The Hillary Clinton Memos

A complete index to the internal communications referenced in "The Front-Runner's Fall"

“The Plan,” October 2006
Clinton had forbidden her advisers from openly discussing her presidential ambitions until after she’d won reelection to the Senate. But behind the scenes, planning was already underway. In this October 2006 strategy memo, Mark Penn sketched out the campaign’s strategic principles (“HRC is the power candidate”) and assessed potential opponents. He worried that Al Gore was “waiting to swoop in later.”

Penn’s “Launch Strategy” Ideas, December 21, 2006
Shortly after Clinton’s reelection, Penn tried out some themes in this flattering memo to his boss. He suggested former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as a role model: “We are more Thatcher than anyone else.” Penn believed that voters view their president as the “father” of the country. “They do not want someone who would be the first mama,” he counseled. “But there is a yearning for a kind of tough single parent.” (He did not propose divorce.) Penn thought voters were “open to the first father being a woman.” But he warned again about the perils of being seen as too soft. “A word about being human,” he wrote. “Bill Gates once asked me, ‘Could you make me more human?’ I said, ‘Being human is overrated.’”

Penn Strategy Memo, March 19, 2007
More than anything else, this memo captures the full essence of Mark Penn’s campaign strategy—its brilliance and its breathtaking attacks. Penn identified with impressive specificity the very coalition of women and blue-collar workers that Clinton ended up winning a year later. But he also called Obama “unelectable except perhaps against Attila the Hun,” and wrote, “I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his center fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values.” Penn proposed targeting Obama’s “lack of American roots.”

Karl Rove Strategy Memo to Bill Clements, Jr., September 4, 1985
As a contrast to Mark Penn’s memos, here’s a fun piece of political arcana: a Karl Rove strategy memo written to former Texas governor Bill Clements, Jr., on the eve of the 1986 gubernatorial race. Clements was elected governor in 1978 but lost his bid for reelection. He was attempting a comeback. Note the tone of bracing honesty: Rove lays out his client’s “potentially explosive” weaknesses, including arrogance and bad press relations. Then he explains how they can be overcome. (Let’s forgive Rove the hackneyed Napoleon quote—Clements won the race.)

Harold Ickes Lists the Campaign’s “Key Assumptions,” March 29, 2007
Soon after Clinton’s presidential campaign got underway, senior adviser Harold Ickes circulated this list of “Key Assumptions.” They include his belief that February 5 would decide the nominee; that Clinton could not survive losses in Iowa and New Hampshire (but that John Edwards and Barack Obama could); and that the prevailing view of her as the incumbent was potentially dangerous. Fatefully, Ickes cited the need to maintain a $25 million reserve fund for use after Iowa—but following Clinton’s loss, he confessed to colleagues, “The cupboard is empty.”

Penn Strategy Memo, April 8, 2007
With Obama’s popularity and fund-raising strength becoming clearer by the day, Penn seemed to absorb the public criticism of Clinton as behaving imperiously. “Show more of the happy warrior,” he counseled. He was also becoming attuned to the importance of the “change” theme Obama was touting: “Let’s talk more about a movement for change coming from the people.” He proposed the slogan “America is Ready for a Change, and HRC is Ready to Lead Us.”

The “Kindergarten” Attack, December 2, 2007
On December 2, Clinton exploded at her staff on a morning conference call, frustrated that her campaign wasn’t on the attack. Hours later, in this series of emails, her panicked staff reacted by putting together an ill-advised attack on Obama for having written a kindergarten essay titled “I Want to Become President.”

Harold Ickes Memo on the Delegate System, December 22, 2007
Harold Ickes was the adviser with primary responsibility for the campaign’s delegate and targeting strategy. While the Obama campaign shrewdly exploited the Democratic Party’s complicated system of allotting delegates, Ickes and the Clinton campaign did not. On December 22, just twelve days before the Iowa caucus, Ickes finally laid out the system for the campaign’s senior staff in this somewhat impenetrable memo.

Penn Strategy Memo for New Hampshire, December 30, 2007
On the eve of the Iowa caucus, the race was too close to call. In this memo, Penn ranked the “six potential scenarios coming out of Iowa” in order of preference. The best had Clinton winning and Obama finishing third. The worst-case scenario had Obama on top and Clinton in third—which ended up being the result. Penn laid out options for how the campaign might respond, including attacks on Obama and Edwards.

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Joshua Green is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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