse Ferguson, a campaign press minder, who in advance of my arrival sent me an email that said the following: "The ground rules we’ve had with others in our office is that the office itself is OTR," meaning off the record. "I don’t want to get into a contest of people tweeting pic from our office to show they were there."

I wrote back that I was not abiding by any "office is off the record" provisions and that it was not clear to me how you could declare a 40,000-square-foot space off the record. I did agree not to tweet.

Ferguson came back asking me if I would "embargo" anything that I saw in the office until the time my article was published. He made it sound as if I were gaining access to the Situation Room. "Regardless when the story runs," he wrote, it "still means you’re the first reporter who can report anything from the office."

And that's how "visiting Hillary Clinton's Brooklyn campaign office" suddenly took on paramount importance with some campaign journalists. Which is weird! As Leibovich warned in his piece, "the office ... basically resembled a large insurance company." There's a great irony there, because political reporters could probably learn a lot more about contemporary American life and the people living it if they actually did visit the offices of a large insurance company.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Bloomberg and Politico visited the Clinton campaign office instead, where they learned that "campaign offices" are full of eager people who come ready to dispense pleasing bromides about civic duty and the importance of playing a part in a big presidential campaign. Or, as Bloomberg's Mark Halperin enthused as he began a broadcast of his show "With All Due Respect" live and exclusive from Clinton HQ, "They've got it all ... computers, telephones, partial wall dividers."

Maybe I'm wrong to say that this battle of who could care the most about something insignificant ended in a draw, because I suppose that it is objectively "cooler" to get to broadcast your Internet television show from a previously well-guarded aerie than it is to merely tour the office and shoot still photographs, as Politico did. On the other hand, no one at Politico has to work for Michael Bloomberg, who is rumored to have taken a very dim view of Halperin's antics. So I guess it's a wash either way you look at it.

Politico's Annie Karni, who drew the assignment of wandering through Clinton's office, looking for meaning, comes home with a slideshow of images, documenting the existence of several offices and three sets of cubicles into which varying "teams" of the Clinton campaign have settled themselves. Clinton's communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, tells Karni that everyone who heard that reporters were not welcome at the office just got the wrong idea:

“We want to make sure people can do their work, but otherwise we’re happy to have people come check it out,” Palmieri said.

The original policy of prohibiting journalists from reporting on the campaign headquarters, she said, was misinterpreted as overly controlling. “When people come in for meetings, you want the operation to continue to function and that if something is overheard, or a memo is seen, it’s not going to get reported on,” Palmieri said. “It seems like that was received the wrong way.”

There is very little of interest that Politico discovers in the Clinton campaign office. Maybe the only interesting thing is that in campaign chairman John Podesta's office, there is "a dark painting of two suited men holding plates and silverware in preparation to eat another man, who appears to be dead."

"POLITICO was not allowed to document the memos and papers on his desk," Politico reports, in case anyone out there thought that this sort of thing would ever be tacitly allowed by anyone working in any office, anywhere.

Karni describes this visit as "part of a new effort [from the Clinton campaign] to engage with the national media that follows on the heels of Clinton’s first national television interview last week." Considering that this was just a guided tour of an office, conducted by Clinton's communications director -- the only person quoted in the piece -- this would seem to be an exercise in low-bar clearance.

Halperin seems to fare better in his foray into the Clinton office, as he and his cohost Margaret Talev at least get to speak to a number of fresh-faced Clinton campaign workers (including former Winter Olympian Michelle Kwan), all of whom seem to be well-prepared (probably because they were specifically prepped) to offer cheerful homilies about working on the Clinton campaign.

The centerpiece of the "With All Due Respect" broadcast is a sit-down interview in which Halperin and Talev talk shop with Clinton political director Amanda Renteria and campaign "director of states" Marlon Marshall, each of whom capably responds to each question with an array of safe platitudes. Asked about the "ethos of this particular campaign," Renteria offers, "It's interesting, it's creative, we really are trying to push the envelope of 'give us your ideas and let's try it out.'" They "work together, not in silos." They are "very deliberate about culture."

I'll say! When Halperin asks if they require the younger members of the campaign team to follow any specific "political rules," Renteria says that everyone is told, "Don't forget why you're here" and "Look around and breathe in and enjoy it." This probably goes without saying, but these aren't "political rules" -- they're "stuff people put on motivational posters."

Halperin asks about the success Sen. Bernie Sanders has had, making headway in the primary race while Clinton's other Democratic rivals haven't. "Can he beat Clinton in either Iowa or New Hampshire or both?"

Clinton campaign states' director Marlon Marshall responds: "First of all, we always expected a competitive primary --"

Halperin cuts him off: "I've heard that line."

"I'm repeating it," said Marshall. "It's a true line."

OK, well, we're really making headway now.

Here are other things I learned, thanks to Bloomberg and Politico:

  • The Clinton volunteers "work hard."
  • They have a board that lists who rode around on the campaign bus.
  • "Each team has come up with its own slogan, which flies above the team’s seating area. The communications team, for instance, calls itself 'sources close to the campaign.' The policy team is known as 'wonks for the win.'"
  • They have an old, brown refrigerator.
  • When asked, the people who work on the Clinton campaign can briefly summarize their particular jobs.
  • Campaign manager Robby Mook's office has a "standing desk" and a "cheerful flowering plant," in case you thought he maybe had a really sulky flowering plant.
  • That brown refrigerator is apparently "infamous."
  • There is one "off-message" moment, in which Renteria seems to imply to Halperin that she'd punch Donald Trump if she ran up on him in the streets. Should that happen, The Huffington Post will cover it in our Entertainment section.
  • This one guy made an edible arrangement with berries that looked like the Clinton campaign logo and put it on Instagram, and this is "social media."
  • Halperin works really hard to get to the bottom of the whole berry thing. Where did they come from? Why berries? A dogged pursuit of the truth, about berries.
  • The brown refrigerator was donated, maybe?
  • "It's like a family."
  • Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is the "Brooklyn of the Midwest."

Per Politico, this is the most important thing I learned:

Clinton herself does not keep an office at the Brooklyn HQ -- she typically works out of a separate Midtown office and so far has visited the Brooklyn office just once.

So, that brown refrigerator has actually been a greater presence in this office than the candidate. Good thing all this effort was made to gain access to it. And yes, we have to thank Mark Leibovich for all of this:

Anyway, this was a nice trick. Candidate wants a fresh start with the press. The press sets terms: Let us into your office. This turns out to be the easiest, no-risk thing in the world for the candidate. So after a bit of prep and spit-shining (but not too much spit-shining -- that old brown refrigerator stands in testament to the campaign's middle-class frugality, after all!), the reporters enter, gather their quotes and depart, firm in the knowledge that they have done something special.

So what if the reader is left with no insight into the candidate or her policy preferences? So what if the content generated from these escapades ranges from poll-tested platitudes to annotated interior decoration? The point of this exercise is that the campaign press believes that they have a sacred role to play and that the Clinton campaign had sinned by not honoring that role with sufficient solemnity.

In the end, everyone got what they wanted. Quite cheaply, at that.