The sun was streaming through the large plate-glass window in Little Canal, a coffee shop near Amy Chozick’s Lower East Side apartment. (Chozick lives on Clinton Street — seriously, folks.) Chozick had just had her hair colored, and wore a white T-shirt with blue slip-on sneakers. Now and then, she glanced with slightly astonished delight at her 8-week-old son, Cormac, who slept soundly in a compact, black stroller by her side as she sipped an almond-milk cappuccino.
Chozick was pondering her imminent departure from the sleep-deprived, soft-focus bliss of new motherhood and her reentry into the adrenalized scrum of politics, where she anticipated being attacked, ridiculed, and probably called a c**t on Twitter again — or, to be more specific, a “donkey-faced c**t.” “Am I going to cry on Morning Joe?” she joked. “I’m very emotional right now.”
Chozick spent a decade of her life — from her late 20s to late 30s — covering Hillary Clinton, first for The Wall Street Journal during the 2008 election and then for the New York Times for 2016. Now she’s written a memoir about the period, Chasing Hillary — a sort-of Bridget Jones’s Diary meets What it Takes coming-of-age rom-com set on the campaign trail, with a tragic twist at the end (spoiler alert: Clinton lost). “I’m sure it’s going to piss off [both sides],” Chozick says. “I’m bracing for that.”
There was a wide feeling among Hillary supporters both during and after the election that the Times — and the broader media ecosystem — played a role in Donald Trump’s upset win. Hillary-ites and some media watchers protested that the Times gave too many column-inches to “scandals” like Hillary using a private email address at the State Department; and failed to properly investigate Trump’s Russia ties, business dealings, and sexual-assault allegations.
Chozick says she wrote her book with these criticisms in mind, attempting to offer a mea culpa wherever she thought one was due. She categorizes a few stories she wrote as probably over the line — for example, one about Clinton press flacks escorting her to the bathroom at the Clinton Global Initiative — and still wonders about the paper’s decisions regarding the WikiLeaks email hacks, which, after all, had been stolen by a foreign adversary. The Times not only reported on the fact that the hacked emails existed, it mined the stolen emails for stories about, among other topics, divisions among Democrats, Chelsea’s takeover at the Clinton Foundation, and fund-raising. Chozick ultimately wrote six stories and one blog post using the hacks. (“I chose the byline,” she wrote. “I always chose the byline.”) That decision, more than anything else, has been “the thing that kept me up at night. Like, oh shit. I did the thing that a hostile government wanted me to do. If Hillary lost, you wanted her to lose because of mistakes she made or because of voters’ whims. You didn’t want any candidate to lose because of a hostile government interfering in an election.”
Of course, the possible threat to our democracy didn’t keep her so awake at night that she didn’t use some of those hacked emails in her book.
She knows her introspection won’t be enough for many people (although Hillary supporters may find Chozick’s description of inching her chair away from Sanders’s during an interview to avoid his breath just a little satisfying). And she’s sure die-hard Hillary staffers won’t be mollified. “[They’re] gonna hate me,” she sighs. But honestly? As Chozick richly details, they already didn’t like her — they really, really didn’t like her.
Chozick began her travels with Hillary in 2007, when the Journal transferred her from her assignment as a foreign correspondent in Japan to the equally foreign environment of the Iowa caucuses. Chozick had been an admirer of the Clintons — when she was a teenager in Texas, she went to see the First Lady speak and she admits that the first presidential vote she ever cast was for Bill.
At the first Hillary rally she covered, she stood up and clapped along with the crowd, until a more seasoned journalist pulled her back into her seat. (“Dude! Dude! What the hell are you doing?”) Chozick was still learning the ropes of breaking news and — having worked her way up from life as a spottily employed Condé Nast intern — she was as thrilled and starry-eyed as Mary Richards mid-hat toss.
Of course, it couldn’t last. In the years after the 2008 election, she moved to the Times to join the late, great David Carr on the media beat, and then, in 2013, (former) executive editor Jill Abramson put her on Hillary — 649 days before Hillary announced her candidacy. The move led other organizations to assign reporters to trail her, to the frustration of Hillary and her staff, who were hoping for a little more down time after her resignation as secretary of state.
The Times and the Clintons have a fraught history — the paper broke Whitewater in 1992 and published a 1993 profile of Hillary (“Saint Hillary”), in which the First Lady bared her soul and the author did the journalistic equivalent of an eye-roll. From that point onward, Chozick asserts, the Clintons distrusted the paper and attempted to “ruin the life” of the beat reporters assigned to cover them.
In the book, Chozick calls Hillary’s mostly male press flacks “The Guys” and gives them pseudonyms based on sartorial choice (“Brown Loafers”) or rank in Hillaryland (“O.G.” — the “original guy”). (I covered Hillary a bit over the years, and I can say that anyone who went anywhere near the campaign will have no problem breaking the code. In fact, it’s a testament to Chozick’s observational skills — or perhaps the idiosyncratic comic stylings of Hillary’s staffers — that you could almost guess who each person is based solely on the insults they sling at Chozick.)
According to Chozick, The Guys spent the years leading up to the campaign and the campaign itself cock-blocking her stories, complaining about her tone, tattling on her to her editors, and generally trying to get in her head, telling her she would be eaten alive in the “steel cage match” of Times newsroom politics.
The prevailing wisdom in 2016 was that — thanks to social media and the ability to livestream events — campaigns could get their own messages out. The media was superfluous. Hillary and her staff didn’t even travel with the reporters, a significant departure from the traditional model of candidate in the front (of the plane or bus), press in the back. This deprived campaign reporters of the you-are-there color and palace intrigue they’d once been able to funnel back to their organizations. In the book, one of Chozick’s colleagues describes being in Hillary’s press corps as a “sensory deprivation experience.”
The journalists chasing Hillary were almost exclusively female, and Chozick writes that it was either a “slap from the patriarchy or a stroke of bad luck” that by the time women got this chance, “Twitter and livestreaming and a (female) candidate who had zero interest in having a relationship with the press vastly diminished” the role of campaign reporters.
Trump could only benefit from a weakened press pack. The broad strokes of his reality-TV persona — a billionaire who makes tough-but-fair decisions — were far more appealing than the seedy details we’re now discovering through the work of the press, special prosecutor Robert Mueller, and one very clever porn star. And the empty calories of Trump’s policy-free speeches at raucous rallies were perfect for streaming straight onto cable news, without context or commentary.
For Hillary, however, it may well have been a mistake to give the media a cold shoulder. Though Chozick acknowledges that the 30 years of misogyny directed at Hillary had put her in something of a no-win situation, she says that ignoring the press didn’t help. The image many Americans had of Hillary was of a ruthless, calculating, overly ambitious, godless, ice queen bitch who was possibly capable of murdering friends and running a pedophile ring. It was ludicrously more negative than her hard-working, deeply religious, policy wonk self.
Instead of confronting the lock-her-up and she’s-so-shrill crowds with radical honesty, Hillary — as has mostly been her practice throughout her career — rarely or never addressed the most human and sympathetic aspects of herself (her Methodist faith, her perseverance through the humiliations of Bill’s infidelities in the ’90s and the loss to Obama in 2008). The upshot, Chozick says, was that she and her fellow journalists were left to write a million “WHAT ABOUT HER EMAILS?” stories (as Chozick herself calls them).
You could even argue that Chozick herself could have been the one to bring the “real” Hillary into the light. True, the reporter threw some below-the-belt jabs at Clinton — for example, in a story about Clinton’s strong showing in her first presidential debate, Chozick led with a back-handed compliment about how bored Chozick was with Hillary’s stump speech, but how interesting she always found her debate performances. But Chozick also spent days in libraries reading through Clinton papers and writing detailed stories about her career and friendships. Most of these pieces, Chozick says, disappeared into the Times website with nary a click — but if Hillary had cooperated and given Chozick access, maybe they would’ve made it onto the front page and gotten more eyeballs. It seems like it might have been worth it for the campaign to try putting away their sticks and offering a few carrots.
Instead, the campaign came to believe that Amy despised Hillary and then antagonized her. And Chozick — frustrated that she couldn’t get the insider stories that her bosses might deem worthy of the above-the-fold bylines — felt under assault and believed that Hillary hated her.
By all accounts, however, this might be called a tragedy of misperceptions. Chozick makes clear in her book that she respected the candidate and craved her attention. And a former Hillary staffer tells me that while the campaign did feel that Chozick held the Clintons to a “higher standard through a lower standard of reporting,” Hillary certainly did not hate the journalist: “Hating people is not her style.” The staffer, who read an early copy of the book, goes on to opine that Chozick was “not always an honest broker” and the book “seems to be more of the same. It ridicules people with a smile, contributing little to the public discourse.”
Chozick didn’t vote in the election — she never does in contests she covers, she says. She insists she was neither the Clinton supporter she’d been as a teenager, nor a Hillary Hater, but rather a “detached political reporter.” “It makes me sad sometimes. That, as a political reporter, you cede your ability to be really excited about a candidate,” she says.
Chozick does wish she could take back a few stories and anecdotes that she now sees as “mean.” There was the story about having a Clinton press minder escort her to the bathroom. “It was true, but was it worth it? What was that really doing to inform readers?” she muses, looking back from her sunny seat in Little Canal. “Not that you pull punches to make sources happier, but you have to decide which targets are really important. And there were certainly lighter stories like that that I thought were funny but that made the relationship very toxic.”
Chozick said she learned that you can write a “little riff” you think is funny and throw it up online but, “when you’re writing about something as important as politics or as controversial as the Clintons, nothing is just a little thing. That little thing could have a life of its own. That thing could have Fox News talking all day.” If she had to do it over, she says, she’d be more “careful” thinking about the whole media industrial complex. She might try to give The Guys more time to respond to requests for comment, and prepare them better for negative stories so they weren’t blindsided.
Still, Chozick sees a bit of gender bias in the criticisms of her work: “Some of the stories I wrote that were called snarky — maybe some of them were. But some of them I just tried to put color and voice in. Sometimes I’d think, Well, a dude could write this and it would be funny and observational and a woman writes it and it’s bitchy.” One faction among her detractors, accused her of taking the low road because she didn’t want it to appear that, because she had a vagina, she was in the tank for Hillary. Others suspected that she was just “jealous” of the first female presidential candidate, Chozick says. “I was like, Really? Are we in Mean Girls?”
The last time Chozick saw Hillary was not long after Trump took office, at a charity fund-raiser for Girls, Inc., at which Chozick’s cousin was being honored and Hillary was the keynote speaker. “It was in this very tacky Marriott Marquis in Times Square on a Wednesday afternoon,” she says. There was some drama happening at the White House — Chozick doesn’t remember which one. Hillary spoke and “obviously the women [in the audience] were really moved, and I saw [one of Hillary’s press aides] behind the curtain. And I was really sad. It was sad.”
After watching Hillary for so many years as the presumptive first female president, her reduced stature pained Chozick. “I don’t want to sound like some crazy fan girl who thought she should have been president, but you just see this person who was so prepared. I’m still a journalist. It wasn’t about politics. It was about this person who has devoted her life to being prepared. She took it so seriously. It was just sort-of …” Chozick trails off. “Somber.”
The book, at times, reads as though Chozick is cashing out her chips. Toward the end, after she realizes she won’t be heading to D.C. to become a White House correspondent, she casts the chase for bylines and scoops as ultimately pointless: “I’d let my hero of a husband down. I’d put off having a baby. I’d thrown punches in the Steel Cage Match and gained at least 12 pounds. I’d even become an unwitting agent of Russian intelligence. In the end, we all lost. I was done.”
Chozick, however, is not done. She remains devoted to the cult of the Times and will return as a writer-at-large for the business section after her maternity leave. “I think the book is partly a love letter to me ending up [at the Times],” she says.
In a funny way, the book is also a love letter to Hillary — not the kind of love letter you write to someone you’ve just fallen for. It’s the kind of love letter you write to someone after you’ve broken up, when you’ve had some time to think, and you realize that it wasn’t all bad, that, in fact, you had some pretty good times — and that you were at least half of the problem.
And yet, what seeps off the page is that Chozick still isn’t “over” Hillary. She’s not sure who, if anyone, had the moral high ground in her battles with The Guys. She’s conflicted about WikiLeaks. She writes that she “can’t explain” her and her colleagues’ “fixation” on Hillary’s private email server, except that it was an “almost out-of-body impulse.” In our interview, she says she feels she should apologize, but then is unsure to whom. It seems like she’s still not sure how to metabolize her decade-long one-way relationship with Hillary, the first woman president who got away. “She took over my life in an interesting way because I had this job, but I think there are millions of women like us who feel like their life has been tethered to this firebrand of a woman,” she says.
She talks about perhaps going abroad again as a foreign correspondent. She talks of wanting to take back with her to the Times her post-campaign realization that she was more proud of the biographical features she wrote than the quick news hits that made page one. But then, in the same breath, she wonders if a journalist who stops chasing front-page bylines is like a shark that stops swimming: “dead.”
Somewhat surprisingly, she says she’s looking forward to getting back to covering politics and, perhaps, “dipping in and out” of campaigns. “There are so many women running,” she says, “and women giving money to candidates, that I think there will be a lot of interesting threads.” Asked if she ever envisions a future as the next Maureen Dowd, another snarky — er, colorful and voicey — former campaign reporter, Chozick says, “Who doesn’t want to be Maureen?”