Wednesday 18 September 2019

Finding hope in defeat - Hillary Clinton's director of communications

Hillary Clinton's director of communications Jennifer Palmieri stalked the corridors of power and faced crushing defeat. She tells Julia Molony how living through tragedy has taught her to live without dread

Jennifer Palmieri with Barack OBama
Jennifer Palmieri with Barack OBama
Jennifer Palmieri
Jennifer Palmieri with Hilary Clinton

For Jennifer Palmieri, November 9, 2016, will forever be the day the sky fell in. When the order of things in which she had, until then, had unshakable faith, broke down. As director of communications for Hillary Clinton during the most recent presidential campaign, she had known, objectively, that there was a chance they might not win.

"It's not as if I didn't understand that we could lose - there was like a one-in-four chance of that," she says. "But the harder it got, the more awful Trump got, it felt like there was some kind of karmic insurance in the world that obviously, we can't be going through all of this, to make him president of the United States. That can't be what's happening here. America's not going to do this. And then it did."

She looks visibly pained by it even now, almost two years later. Palmieri is sitting in the light-flooded lounge of a London hotel, gazing out over a panoramic view of the Thames. She has spent much of her long career stalking the corridors of power. She served as the White House communications director for President Obama, and spent her early years as a deputy press secretary reporting to President Clinton. But she wears her professional standing lightly. Perhaps this is because since the 2016 campaign, she has had plenty of time to integrate the humility of defeat. Though I suspect it's rather that Palmieri is a pragmatic person, not given to posturing.

She has strong, leonine features and a mane of wheat-coloured hair. She expresses herself, as you would expect, with the clean economy of a professional communicator. Less expected though, is the vocal fry that creeps regularly into her voice, lending a valley-girl flavour to her pronouncements on the state of contemporary America.

Jennifer Palmieri with Hilary Clinton
Jennifer Palmieri with Hilary Clinton

She is dressed down today in jeans and a grey sweater which has been embroidered with the words Dear Madam President, the title of her new book. It's part political memoir, part an act of literary mentorship aimed at young women.

With it's uplifting, straight-talking feminist approach, it joins a publishing trend launched by Sheryl Sandberg's seminal book Lean In. The book is structured as an "open letter to the women who will run the world". Or specifically, to the future first female president of the United States. "I don't know if you are a Democrat or Republican or something else, I just know that you are out there somewhere. And you need this book," she writes.

To Palmieri, the events of 2016 are up there with the most demolishing experiences of her life. She compares the disorientation she felt in the aftermath of the Clinton campaign to another tragedy that was to follow a few months later in the same year - the loss of her older sister Dana to early-onset Alzheimer's at the age of 58. "Nobody died," she clarifies of losing the election, "it's not as devastating as a death, but it was also something I never imagined could happen."

Her aim in writing Dear Madam President was to distil the lessons she learned from the experience of being beaten by Donald Trump for the benefit of the next female candidate who will successfully blaze a trail to the Oval Office. But it also served a related, but more personal purpose. As a communications director, her job has been to shape narratives, to convert policies or a candidate's personal history, into stories that are instantly comprehensible to voters and that capture the public imagination. Now, Palmieri sought to make sense of the experience she had lived by shaping it into a story of hope.

"I definitely felt compelled to try to make something positive out of this experience," she says. "And I really wanted to convey how it felt on the campaign trail. I do think we were on the front end of this phenomenon that America is going through now, where women are deciding that we have been living by an outdated set of rules and are now sort of remaking ourselves in a new way."

Palmieri claims it became blazingly clear to her during the 2016 campaign that the most important obstacle Hillary Clinton's team faced was based in sexism. "I think the most generous way to put it is that she vexes people. She confounds them. They don't know what to make of her." There is, she says, quoting the response she heard time and time again during public opinion polls and vox pops "something about her they just don't like".

Palmieri is adamant that this knee-jerk antipathy her team kept running up against was "not about the person that is Hillary Rodham Clinton, it's about the phenomenon that is Hillary Clinton... she was always stepping outside of the role that women traditionally have held."

In the book, she writes about how Hillary was only redeemed in public opinion when accepting defeat. "Everybody loved Hillary's concession speech. Everybody loved it. Because you know what it's OK for a woman to do? Lose. Be a gracious loser.

"When you are running for president, this is what you are saying to everyone: You're saying, I want the most powerful job on the planet. I think I'm the best pick for the most powerful job on the planet, and here are all the reasons why the guy I'm running against is terrible. And you know who people don't want to hear that from? A woman... In the scope of human history it's still a radical thing for a woman to be in charge."

Palmieri was born in Mississippi, where her father, a naval officer, was stationed at the time. As one of four girls, hers was a big, noisy, politically conscious family. "It was loud," she remembers. "Four girls, Italian family. No-one ever really completed a sentence."

Her parents were both committed Republicans until switching to support Bill Clinton in 1993. Perhaps it's significant that in her early life, Palmieri was initiated into active politics by her mother, who became a campaigner for the Republican candidate Trent Lott when Jennifer was a child. "My Mom would put me in a Trent Lott sandwich board," she remembers. Most kids would likely find this a bore, but Palmieri's interest was piqued. "Then that was during the time of Watergate. Trent Lott got elected to Congress and they immediately put him on the committee looking into Watergate. And so then I was interested to see how he handled that, and then I just loved politics ever since. It was certainly something that a woman did."

Although she says, even within her family "my obsession with it was unique to me, it was not something my sisters shared. They made fun of me."

Central to Palmieri's resilience, both professional and personal, is her reflex for spinning good from bad. "It's definitely in my nature to try to see the best in situations. In politics, Democrats always see doom. Always. Always," she says. In this context, her indefatigable positivity has always set her apart. "There's something about, you always see problems. You want to fix them, but you always see problems. It annoys me, and I'm always telling people, look at it from another perspective. So with Hillary, she would be discouraged by how nasty the public had taken after her, and I would be like, 'imagine how frustrated they are! They're so frustrated! They can't take you out'."

This approach also defined her way of dealing with her sister's illness. In her book, she writes about her sister's final days as some of the most joyful and meaningful moments they spent together.

"It was this terrible diagnosis," she says. "It's the disease everybody fears because they think it's going to rob you of the person well before they die. And I had the same devastation and dread that I think any family going through that has. I would go to Dallas to visit her when she couldn't live on her own any more and I had to go visit her in some kind of facility, and just dreading that. And thinking, OK, in six days I have to go. In five days I have to go. And then OK, it's the night before, and not being able to sleep the night before. And then just dreading walking into that room. And then I did walk into the room and what I found was that, you never really, at least in my experience, you never really lose the person. You could look at her eyes and see that she was still there. And it just makes you reassess or recalculate what you value and what you think is important. All the expectations from your whole life have just fallen away, and you have these amazingly meaningful moments there."

In life, Dana had a mantra that would end with "'All is well". And that mantra was what the rest of the family would repeat to her as she lay dying. In doing so, they came to believe it themselves. "It would be true. In each individual moment, it would be true," she says. "You can get overwhelmed by looking at the enormity of the task before you, or the tragedy of the situation before you, but if you live it minute by minute you find that a) you're strong enough to get through just about anything, and b) there are moments of beauty and joy in each of those."

When Dana got her diagnosis, she was determined something good would come out of it, and Palmieri confirms her wish has been honoured. "My family did indeed, during the time Dana was sick, spend more time together. Does indeed now spend more time together," she says.

"I live life without a lot of dread any more," she says. "Which is really liberating. And there was so much of life I realised that I did dread... dread is a huge waste of time and it robs you of a lot of life."

Writing the book has been an exercise in finding the good in difficult life experiences. But so too has her new change of priorities, which now are "being a good sister and being a good wife" to her husband Jim Lyons and "being a good stepmother" to his two daughters.

In Dear Madam President, she writes about how, in 2004, she sank into a profound depression after leading John Edwards failed presidential campaign. "I had clinical depression, I had antidepressants and therapy both after that," she she says. In 2016, she feared she would relapse. Surprisingly, it didn't happen. "Even though we lost, I had felt that I had put my very best effort into something that mattered. And I took a lot of value from that and I still feel that way today. You know, I was worried that the value I took from what I was doing might be wrapped up in the stature or it all. That the value I took from the work I was doing was about being in the West Wing of the White House. Or about being on a presidential campaign. I was concerned - am I not going to feel that I'm contributing or doing things of value when that's gone? And I found that I was OK. What I found was I found something else to put my effort and time into that mattered to me and that I felt was important. And I don't need to be attached to an entity or someone else's name in order to feel whole."

"With this book," she says. "I've brought my family and friends along... I made a point to go to Missippi which was where my sister had gone to college and brought my niece with me and other sister and we reconnected with friends we hadn't seen in 30 years. And I've been trying to make this experience not just meaningful for me but for my family and close friends. Because it's definitely been a joint project."

There are good things, she thinks, to come out of the catastrophe of 2016. "The joke in DC is that protest is the new brunch," she says.

"It is a huge setback but I find now it's inspiring because I think the world can ultimately be better than I had imagined before. It can be better for women, it can be more fulfilling for everyone than I had imagined prior to this election. It is not something I had ever expected to see."

Dear Madam President by Jennifer Palmieri (Hodder and Stoughton) €18.20

Jennifer's advice for future female leaders

1 Don't bottle it up. "Crying isn't a show of weakness. It's a powerful demonstration of emotion," says Palmieri who thinks we shouldn't put on a show of stoicism at work. "It's not something you should do constantly, but I don't see the need to fight to hold the tears in the way we do. For women (and some men), crying can be a way we express anger or frustration, or passion, or sadness. We shouldn't mute all that."

2 Celebrate the fact that you are a woman. Palmieri says the biggest mistake she and her team made was to reduce Clinton "to a female facsimile of the qualities we expect to see in a male president" which robbed her of "some measure of her own humanity, some of the qualities that were unique to her."

3 Value your voice. "I really want young women everywhere to see how much your perspective and voice matters," says Palmieri. "We can sometimes doubt ourselves or wait for permission, or wait to be asked."

4 We need more perspectives in the world. "I learned that at an early age from watching President Clinton and President Obama," says Palmieri. "They got the most insight from the people who hadn't gone to the best schools, who didn't look like everybody else who hadn't done all the same jobs. Because they had a perspective they weren't hearing otherwise."

5 Trust your confusion. "I want women to know, we spent a long time making the workplace comfortable for men, so when you feel like something is not quite right... You're right! It wasn't built with you in mind."

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