By Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen January 12, 2014
Inside a cramped third-floor office of Hillary Clinton’s once-bustling presidential campaign headquarters in the Ballston neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, Kris Balderston and Adrienne Elrod put the finishing touches on a political hit list.
It was late June 2008, and Hillary had dropped her bid for the presidency. The war room, where her brain trust had devolved into profanity-laced shouting matches, was empty. The data crunchers were gone. The political director had drifted out. A handful of Hillary’s aides had already hooked up with Barack Obama’s campaign in Chicago.
Balderston’s salt-and-pepper beard gave him the look of a college English professor who didn’t need to shave for his job. Then in his early fifties, he had been with the Clintons since their White House days, serving as a deputy assistant to the president and later as Hillary’s legislative director and deputy chief of staff in the Senate.
The official government titles obscured Balderston’s true value: he was an elite political operator and one of Hillary’s favorite suppliers of gossip. After more than a dozen years spent working for the Clintons, he knew how to keep score in a political race.
Elrod, a toned thirty-one-year-old blonde with a raspy Ozark drawl, had an even longer history with the Clintons that went back to her childhood in Siloam Springs, a town of fifteen thousand people in northwestern Arkansas, on the Oklahoma border. She had known Bill Clinton since at least the age of five. Her father, John Elrod, a prominent lawyer in Fayetteville, first befriended the future president at Arkansas Boys State when they were teenagers. Like Bill Clinton, Adrienne Elrod had a twinkle in her blue eyes and a broad smile that conveyed warmth instantaneously. She had first found work in the Clinton White House after a 1996 internship there, then became a Democratic Party political operative and later held senior posts on Capitol Hill.
She joined the Hillary Clinton for President outfit as a communications aide and then shifted into Balderston’s delegate-courting congressional-relations office in March. Trusted because of her deep ties to the Clinton network, Elrod helped Balderston finalize the list.
For months they had meticulously updated a wall-size dry-erase board with color-coded symbols, letters, and arrows to track which lawmakers were leaning toward endorsing Hillary and which were headed in Obama’s direction. For example, the letters “LO” indicated that a lawmaker was “leaning Obama,” while “BD” in blue denoted that he or she was a member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition on Capitol Hill.
As one of the last orders of business for a losing campaign, they recorded in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet the names and deeds of members of Congress. They carefully noted who had endorsed Hillary, who backed Barack Obama, and who stayed on the sidelines—standard operating procedure for any high-end political organization. But the data went into much more nuanced detail.
“We wanted to have a record of who endorsed us and who didn’t,” said a member of Hillary’s campaign team, “and of those who endorsed us, who went the extra mile and who was just kind of there. And of those who didn’t endorse us, those who understandably didn’t endorse us because they are [Congressional Black Caucus] members or Illinois members. And then, of course, those who endorsed him but really should have been with her … that burned her.”
For Hillary, whose loss was not the end of her political career, the spreadsheet was a necessity of modern political warfare, an improvement on what old-school politicians called a favor file. It meant that when asks rolled in, she and Bill would have at their fingertips all the information needed to make a quick decision—including extenuating, mitigating, and amplifying factors—so that friends could be rewarded and enemies punished.
Their spreadsheet formalized the deep knowledge of those involved in building it. Like so many of the Clinton help, Balderston and Elrod were walking favor files. They remembered nearly every bit of assistance the Clintons had given and every slight made against them.
Almost six years later most Clinton aides can still rattle off the names of traitors and the favors that had been done for them, then provide details of just how each of the guilty had gone on to betray the Clintons—as if it all had happened just a few hours before. The data project ensured that the acts of the sinners and saints would never be forgotten.
There was a special circle of Clinton hell reserved for people who had endorsed Obama or stayed on the fence after Bill and Hillary had raised money for them, appointed them to a political post, or written a recommendation to ice their kid’s application to an elite school.
On one early draft of the hit list, each Democratic member of Congress was assigned a numerical grade from one to seven, with the most helpful to Hillary earning ones and the most treacherous drawing sevens. The set of sevens included Sens. John Kerry, Jay Rockefeller, Bob Casey, and Patrick Leahy, as well as Reps. Chris Van Hollen, Baron Hill, and Rob Andrews.
Yet even seven didn’t seem strong enough to quantify the betrayal of some onetime allies.
When the Clintons sat in judgment, Claire McCaskill got the seat closest to the fire. Bill and Hillary had gone all out for her when she ran for Senate in Missouri in 2006. But McCaskill seemed to forget that favor when NBC’s Tim Russert asked her whether Bill had been a great president, during a “Meet the Press” debate against then-Sen. Jim Talent in October 2006.
“He’s been a great leader,” McCaskill said of Bill, “but I don’t want my daughter near him.”
Instantly, McCaskill regretted her remark; the anguish brought her “to the point of epic tears,” according to a friend. She knew the comment had sounded much more deliberate than a forgivable slip of the tongue. So did Hillary, who immediately canceled a planned fundraiser for McCaskill.
A few days later McCaskill called Bill Clinton to offer a tearful apology. Bill was gracious, which just made McCaskill feel worse. After winning the seat, she was terrified of running into Hillary Clinton in the Capitol. “I really don’t want to be in an elevator alone with her,” McCaskill confided to the friend.
But Hillary, who was just then embarking on her presidential campaign, still wanted something from McCaskill—the Missourian’s endorsement. Women’s groups, including EMILY’s List, pressured McCaskill to jump aboard the Clinton bandwagon, and Hillary courted her new colleague personally, setting up a one-on-one lunch in the Senate Dining Room in early 2007. Rather than ask for her support directly, Hillary took a softer approach, seeking common ground on the struggles of campaigning, including the physical toll. “There’s a much more human side to Hillary,” McCaskill thought.
Obama, meanwhile, was pursuing her too, in a string of conversations on the Senate floor. Clearly, Hillary thought she had a shot at McCaskill. But for McCaskill, the choice was always whether to endorse Obama or stay on the sidelines. In January 2008 she not only became the first female senator to endorse Obama but she also made the case to his team that her support would be amplified if Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Janet Napolitano came out for him at roughly the same time.
McCaskill offered up a small courtesy, calling Hillary’s personal aide, Huma Abedin, ahead of the endorsement to make sure it didn’t blindside Hillary.
But the trifecta of women leaders giving Obama their public nod was a devastating blow. Hate is too weak a word to describe the feelings that Hillary’s core loyalists still have for McCaskill, who seemed to deliver a fresh endorsement of Obama—and a caustic jab at Hillary—every day during the primary.
Many of the other names on the traitor side of the ledger were easy to remember, from Ted Kennedy to John Lewis, the civil rights icon whose defection had been so painful that Bill Clinton seemed to be in a state of denial about it. In private conversations, he tried to explain away Lewis’s motivations for switching camps midstream, after Obama began ratcheting up pressure for black lawmakers to get on “the right side of history.”
Lewis, because of his own place in American history and the unique loyalty test he faced with the first viable black candidate running for president, is a perfect example of why Clinton aides had to keep track of more detailed information than the simple binary of for and against. Perhaps someday Lewis’s betrayal could be forgiven.
Ted Kennedy (another seven on the hit list) was a different story.
He had slashed Hillary worst of all, delivering a pivotal endorsement speech for Obama just before the Super Tuesday primaries that cast her as yesterday’s news and Obama as the rightful heir to Camelot. He did it in conjunction with a New York Times op-ed by Caroline Kennedy that said much the same thing in less thundering tones. Bill Clinton had pleaded with Kennedy to hold off, but to no avail.
Still, Clinton aides exulted in schadenfreude when their enemies faltered. Years later they would joke about the fates of folks who they felt had betrayed them.
“Bill Richardson: investigated; John Edwards: disgraced by scandal; Chris Dodd: stepped down,” one said to another. “Ted Kennedy,” the aide continued, lowering his voice to a whisper for the punch line, “dead.”
For several months, as the campaign intensified, Balderston and Elrod kept close tabs on an even smaller subset of targeted members of Congress, who were still undecided after Super Tuesday.
Because Hillary and her team made such an intense effort to swing these particular lawmakers in the final months of the campaign, they are the first names that spring to mind when Hillary’s aides talk about who stuck a knife in her back and twisted it.
For Balderston, the betrayal of Jim Moran, the congressman from Alexandria, Virginia, was perhaps the most personal. The two men were social friends in the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria, about six miles from campaign headquarters. They were even in the same book club.
For months Balderston had casually pressed Moran about his endorsement. Moran played coy. He praised Hillary but came up short of promising an endorsement. Then in January 2008, Moran left a voice message for Balderston: I’m all in for Hillary, he said.
Naturally, Balderston was excited. The courtship of delegates hadn’t been going well, and adding a new name to Hillary’s column was welcome news. But Balderston’s joy was short-lived.
“What the fuck?” he exclaimed a couple of weeks later as he read the news that Moran was set to endorse Obama. He called the congressman, his old chum from the neighborhood. “Do not ever call me again!” Balderston said. He stopped going to the book club.
(Referring to Balderston’s version of events, Moran told the authors, “It’s an accurate account. But we’re friends again and I plan on making it up to him in the 2016 campaign since I’ve always been in love with Hillary.”
Moran added that, in 2008, “I simply thought that, given the opportunity, it was too important that this country elect an inspiring black president.”)
Bill was particularly incensed at California representative Lois Capps. He had campaigned for Capps’s husband, Walter, who knocked out an incumbent congresswoman in 1996, delivered the eulogy the following year at Walter’s congressional memorial service—calling him “entirely too nice to be in Congress”—and then helped Lois Capps win her husband’s seat in a special election. The Cappses’ daughter, Laura, had even worked in the White House.
“How could this happen?” Bill asked, after Lois Capps came out for Obama at the end of April.
“Do you know her daughter is married to Bill Burton?” one of Hillary’s aides replied.
Burton worked for Obama as a high-profile campaign spokesman and would go on to join the White House staff, but this did little to assuage the former president’s frustration. Bill and Hillary were shocked at how many Democrats had abandoned them to hook up with the fresh brand of Barack Obama. The injuries and insults were endless, and each blow hurt more than the last, the cumulative effect of months and months of defections. During the spring and summer, the Clinton campaign went days on end without a single endorsement.
It reached the point where Hillary—in a stale, sterile conference room at the DNC headquarters—asked uncommitted “superdelegates” to give her their word, privately, that they would back her if it came to a vote at the convention, even if they weren’t willing to take the political risk of coming out for her publicly ahead of time.
Unlike the regular delegates who were elected in state party primaries and caucuses, the superdelegates, a group of lawmakers, governors, and other Democratic officials, could support whichever candidate they wanted at the convention. As a last resort, Hillary pleaded with them to simply refrain from adding their names to Obama’s column. Bill would make that pitch, too, in phone calls and when he crossed paths with lawmakers. Please, just don’t endorse Obama, he cajoled.
Balderston and Elrod recorded them all, good and bad, one by one, for history—and for Doug Band, Bill Clinton’s tall, balding, post-presidency aide-de-camp.
A former University of Florida frat boy, he had a fierce loyalty to the former president that compared with his instinct for accumulating wealth and status. One longtime associate, reflecting the view of some others in the Clinton world, described him as “always looking out for number one.” But if that was true, Bill Clinton came a very close second. As a young man, Band had served in the Clinton White House and then went on to help create and oversee the vast Clinton web of charities.
Most important for politicians, donors, and journalists alike, he became the gatekeeper to Bill Clinton. Few question Band’s strategic vision in setting up Bill’s post-presidency philanthropic empire, and he counts Huma Abedin, Hillary’s top personal aide, among his close friends. But some in Hillaryland take a dim view of Band’s influence on the former president. He can be so abrasive that Maggie Williams, the person closest to Hillary, told friends at one point that she quit working at the Clinton Foundation in large part because of Band. But Band was in charge of the Clinton database, a role that made him the arbiter of when other politicians received help from the Clintons and when they didn’t.
“It wasn’t so much punishing as rewarding, and I really think that’s an important point,” said one source familiar with Bill’s thinking. “It wasn’t so much ‘We’re going to get you.’ It was ‘We’re going to help our friends.’ I honestly think that’s an important subtletly in Bill Clinton, in his head. She’s not as calculated, but he is.”
It would be political malpractice for the Clintons not to keep track of their friends and enemies. Politicians do that everywhere. The difference is the Clintons, because of their popularity and the positions they’ve held, retain more power to reward and punish than anyone else in modern politics. And while their aides have long and detailed memories, the sheer volume of the political figures they interact with makes a cheat sheet indispensable. “I wouldn’t, of course, call it an enemies list,” said one Clintonworld source. “I don’t want to make her sound like Nixon in a pantsuit.”
In the summer of 2008, Hillary Clinton couldn’t have known whether or when she would run for president again. But she knew who was on her side and, name for name, who wasn’t.