With the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, there was no one in the primary race with higher negatives, as they say, than Mark Penn, her beleaguered chief strategist. Polarizing doesn't begin to describe him, based on the unrelenting shitstorm of criticism hurled his way. From the loaded (did he really not know that California wasn't winner-take-all, and did his firm really get paid $13 million?) to the just plain schoolyard-bully mean (he's socially inept, nobody likes him, he has no friends!), it was brutal. Through it all, Penn never once defended himself, even as the Blame Penn chorus grew louder. And when he did put himself out there, to spin for Hillary, it didn't always go so well, as in the infamous (last) time he went on Hardball to promise America that the Clinton campaign would not be making an issue of Obama's college drug use, vowing that they wouldn't be talking about the cocaine. Or the cocaine. Causing Joe Trippi to jump down his throat, in a live and excruciating moment, and Terry McAuliffe to tell him to stop.
Oh, and he also got demoted. But not really.
It couldn't have been easy to be Mark Penn.
A disclosure/caveat: I once profiled Penn's wife, Nancy Jacobson, for another magazine and, in the years that followed, got to know her personally. My previous encounters with her husband were all of the cocktail-party variety, but I never found him to be the least bit socially inept. And I always found the backstory compelling: Raised by a single mother who made $10,000 a year as a schoolteacher after his father—a union organizer and kosher-poultry dealer—died when Mark was 10. So determined to go to Harvard that when he got wait-listed, he jumped on a train from New York and knocked on the door of the head of admissions to personally plead his case. (He got in.)
I met with Penn twice as the campaign was winding down. The first time, in his office in Manhattan, he was frazzled, edgy, juggling e-mails (he gets a thousand a day) and stepping outside repeatedly to take urgent calls from Bill. His suit jacket was rolled up in a ball on the conference table. He seemed a little subdued, at war with himself or someone, the loyal guy who doesn't name names but was clearly mourning the way things were playing out. The second time, in his gleaming white-and-glass offices in Washington, it was over but for the speech, and I hesitate to say he seemed relieved, but he seemed relieved. He was loose, laughed easily, gamely narrating the stories behind all the tchotchkes in his office—the framed photos of him and Nancy with Hillary and Bill, the photo of him deep in conversation with Bill in the Oval Office (when they were discussing one of the more, "uh, sensitive matters"), the "ACQUITTED" front-page impeachment story from The Washington Post, signed by Bill with gratitude to Mark. His office is dominated by a huge fish tank. (At Harvard he used to "breed fish" in his dorm room; it's safe to say he wasn't the BMOC.) In person he is every bit the geeky guy who secretly loves to watch SpongeBob SquarePants. And every bit the guy who coulda, woulda, shoulda won this thing.
GQ: How did you underestimate him [meaning Barack Obama]?
Mark Penn: I think I never underestimated it, that once you had that kind of candidate, that that kind of candidate could be real trouble. And that if that candidate… You know, if Obama won Iowa, it would really change, dramatically change, the situation going forward. And consequently, I really wanted to question Obama as early as possible.
You wanted to hit him harder? Well, I wanted to question the basic underpinning of his campaign… His problems in his campaign were (1) that he didn't have the usual experience of somebody running for president, and (2) that the positions he took on Iraq—you know, that were revered by the press—didn't really hold up when you look through his record in the Senate.
Why didn't you? Well, I started down that road.… President Clinton took on the Iraq back-and-forth. But the rest of the campaign didn't want to tackle Iraq. They always felt that that was a losing proposition for her, and they always pulled it back.
How much of the reluctance to go after him at the beginning was because he's a black candidate? [clears throat] You know, I can't answer that.
But there had to have been some concern about attacking the first black man who was a serious candidate for the presidency. Well, but the word attack is a harsh word. If you point out somebody's voting records, his attendance records, you know, if you point out how they differ with you on an answer of meeting with dictators, you know, that was a prime concern of a lot of people. It appeared to be the prime concern of a lot of people in the news media. Because the normal stories that would have been written about someone just never appeared. The truth of the matter was, there seemed to be an unlimited market for anything on Hillary and very little market for writing a story on Barack Obama and say, for example, his attendance in the Senate. There has still been no story written about something like that—as basic as something like that.
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The liberal bloggers say you don't have principles, you're this mercenary, you're a triangulating phony. Why do they hate you so much? Well, first of all, they don't know me. Probably a mistake in the campaign was not to get to know people like that early on.
But when they say you're a mercenary— I say, "Look, I'm a consultant. And consultants are obviously gonna be paid for their services." But unlike the other consultants now, I don't own the company anymore. I'm an employee. The other consultants are not employees.
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Is it possible that in some ways, that no matter what happened or what you did or didn't do, this was a phenomenon, Obama was a phenomenon, and there was nothing that could have been done to stop him? No, I don't think that's true. When a race is this close at the end, you could have done something.
In retrospect, when you look at the Obama campaign, what were some of the other things that were really genius? I think, at the end of the day, they really did what they had to when they had to. They didn't think twice about taking her on when they had to. They did it. They just did it. And I think they were right to go after the progressive voters who were Democrats in Republican states that were ripe for a candidacy like his, and they did it very well. And I think that they sold him as a brand.… They finely targeted several constituencies in order to put together their coalition and even to turn out unexpectedly large numbers of young people. They had a great organization.
Obama ran a great campaign, then. Well, I think, look, he had tremendous help from the media…
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Do you think Obama can win the states she won in November? Sure, he can win. I don't think there's any question he can win. It's a Democratic year, he's coming out of these contests as a very strong nominee, there's a tremendous amount of almost worldwide enthusiasm for him—so he definitely can win.
But? But he's gotta show that he's got the right experience to be president. He's gotta forge a stronger connection with working-class voters. He's gotta really introduce himself to those independent voters who are really gonna decide it for the first time.
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Do you think Obama's an elitist? I think that what you've seen is that he has not, so far, connected with the working class of America in a credible way. And he's gonna have to overcome that.
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One of the damning reports about you was that you thought the California primary was winner-take-all and not allotted proportionally. In an article in Time, Harold Ickes was quoted as having called you on that: "How can it possibly be that the much vaunted chief strategist doesn't understand proportional allocation?" Is that true? It is a false story, plain and simple. And it is being used to divert people from the real question of who, how, and when was the decision made not to build political organizations or spend money in a lot of the caucus states? I can assure you that was not the message team. And she did have, on the political team, some of the world's greatest experts on the subject.
Looking at the big picture down the road, years from now, how do you think history will view this campaign? Well, they're always going to look at it and say, "Well, it was a surprise that she didn't win." And they'll look at her and say, "She was the first woman that had a real opportunity." Look, we never know what's gonna happen later on. A lot of people have come back. It's pretty unusual for somebody to win the nomination the first time out. History is really quite the opposite. The expected in politics is the unexpected... The reason that I would have gone after him early was precisely because I didn't underestimate the power of a Fresh New Candidate who also had appeal to the African-American vote and the latte voters. To put them together, into a very strong coalition supported by money and the press? Absolutely I saw all that. Absolutely… But: How do you stop something like that, right? You don't stop something like that by being "warmer" [snorts]—by, you know, giving an interview on a personality show.
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Was the inevitability thing you? No. Inevitability is a concept from the opponents, okay? We ran, though, as somebody who was the front-runner, as somebody who had the strength. She had the experience. She had, you know, then, the political establishment behind her. You know, front-runners typically win against challengers. That's been the pattern. So it was never a notion that she was inevitable. It was a notion, though, that she was running as a big candidate, the kind of person you want to turn to as president and you say, "I really believe this is somebody who can do this job, and do this job the way the great presidents have done this job."
So who started it? No, I think the Obama campaign called us inevitable. And that stuck with the media. But that wasn't something that we were actively selling. We were selling the idea that she was ready to be president, that she had broad support across the country, and that she was the candidate who could win.
What happened in October? How was that the turning point? Well, October of '07 we were forty points ahead. What happened in October, or really the beginning of November, was that Barack Obama personally attacked Hillary Clinton. Called her disingenuous. They attacked her in the debate on the driver's licenses… And until then, basically, people were declaring the race over. The message strategy had been so successful that everybody was declaring it over. And they got so frustrated that what the Obama camp did was that they restrategized. And they concluded, obviously, the only thing they could do was attack her personally. It took us a while to kind of throw off those basic attacks. And I think that it was a tough organization to respond to that. You know, the response to a lot of those attacks became "Let's do the soft, personal stuff." And that didn't work.
Go back to the licenses. What happened was, Obama announced the day before [the debate] that he was gonna go after her personally. Called her disingenuous in The New York Times. Now, at that moment, and up until that moment, you know, we had won the experience primary; we won the new-ideas primary. A lot of the leads that we would rely upon in the big states were already built up. He was fading in the national polls, and he said, "Look, the strategy here isn't working. I've gotta do something different." And Obama did. He attacked her. And a lot of the press egged him on.
But he should have. You would have, right? I would have, yeah! But… So that attack, on the driver's licenses, was then played an absurd number of times by the media.
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...what other things could have turned the ship around? …the group that did the budget had set a goal of raising 75 million and keeping 25 million aside. In fact, over a hundred million was raised, and 25 million wasn't there.
So they just pissed away way too much money on Iowa? Well, I still don't know what happened—whether it was Iowa. Because even Iowa was not that large a percentage of a hundred million.
That's a huge amount, 25 million. Do you think there'll be some awful scandal about where it all went? No.
It was just ineptitude? I just think it will be very high. [He means the amount of money that was pissed away.]
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When you look at the highs and the lows, I assume the "3 a.m." ad was a high point for you. How did it come about? Um, had a long plane ride, and I'm sitting there looking at the polls coming back from Texas, and there's a pretty good chance we're gonna be out of the race in about two weeks, unless we come up with something different. So I spent the whole plane ride thinking to myself, We need to have a game changer. And so I wrote five game changers. Now, she had used a line that came from somewhere about "3 a.m." in one of her speeches, and so I built one ad around that. I built another ad around a lot of the positions Barack Obama had in his 2004 primary...
Of the five, how many ran? One… What I did was, I sent her the five game changers in an e-mail. And I said, "Look, I think we gotta do one of these, because the trends look like we're gonna go down in Texas unless we do something out of the ordinary and out of the box."
And she said? She said, "I like this one. Give it a try."
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You've been portrayed as having no allies. And on the other hand, you have Bill and Hillary's trust and respect to this day. Well, you know, I've been through a lot with the Clintons. Remember—and I think most people don't remember this—that after the '94 congressional elections, the old consultants were shown the door and the new consultants came in. The president was at 30 percent favorable; 65 percent of the people said they'd never, ever vote for President Clinton again. Nobody wanted the job…
Did your lack of allies hurt you? Well, you know, obviously in '96, I had a team of allies. We had a wonderful functioning team that made decisions in minutes. This was not… I didn't have that kind of team…Ultimately, I think this was set up in a way that Hillary wanted to set it up….I think she believed that diffusing things was a better way.
Do you mean diffusing power? Yeah, diffusing authority. Letting experts in, in different areas. You know, that's why political was Harold Ickes, and you know, Patti was the manager, and Mandy was media. I'm just saying that this was set up as a diffuse organization. And I think, look, again, when you look at it under… Maybe a theory that this kind of creative tension would produce better advice—
What does that tell you about her ability to run the country? I think she'd be great at running the country. I wouldn't interpret how somebody organizes a campaign in terms of how they're gonna run the country.
Why not? Because the average person might think, if she can't run her campaign— Because never confuse running for president with being president.
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What do you say to the critics who think she should have gotten out sooner? No male candidate has ever been told to drop out. Ever.
Are you saying it was sexist that they wanted her out? I just think that no woman has ever—I'm sorry, no candidate has ever been pressured like this, to drop out! Especially someone who's within a couple…a percent. Who's within, you know, a hundred-plus delegates. This is an incredible phenomenon. It's an entirely new phenomenon.
At the end of the day, Bill's [Clinton] influence—did it hurt or help…? Look, there's no question that the Obama campaign took comments that could not in any way, shape, or form in an objective reality be seen as racist, and they told surrogates to characterize them that way. And I think that was the… And not only that, but when you look at who was making the comments, people who devoted their lives, you know—President Clinton was there in Little Rock—who devoted their lives to kind of repairing the breach racially in this country, it was doubly, it was really doubly unfair and troubling.
What you've described sounds an awful lot more nasty and ruthless than— …Just because, you know, people think Hillary was more negative than he was doesn't mean in fact that it was the case. Look, I just think, you know, President Clinton was extremely valuable. He was out there seeing people and putting the case for her, you know, day after day. And everyplace he went, she got more votes than she would have.
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Let's talk about the whole vice president thing. Should she be talking about it? Do you think she wants it? Look, I think that's totally gonna be up to Barack Obama and what he wants. And I don't think that she's gonna have any other comment on it. I don't think that it's really appropriate for anybody to talk about. It's Barack Obama's choice. And he's gonna make the choice that he thinks is best for his ticket, for the party, for the country…
But how do you feel about the idea? I think that the two of them together would make an excellent ticket.
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So let's talk about sexism. Where did you see it? …From the beginning, I thought she would get a tremendous amount of support from women. Women are 54 percent of the electorate. For all the talk about more young people coming out? More women came out. Millions more women came out than ever before. It was the largest increase. They're really energized. But you know, at the time that Obama said, you know, "She's playing the gender card," the media played into that, you know? She wasn't playing the gender card. If anything, there was a lot of other stuff going on here. Not from the Obama campaign, but just in society generally. And I think Chris Matthews owed her a major apology, and eventually delivered one. The media had been outrageous.
You mean Matthews's comment about "The reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around"? Right. And the kind of nutcracker dolls you could find at the airports. You know, the kind of stuff that would just never be allowed against anyone else was almost commonplace against Hillary. And I think, actually, after New Hampshire, women woke up to that. They supported her from that time on very solidly. And I think they saw her as both qualified for president and their champion, and I think that they became increasingly upset at the media over time. I think the media's got a lot of damage to repair with the women in this country.
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Umm, Bosnian snipers? Bosnia hurt. I think that it was, again, just an example of the mistakes she made as a candidate. I think it eventually died. Remember, see, this is why, when you come back to moments—even New Hampshire—that made a difference for her, they're not about weakness, they're about inner strength. And so I think that, at the end of the campaign, she has broken through here on this question of inauthenticity, and they see her as a true champion for causes that she's fought for. And it took them a long time to see that.
But how do you explain the snipers thing? And not just saying it once, but saying it a few more times? I think she just made a mistake. Look, she clearly remembered something, right? She remembered that there had been a threat. And sometimes I'm astounded by the number of things that she has to remember right. She has to remember every policy, everything she's ever done. I mean, look, it's easy when you— When you don't have a thirty-five-year record, you don't have to remember much. When you've got a thirty-five-year record, you can be held accountable for every single second.
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When you talk about the media and the treatment of her, you know, part of it—in the beginning of the campaign, back when it seemed like she was the inevitable nominee—she was really distant from the press. Don't you think that had something to do with the fact that the press fell in love with Obama? Well…no. [laughs] The press fell in love with him, period.
Why? The press always falls in love with the new cool intellectual candidate. You know, he is their kind of candidate. Go back through history. They didn't like Al Gore. They loved Gary Hart. They love those kinds of candidates, always have. But—but—but look, I think that he was the first African-American, you know, credible presidential candidate was a factor behind how much the press was enthusiastic about him. But she was also the first woman candidate. But the standard… You know, the microscope that they put her under, that they did not put her opponent and opponents under, was just incredible. I don't think anybody has ever been put under this kind of microscope running for president. There were certain times early in the campaign where she would try to be…do what people tell her, and say, "Hey, I'll be more relaxed, I'll tell a little joke." But every time she told the joke, it became a, you know, a federal case. Her words are parsed. Every single word is parsed. By the right, by the left, by the press. In a way that makes it kind of…difficult to just, quote, go out there and let it all hang out. And so she is naturally careful and precise in the things she goes on to say. But I think that during that same time, there were a lot of off-the-record sessions with the press, a lot of behind-the-scenes work she was doing. And over time she gave, you know, she did a lot more going back to the press, and she was great. See, if you go back to some of the myths of the campaign, I'm sure, if you check, that she has far more availabilities than Obama's had. That she has been far more accessible to the press, overall. So the question is who had the impression of who's accessible.
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What did you say to her, when it was clear that it was over? You know, to have a conversation like that, I'll wait a period of time. I'm not gonna have that conversation right now. There's something about the way this race went on and the way she fought through it… Look, they wanted to get her out. Ever since Iowa! No, it's something I'm gonna wait on a little bit and kinda go back emotionally on, you know? [laughs] I mean, this interview says about the maximum that I can say.