September 19th, 2018


Hillary Listened to Us, And You Won't Believe What Happens Next

Andrew Ferguson

By Andrew Ferguson

Published August 23, 2016

Hillary Listened to Us, And You Won't Believe What Happens Next

For generations now, "If They'd Only Listened to Me" has served as the mythical title of the ultimate Washington memoir. The staffer/ speechwriter /advisor/ex-close friend of a president/ senator /ambassador lands a book contract and agrees to look back over his government service more in sorrow than in anger. He is reluctantly forced to conclude that if his mentor, an otherwise well meaning sort, had only listened to him and taken his advice, the world would have avoided many calamities that are otherwise the mentor's sole responsibility.

This campaign season has produced a new kind of as-told-to memoir. The template appears in a recent story in of Politico magazine. The new title might be "They Did Listen To Me, And You Won't Believe What Happens Next!"

The Politico article, its author assures us, is superbly sourced with "interviews with more than half a dozen Clinton allies inside and outside her campaign." "More than half a dozen" is a political reporter's way of saying "seven." "Allies inside and outside her campaign" refers to at least five butt-boys who haven't been able to get hired and two more staffers who have inflated their power in the eyes of a reporter who desperately needs to flatter them if he hopes to continue to use them as a source.

Textual evidence is clear that those two staffers are a speechwriter named Dan Schwerin and a "policy adviser" called Jake Sullivan. The story opens in New Hampshire with the Clinton campaign in disarray. Our two heroes are at wit's end. So they "decamp"—the reporter's word, getting all literary—to the seaside, where they "rethink the entire campaign's approach."

A big job, but somebody's got to do it! The candidate herself is worse than useless. "Her staff...knew she was often her own worst enemy." She is literal, apparently lacking the gift for music and poetry that her staffers, more than half a dozen of them, for chrissakes, have in abundance. She struggles with "messaging." She is almost hostile to "the idea of narrative."

In other words, Hillary Clinton is, in this respect if no other, allergic to the empty, stylized crapola that campaign professionals routinely sell as serious thought to insecure political candidates. As if to prove the point, according to Politico, the two staffers thought and thought and came up with what the article calls a "sturdy slogan."

And here it is: "Breaking Down Barriers."

But the candidate, being just a candidate, failed to grasp the brilliance of the thing.

"This is useless," Clinton said.

Now, anyone who hasn't surrendered to the funhouse world of political consulting and its faddish, self-referential assumptions will instantly see that Clinton was right. Only people who consider a nonsense word like "messaging" to be a meaningful noun could pretend that such an empty phrase as "Breaking Down Barriers" has persuasive power—a category that includes Politico reporters as well as all their sources.

Which is why the article concludes that Dan and Jake's messaging worked. Hillary may have been too old and dense to understand, but Chelsea Clinton, burning with a wisdom that belies her youth, was able to convince mom to get with the program. Hillary took to repeating the phrase like the wind-up doll that her staffers wish she were.

And the rest is history. The sequence of events is undeniable. Hillary Clinton's campaign was losing to Bernie Sanders. Dan and Jake decamped seaside. From their massive capacity for cogitation, the phrase "Breaking Down Barriers" emerged full blown. It became the campaign's motto. And now Hillary Clinton is about to be nominated as her party's candidate for president.

Coincidence? Politico thinks not.

Mark Twain once embraced the same logic. He had enlisted in the Confederate army at the beginning of the Civil War, he said. Then he mustered out two months later. The result? "The South fell," he said.

For myself, I prefer the old style of political memoir, "If They'd Only Listened to Me." This new kind, which is just as fatuous and aggrandizing, has the effect of swelling the heads of the midgets who think they control the woman who signs their checks. So far, says Politico, she has listened to them, and we should all be worried about what happens next.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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Andrew Ferguson is senior editor at The Weekly Standard, where this first appeared, and the author of Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College.