Covering Clinton, then and now: ‘Girls in the Van’ excerpt


I looked up from my breakfast. We were sitting in a diner in August of 2000, on the second day of U.S. Senate candidate Hillary Clinton’s three-day tour of Long Island, and I was feeling slightly bummed out. I had planned to finish three stories while she was out here, the first a straightforward piece about her campaigning on Republican opponent Rick Lazio’s home turf, the second a feature story about the political instincts of her daughter, Chelsea, who was campaigning with her, and the third, a fun, light feature story about the candidates’ “favorites” — favorite junk food, favorite color, favorite book.

The first story wrote itself with no trouble yesterday, but here it was, not even 9 o’clock in the morning a day later, and my prospects for finishing the other two stories were already looking bleak. Yesterday Chelsea had come off like a totally political animal, thriving on the attention of the public and the press, but today she seemed bored and unenthusiastic. And Karen Finney, Hillary’s press aide, who had promised yesterday to help me get the answers from Hillary for my favorites list, which I had requested a month earlier, had just informed me that she didn’t have a chance to do anything on it yet.

I was on one side of the dining room at a big round table with a few other reporters and campaign workers, while Hillary, Chelsea, and some of the locals ate and chatted at a different table on the other side of the room. The first lady and her daughter were eating fruit, but most of the reporters had ordered the most unhealthy breakfasts possible: runny eggs, white toast, sausage, bacon, and of course, lots of coffee, since we all got up at dawn to watch Hillary greet early-morning commuters at a Long Island Rail Road station. …

As we followed Hillary and Chelsea out of the restaurant to the waiting vans, I checked out their dirty plates. I’d been slightly dubious of Finney’s report that they were eating fruit, especially when we were all feasting on cholesterol and fat, but there were indeed leftover blueberries in bowls where they’d been sitting. We were forever writing details like this down in our notebooks, but at the end of the day there was hardly ever any room for it in our copy.

“By the way,” said Finney with a smile, “in case you’re wondering, yes, Hillary paid for their breakfast, and, yes, she left a tip.” Hillary’s tips had been an issue ever since the Washington Times made a headline out of her staff’s failure to leave one for a waitress in an upstate restaurant where the first lady had been given a complimentary meal. The embarrassed campaign later mailed a savings bond to the waitress, a single mother.

Next stop after the diner was a day camp. Chelsea sat at a wood sculpture table with a bunch of little girls and absentmindedly made a tall pile of wood shapes. Then she wandered over to the pool where her mother was watching a relay race. But when Liz Moore of Newsday good-naturedly asked her if she thought the kids would vote for her mother, Chelsea stared straight ahead and walked away as if some terrible line had been crossed.

Chelsea had been friendlier a few weeks earlier when she’d accompanied her mother to a press conference on the steps of City Hall, her first appearance on the campaign trail in nearly a year. I’d asked Hillary during the Q-and-A if Chelsea was going to be showing up regularly from now on, and she’d said that was entirely up to Chelsea. When the event was over, we all ran over to where Chelsea was standing to see if she’d elaborate. Finney introduced us and we shook hands, but when I started to ask Chelsea whether we’d be seeing a lot of her in the future, Finney physically inserted herself between us, saying firmly, “Now, Beth, I think her mother answered that already.”

“Hey, I’m a mom, I understand these things, and I think I heard her mother say that what Chelsea does is up to her,” I said.

Chelsea perked up immediately. “You have children? How old are they?”

“Seven and two, and they know all about your mother,” I said with a smile. “They can pick her picture out of a photograph with a hundred other people in it.”

“They’re smarties,” Chelsea said sweetly, then turned to head off with her mother’s entourage.

Suddenly I felt like a dope. I’d wasted the two-minute window I’d had with Chelsea by talking about me. I’d rather talk about my kids than just about anything else, and Chelsea had been savvy enough to figure that out. One of the most basic rules of journalism is that when your source starts asking about you, you have to turn the conversation back to them. I hadn’t done that, and now it was too late.

“Sorry about that, Beth,” said Karen. “I just didn’t want it to degenerate into a whole avail.”

“Yeah, yeah. You do your job, I’ll do mine,” I said, feeling that I hadn’t done it very well at all. The whole notion that Chelsea could come to a press conference and not take questions was infuriating enough. If she wanted to be private, fine, but don’t stand 5 feet away from a pack of reporters and then let a campaign staffer protect you from the media.

Soon after that, the White House announced that Chelsea planned to take off the fall semester of her senior year at Stanford to campaign with her mother and spend time with her father during his last months in office. I took Hillary at her word that this was Chelsea’s decision, but it certainly didn’t hurt the first lady to have her daughter along.

And it didn’t hurt Hillary’s presidential campaign, 15 years later, when Chelsea had a child of her own, for Hillary to mention repeatedly that she was now a grandmother. Chelsea announced her second pregnancy during the 2016 campaign as well.

But back in 2000, we assumed that part of what brought Chelsea into the campaign was Lazio’s two adorable little girls. “Vote for my dad!” they’d shout as the photographers snapped away. One day, when Lazio was being interviewed on ABC’s “This Week,” I sat in a TV studio with his wife, Pat, and the girls, waiting for his segment to start. Molly and Kelsey were like two little kittens, tumbling over each other in the hallway, using a rubber band they had found to play cat’s cradle, hiding under the buffet, nibbling at the food, and then handing their dad a handful of crumbs when he came in the room. And Pat seemed like such a nice, normal person. I was shocked at being allowed to sit in a room with her and her kids. I couldn’t imagine anything like this happening on the Hillary campaign.

Sit in a room with Chelsea and watch her mother on TV? Have a normal conversation with someone who’s related to Hillary? Not have your bags searched and your movements restricted when you walk in the door? No way.

It also occurred to me that Chelsea could never be in her own little world the way the Lazio girls were, oblivious to all the busy grown-ups around them. Chelsea was always on when she was out with her parents, on display as the only child of important people, and instead of having a sibling to giggle with, her confidants were the people who’d been hired to protect her and make sure her needs were met. It was more like watching a princess venturing out among the common people than Take Your Daughter to Work Day.

Which isn’t to say Chelsea didn’t act as though she loved it. On the first day of the Long Island tour, at an outdoor rally in Great Neck, the 20-year-old first daughter really did seem enthusiastic and had displayed an impressive ability to work the crowd. She waded into her own section of the reception line, posing for photographs, shaking hands, signing autographs, leaning down to greet old ladies in wheelchairs and babies in strollers. She had the perfect posture, clasped hands, and ever-present smile of someone who was accustomed to being stared at, and she seemed comfortable accepting the adulation of dozens of gawking strangers who jostled to meet her.

I’d put some of the Chelsea material into a spot story about Hillary starting the three-day visit to Long Island, and I’d hoped to get even better stuff for a feature. My brain was bouncing around phrases like “in her father’s footsteps … like father, like daughter … the Clinton gene for pleasing the crowd,” and I’d asked the photographer who was working with me to save whatever he didn’t transmit yesterday to go with the story today.

The only problem was Chelsea. She simply wasn’t cooperating with the story that I was writing in my mind. The day before she’d taken the initiative to work the crowd, approaching bystanders with her arm extended. But now, at the train station, while her mother positioned herself so she could catch commuters on their way to the platform, Chelsea had hung back, standing 15 feet away with a couple of aides, saying hi only when one of the people rushing by happened to notice her. She was perfectly polite and friendly when approached and even borrowed my pen to sign a couple of autographs. But it was clear that her heart wasn’t in it.

Then at the next stops, a restaurant and day camp, she’d made it clear that she was also off-limits to all of us. The real Chelsea had obliterated the Chelsea I’d profiled in my head, and my story was nowhere. And naturally, although we requested a Q-and-A with Chelsea, we didn’t get one. While I could see why they didn’t want to have Chelsea answering our questions, it also seemed unfair that they could trot her out as a big campaign prop but then deny us the right to get a few quotes.

I didn’t know then that the day she’d spent working the line, chatting with everybody, would be one of the few days that she didn’t seem like a robot. In October, she and her mother went to a senior citizens residence in Queens, and the lady who was emceeing the event sweetly asked Chelsea, who was doing her usual plastered-on smile and robotic-clap routine, if the audience could just hear the sound of her voice. The first daughter stepped up to the microphone and, sounding more like Ginger on “Gilligan’s Island” than a senior at Stanford, uttered a breathy “Heh-low,” then stepped away.

The audience was silent for a moment, expecting the oddly orphaned greeting to be followed by some conventional phrase like “It’s so nice to be here” or “Thank you for your support for my mother.” But that was it. Just “Heh-low” and nothing else. For the rest of the campaign, you could hear reporters covering Hillary muttering “Heh-low” to themselves at all hours of the day and night. On a long, boring string of meaningless events, even the grumpiest, hungriest, most exhausted journalist could manage a smile in response to that little “Heh-low.”

Whether it was stage fright, indifference or something else that kept Chelsea from embracing her moment in the spotlight, I thought about Chelsea’s odd “heh-low” years later when she was hired by NBC as a reporter. Politico reported that she was paid $600,000 a year by the network, even though she only did a couple of stories and didn’t seem to have much chemistry with the camera. After three years on the job and mixed reviews, she left shortly before her daughter was born. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine that she’d been hired partly because it would ensure the network access to her famous parents — but then the same could be said of Jenna Bush Hager, daughter of George W. Bush, who was also hired by NBC.

Back in the van with the Hillary crew, headed to our next stop, a news conference where Hillary was to be endorsed by Planned Parenthood (another moment from the 2000 campaign that seems unthinkable in the 21st century climate of controversy and violence surrounding Planned Parenthood), I whined to Bob Hardt of the Post: “What’s the lead?”

“There is no lead,” he responded matter-of-factly. “We’re in a news-free zone.”

Later I gave Frank Eltman, the AP reporter covering Lazio, the bad news that Karen Finney had made no progress helping me to complete the “favorites” story. This was of particular interest to Frank because he’d had no trouble getting Lazio’s staff to help him finish his list a month earlier.

The idea for the story was not particularly original, but it had grown out of a meeting we’d had with AP staff from upstate who’d told us that a lot of the local papers were becoming bored with the daily campaign stories. The story that got more play than just about anything else we’d done in recent times was Frank’s account of Lazio falling in a Memorial Day parade and splitting his lip. At least it was a story about something real happening, instead of just another talking head. We brainstormed a little and somebody said it was too bad we couldn’t ask Hillary the famous “boxers or briefs” question that a 17-year-old girl had asked Bill Clinton on MTV. The closest we could come to that, someone else had mused, was to ask her if she wore “cotton or nylon.”

I knew I’d never have the nerve to ask Hillary what kind of underwear she wore. So in the end Frank and I came up with the list of uncontroversial favorites to ask the candidates. Frank got his answers right away: Lazio’s staff took his tape recorder and had Lazio answer all the questions while the cassette was running, then gave the tape back to Frank. I thought I’d get through my list a short time later, when I and another AP staffer were granted a sit-down interview with Hillary in upstate Corning.

After we got through the serious questions, I explained the “favorites” idea to her. She laughed and seemed amenable, so I started with the list, expecting a one- or two-word answer to everything. Instead I got a long story with everything.

Most people have a quick answer to “How do you take your coffee?” Not Hillary. Sometimes she takes her coffee black, she explained, other times with lots of cream, sometimes she likes espresso, sometimes cappuccino. You just couldn’t pin Hillary down, not even on her coffee.

Then there was the question about the worst job she’d ever had. Lazio had given a two-word answer: “Mosquito control.”

But Hillary’s worst-job story was a virtual parable of youthful righteousness. She’d been traveling with a friend around the country after college and had ended up in Alaska, where she got a job on a floating dock processing salmon. She was issued a raincoat, rubber boots, and a spoon and was instructed to scoop the guts out of the fish. But she decided the fish didn’t look all that healthy, and she sought out the manager to pass on her concerns.

Her complaints apparently spooked the owners, or maybe they really did have something to hide, because when she returned for her next shift, the whole fish-processing operation had disappeared without a trace. Strike one for Hillary the Moral Crusader!

It was a good story, and oh-so-Hillary, but it took so long for her to tell it that by the time she was finished, Howard Wolfson told us the interview was over. That left me with seven or eight questions I hadn’t had a chance to ask.

So Frank had his list done in an afternoon without even being in the candidate’s presence. I’d had a coveted private sit-down with Hillary and hadn’t gotten through half of it. I sent Howard an email asking for help in completing it. No response. A few days later, I sent him another email with the same non-result. When I found out about the Long Island trip, it seemed as if it might be the perfect opportunity to get someone on Hillary’s staff to help me out the way Lazio’s staff had assisted Frank.

I felt kind of silly about it, of course; it seemed ridiculous to go to all this trouble to find out Hillary’s favorite color. On the other hand, it was infuriating to me that it had become such a big deal when the questions were so short and straightforward and the Lazio list was long done. I was thrilled when Karen Finney later agreed to help me. But when she told me a day later that she hadn’t had a chance to pursue it, I started obsessing and even getting paranoid about it.

Such a simple problem, yet I was so powerless to fix it. I began fantasizing that I would have to ask the questions one at a time at Hillary’s press conferences. Everyone else would be asking about education policy or her stand on Israel, and I would be shouting out something about her favorite movie. Or maybe I would have to ask her on one of those rare occasions when she strolled over to say good morning before an event formally began. “Good morning, Mrs. Clinton,” I imagined myself responding. “As long as you’re standing here, do you mind if I ask you what your favorite junk food is?”

Interestingly, though, in the 2016 presidential campaign, her staff seemed to welcome these types of questions as a way to humanize her. She still fights the public perception that she’s an ice queen, an iron lady and every other stereotype of the stiff, humorless, ball-busting female boss that has dogged her since first lady days.

Part of why it’s persisted is that she’s not naturally warm and fuzzy. Some candidates come across as authentic without even trying… Hillary grew up in a normal, middle-class family, but her years as a member of the elite have given her a tin ear, like when she said in 2014 that she and Bill came out of the White House “dead broke” — never mind their speaking fees and million-dollar book contracts.

So as she powered through a series of talk-show interviews in the 2015 run-up to the presidential race — dancing with Ellen DeGeneres, performing in a skit with Jimmy Fallon about Donald Trump, and telling Stephen Colbert about binge-watching favorite shows like “The Good Wife” and “Madam Secretary” — I naturally thought back to that elusive list of favorites and how hard it was to get her staff to help me get her answers.

Finally, though, it happened. One of her staff got the list completed and my story was done. Her favorite snack foods were chocolate and fruit, and her favorite color, she said, was yellow.

___

NOTE — This is an excerpt from the book ‘The Girls in the Van,” by AP Writer Beth J. Harpaz, about being part of the press corps covering Hillary Clinton’s run for the U.S. Senate in New York in 2000. It has been updated with details from Clinton’s current race for the White House. http://www.ap.org/books/the-girls-in-the-van/index.html