On February 10, Clinton finally fired Solis Doyle and moved Williams in—but did not heed calls to fire Penn, enraging Solis Doyle’s many loyalists. At this crucial point, long-simmering feuds burst into the open. On February 11, Williams’s first day on the job, Phil Singer, Wolfson’s deputy and a man notorious for his tirades at reporters, blew up in Wolfson’s office and screamed obscenities at his boss before throwing open the door to direct his ire at the campaign’s policy director, Neera Tanden, an ally of Solis Doyle. “Fuck you and the whole fucking cabal!” he shouted, according to several Clinton staffers. In the end, he climbed onto a chair and screamed at the entire staff before storming out.
The same day, Philip Bennett, the managing editor of The Washington Post, sent Williams a letter formally complaining that Singer had maligned one of his reporters by spreading unfounded rumors about her (apparently in retaliation for an accurate—and prescient—story that had noted, long before anyone else, Clinton’s tendency to burn through money). Fearing for his deputy’s job, Wolfson intercepted the letter, though Bennett eventually got a copy to Williams. Singer disappeared and was presumed fired. But a week later, he made amends and rejoined the campaign. “When the house is on fire, it’s better to have a psychotic fireman than no fireman at all,” Wolfson explained to a colleague.
As the days wore on, morale deteriorated. In state after state, the staff watched helplessly as huge leads dwindled to nothing in the face of Obama’s massive outlays. Toward the end of a February 21 debate, amid what would prove to be a string of 12 straight losses, Clinton spoke of the race wistfully, as though resigned to losing. The press took this as a signal that the end was near—not at all what she meant.
On the call two days later, the candidate was furious, this time at a press corps she accused of purposely misreading her designs in an effort to force her from the race. “They’re taking out their revenge on Bill,” she fumed, according to a participant’s notes. Later that day at a press conference, Clinton left no doubts about her purpose, lighting into Obama. Penn’s star was ascendant.
March–April 2008: Penn Takes Command
Penn believed that white men (“beer drinkers”) had been up for grabs since Edwards had bowed out, on January 30; one basis for his disagreement with colleagues who wanted to showcase Clinton’s softer side was that doing so would not attract white men. “The idea,” he wrote, “that this can be won all on smiles, emotions, and empathy is simply wrong.”
Penn created his infamous “3 a.m.” ad, questioning Obama’s readiness for a crisis, with these voters in mind. Before presenting the ad to the senior staff, he secured Hillary Clinton’s approval to broadcast it. But even Clinton’s newfound willingness to attack did not prevent Penn from being challenged. His detractors had two rationales: that attacks would look desperate and drive up Clinton’s already lofty “unfavorable” ratings; and that if she continued down this path she would irreparably damage her reputation and possibly that of her party’s nominee.