The Co-Author of Shattered, the Gutting Clinton Campaign Autopsy, Tells Us What Went Wrong

Images via Chip Somodevilla and Crown Publishing.
Images via Chip Somodevilla and Crown Publishing.

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign opens with the Democratic candidate’s staff preparing for the Roosevelt Island speech in which she would officially kick off her 2016 presidential bid. New York City is sweltering, her staff is exhausted, and, despite years of ostensible planning, the draft is still wanting.


This is, co-authors Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen argue, in part due to a general ambivalence when it comes to the campaign’s unifying message, immense pressure from Clinton and competition with Barack Obama’s seemingly flawless 2008 kickoff, and rival factions among her campaign staff, a number of whom were separately tasked with writing a killer speech.

For Hillary, the exemplary wonk, policy has necessarily always preceded impulse, and that showed on Roosevelt Island. She had been able to successfully build her career through careful planning and attention to detail, but when it came to the final race (one that was, for better or worse, built so profoundly on charisma), she was unprepared.

“That speech had a simple mission, which was a requirement,” the book quotes one source as saying. “This was a chance to make a credible persuasive case for why she wants to be president. She had to answer the why question. It’s not because of her mother. Her mother’s an inspiration, but that is not why. It has to sort of feel like a kind of call to action, a galvanizing, ‘I’m bringing us together around this larger-than-all-of-us’ idea or cause, and I don’t think it did that. I don’t think it did either of those.”

Another source—a top aide—was less kind: “I would have had a reason for running, or I wouldn’t have run.”

Any campaign autopsy will be fundamentally skewed—if the candidate won, the story will build towards an eventual triumph; if it’s a loss, we’ll see that loss was choreographed in every misstep. Shattered is necessarily the latter, of course, examining the scandals and missteps that dogged Clinton’s campaign until November 2016.

But in these moments along the way, Clinton’s defeat obviously didn’t feel circumscribed, which is, in part, what makes Shattered such a gutting read. Parnes, who Jezebel spoke with by phone last week, agreed that her loss was not unavoidably forecast—an election that swung by so few votes could never be. For such a close election, she said, everything matters. Shattered puts it all together and forces the campaign, and Democrats in general, to reckon with what went wrong.


This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

You write in the book that you reported it in a specific way: all interviews were conducted on background and nothing was published before the election. Meanwhile, you were also reporting on the campaign for your day job [as Senior White House Correspondent at The Hill]. What was that like?


I had my day job at The Hill and I was covering her and then writing this book on nights and weekends, and basically I had to sort of build a wall of sorts to continue to do that, to do my day job well and then also to write the book. I thought it worked out pretty well actually because I never compromised the promise to people not to publish their stories. And also during the day I did my separate reporting for the paper which I think worked out pretty well, there was never really an issue there.

Was there ever a time when you were having these conversations with people that were just on background and then you’d be reporting on something else and you’d have this divergent context?


Some of the best stuff that we got came post-election, when I was on book leave—like the formation of the Super Six, I didn’t know about until after the election, and so some of the juiciest tidbits didn’t come until then. [The “Super Six” refers to a sort of executive council/board of directors of the campaign made up of Robby Mook, John Podesta, Huma Abedin, Jake Sullivan, Jennifer Palmieri, and Minyon Moore, charged by Clinton with “making decisions by committee.”] I felt like while we knew that there were flaws in the message, I had written about that several times for my paper. There were a lot of parallels between my reporting and the book.

The book starts off with a chapter that paints a picture of the campaign as directionless and leaderless and full of infighting, and I get the sense that it feels fairly doomed just because of the dysfunction. Is that something you saw as it was happening or something you overlayed?


I would say both. We started seeing red flags the entire time basically, first on message. A lot of people pointed to that first speech she gave on Roosevelt Island as kind of a mess. Some of the infighting started happening later on and we started hearing about it later on during the campaign. And then we started hearing about how people were promoted and elevated while others had responsibilities taken from them. So I would say it was a drip-drip-drip in reporting, but a lot of it came together post-election, when John and I came back to people and said, what happened here? We found out pretty early on about this big blow up that Secretary Clinton had in Michigan, or post-Michigan, and that one passage took us probably nine months to complete in and out, because we heard about it and then we didn’t know the details behind it. So post-election we went back to people and said, can you explain what happened? And we interviewed a lot of people in that room who could detail what exactly happened. So I can say some of the bones were there pre-November—I can’t even remember election day anymore. And then post-November, we went back and filled in the blanks.

Tell me a little bit more about what happened in Michigan?

Basically in our reporting, I would say in the summer of 2016, we heard from one source who said—you know, we were trying to figure out what some of the worst moments were on the campaign, and one source told us about this shouting match that occurred. It wasn’t even a shouting match. Secretary Clinton was really upset, and her aides actually saw her really upset post-Michigan. She was preparing for a debate that night, the debate in Miami, and she basically went off on her aides because she felt like her message in Michigan was completely off.


[Here, Parnes stops and asks if she can call me back. When she does, she tells me she’s just found out her book is #1 on the combined print and e-book New York Times bestseller list. Then she continues from the last question.]

She’s really voicing her unhappiness with her staff going into this debate. So we heard kind of a little drop about this at the end of one interview, and then we tried, we worked for months to get people to talk about it, and it was really hard to get this one piece completed. Finally, post-election, we sat down with a few people who were in the room who gave us the full picture of what happened and what she said, but that was like a nine-month work in progress.


When you were speaking to these sources on background, did women’s issues ever come up or seem to have an impact on the day-to-day functioning of the campaign?

No, I think that she is treated unfairly, obviously, and I think a lot of her staff felt like there was a double standard because she’s Hillary Clinton. But I think now, a lot of people are starting to say that misogyny really played a role in this election and that people didn’t like her because she’s female, but we didn’t hear a lot about it at the time. I think it’s almost something that has bubbled up post-election.


But it does feel like it was such a big media narrative, and she did speak about it during the campaign, so I was curious about whether or not it was an issue for people who were actually on the ground.

It’s funny, they didn’t talk about it day-to-day. I know it was a big deal to her, particularly at the end, where she wanted to address—she specifically wrote in the margins of one of her speech drafts that she wanted to single-handedly talk about women and the role of women going forward and the role of her supporters, and what it meant to her. And that was an idea that she fought hard against in 2008, when she wanted to be more Thatcher-like. This time she really embraced it and kind of did a 180. But it’s funny—that wasn’t something that her aides pointed to while we were doing the reporting of this.


With your co-writer, this was your second book about Hillary—what have you learned?

I think I learned while we were writing HRC that there’s no one smarter in a room, and that she is a force and she comes prepared and she is a student. And we saw a lot of that in this campaign. I’ve heard from several Clinton supporters who cried when they read this book, because they felt like it painted a sympathetic portrait of her in specific moments [during this campaign]. You see how hard she tries to prepare for the debates and what she went through during the Benghazi hearing. And like at the very end when she has that coughing fit and just plows right through it. All those things—you respect her, and I respected her in both books. But she also has some flaws, and I think that this book in particular points at them. I think management could be one of the big takeaways from this book, and had she won, I think... People often ask us, how would the story have changed, and I think the outcome would have changed but I don’t think our narrative arc would have changed, in that we point out she isn’t the best manager. She’s great at governance, but I think we both feel that this particular campaign was mismanaged. And so if she had won, these problems would have followed her into the West Wing.


Is there anything you left out?

I think we squeezed every bit of juice out of everything we got, because we felt like this was an important story and this wasn’t just an autopsy of her campaign, but it’s an autopsy of the Democratic party. And there are so many lessons here to be learned for the way they should conduct themselves in the future.


What can Democrats learn from the book? Is the party doomed to repeat these same mistakes?

I think they’re trying to figure all that out right now, and that’s why you’re seeing Bernie Sanders, who’s an independent, trying to piece the party back together with Tom Perez. But I think it’s a couple of things. One, you can’t just rely on someone to be the inevitable candidate, just because people think it’s their time or because people feel like it’s the time for the first woman president. You need to have a strong message, and that’s something that Donald Trump did well. He had a simple idea, and people knew about his positions on NAFTA, and they knew about this wall he wanted to build, and I think that if you asked your average person on the street what Hillary Clinton stood for, I think even staunch supporters would have some trouble answering that question. So I think a) you need a clear, defined message, and a simple one. And b) you need someone who—and I hate to say this—but you need someone that doesn’t have as much history and baggage that they cart with them onto the campaign trail. I think that definitely hurt her. And I think you need someone who is open to criticism, and we saw that, time and again, that she was shielded by people on her senior staff, like Huma Abedin, who didn’t want to convey what they were hearing. And that hurt her. So it’s a lot of problems. My co-author and I always say that we don’t wanna downplay Comey or Russia, because obviously when you lose by under 80,000 votes everything is a factor. There’s so much to learn from this race.


Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign is available in bookstores and online now.

Senior Editor, Jezebel



When did y’all start to get the feeling that she could lose?

For me, it was the first 2 or 3 weeks after the convention. She’d won the nomination with 55% of the primary/caucus vote; when she should’e been doing everything to secure that other 45%, she was instead going after the votes of “disgruntled Republicans.” Seeing that shit just killed me.

Mind you, I didn’t think she was going to lose at that (or any other) point. It was just a very strong feeling of unease.