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Speechwriter, shattered

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Reading Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign quickly found me paying close attention to the accounts of the presidential candidate’s speechwriter, Dan Schwerin. Perhaps it was because corporate (and a little political) speechwriting has been such a large part of my career. Or because the accounts chronicled by authors Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes rang so true to my own experience. Or because I worked for some executives who shared character traits with Clinton.

After reading the book, here’s my understanding of Clinton and her speechwriter. She liked him; he was a fine speechwriter. She overworked him mercilessly; he believed in the candidate and was willing to work long, thankless, hours. But she was never really satisfied with his work, because he seemed unable to articulate why she was running for President of the United States.

There was a good reason: the candidate herself could never articulate why. “I’m the most experienced and competent candidate ever” and “It’s time we broke the glass ceiling for women” were not compelling campaign narratives.

That wasn’t the speechwriter’s fault.

Allen and Parnes take the reader on a highly detailed, in-depth tour of the Clinton campaign, from before the announcement that she was a candidate to the post-election remorse and recriminations. I didn’t for a minute doubt that they themselves were Clinton supporters, but this book is not a flattering kiss-up to the candidate. Instead, it is a clear-eyed view of what happened and why.

  • Determined to avoid the mistakes she believed were made running against Barack Obama in 2008, Clinton ended up making many of the same ones, because she missed their essential nature.
  • A heavy reliance on data analytics instead of traditional polling worked until it didn’t, and misled the campaign team until it was too late.
  • The candidate and the campaign team first missed and then misunderstood the huge wave of populism, especially with the white working class, that rose like a monster from the political deep.
  • They believed the myth of the Blue Wall – and didn’t see the warning lights flashing in the Rust Belt states.
  • Ruthless power struggles raged within the campaign team, by the paid consultants, and by the DNC.
  • The perceptions of the Clinton political empire played a role – the Clinton Foundation and its acceptance of money from all comers; the Goldman Sachs speeches; the hovering presence of Bill Clinton, who always believed he knew better than the campaign team. Sometimes he did. Sometimes he didn’t, like when he met with Attorney General Loretta Lynch at the Phoenix airport.
  • The slow drip-drip of media coverage of Clinton’s private email server also hurt. Once Wikileaks started the release of the hacked John Podesta and DNC emails, most people conflated those emails with Clinton’s.
  • FBI director James Comey playing popup-head with ending to reopening to ending the criminal investigation of the email server was a factor.

All of this, and the details of the primary campaigns and the general election, form the narrative of Shattered. Donald Trump actually plays a small role in this story; the book is not about how Trump won but how Clinton lost, with the implication that the election was hers to lose.

Allen and Parnes are seasoned political reporters, with Allen having experience at Politico, Bloomberg News, and Roll Call and Parnes at Politico and The Hill. They are also the co-authors of HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Rodham Clinton (2014). 

The authors rely on many unnamed sources (“a senior campaign official”), but explain why and how they managed that. The account of the Clinton campaign in Shattered has the ring of truth. And while the authors don’t cover much beyond the two days following the election, there is much here that points to what has happened in the months afterward – the shock of the defeat, the rage it engendered, and the “Russia interfered with our election” narrative.

I keep thinking about Schwerin, the speechwriter, struggling to write his candidate’s speeches in the context of a vicious campaign, constant crises upending finished speeches, and sniping from the campaign team, Obama’s people, the consultants, the DNC, and the candidate herself. Of all the people covered by this book, he’s the one I truly feel for.

Shattered is an absorbing book, but if you’re not a political junkie, it does require some stamina to get through the detail. The reason for that – the explanation is in the details.