A group of reporters files into a room in Chappaqua, New York. Before them sits Hillary Clinton, with a towel around her neck and sweat glistening on her forehead. “Hillary,” one reporter ventures, “what happened out there tonight?” Clinton looks at the digital recorders being thrust toward her face and thinks, What exactly do these people want me to say?
I’m always fascinated when political reporters start to sound like sportswriters. The reaction to Clinton’s first extended interviews since losing the election to Donald Trump is one of those times. Any quarterback who has had to explain how he lost a Super Bowl knows the excruciating process Clinton is enduring. This is her postgame interview. It’s a no-win scenario for Clinton, because political writers — like their cousins in sports — can’t decide what they want out of the exchange.
Like sports losers, presidential losers often make for good copy. In 2004, The New Yorker’s David Remnick went to Nashville to find out how Al Gore was dealing with a loss every bit as gutting as Clinton’s. He found Gore reluctant to talk about the race but wielding self-abasing humor. “I’m Al Gore,” he would remark. “I used to be the next president of the United States.” The people around Gore, Remnick wrote, “cooperated in his elaborate self-deprecations.” It made everyone feel better.
There are three ways sportswriters approach a loser’s postgame interview. The first is to try to record the loser’s look and emotional state. What Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel did to Peyton Manning after his Super Bowl loss to the Seahawks, the writer Rebecca Traister did to Clinton in last week’s issue of New York. Traister found Clinton at her home in Chappaqua without makeup and wearing “giant Coke-bottle glasses.” She looked “less Clinton and more Rodham than I have ever seen her outside of college photographs,” Traister wrote.
Clinton acted differently than she had on the trail, too. She was performing a trick “she has long found difficult in public: She had been herself — brassy, frank, funny, and pissed.” Unfortunately, the first pushback to the “new” Clinton sent her scrambling back to tightly scripted talking points. It’s hard to record the genuine emotional state of someone who hasn’t felt she could be genuinely emotional in public since the 1992 New Hampshire primary.
The second approach a sportswriter takes to a loser’s postgame interview is to try to figure out why the athlete’s team lost. This is particularly interesting after a defeat as surprising as Clinton’s loss to Trump.
In a chat last month with Christiane Amanpour, Clinton blamed former FBI Director James Comey’s October 28 letter announcing he was looking at additional Clinton emails. “If the election had been on October 27, I’d be your president,” Clinton said. She added: “Did we make mistakes? Of course we did. Did I make mistakes? Oh, my gosh, yes. … But the reason why I believe we lost were the intervening events in the last 10 days.”
By the time she met Traister, Clinton was naming even more culprits. She would have won had it not been for “unprecedented attacks by Comey and the Russians, aided and abetted by the suppression of the vote, particularly in Wisconsin,” Clinton said. She also blamed WikiLeaks’ extended reveal of her allies’ emails.
This week, when Clinton sat for a long Q&A at the Code Conference, she turned her guns on her putative teammates at the Democratic National Committee: “[I]ts data was mediocre to poor, nonexistent, wrong.” She further blamed The New York Times for covering the scandal around her private email server “like it was Pearl Harbor.”
The sound of Clinton blaming someone other than herself got reporters riled up. The Times’ Glenn Thrush called the Amanpour interview a “Mea Culpa — not so much.” A New York Daily News columnist wrote: “Hey, Hillary Clinton, shut the f — up and go away already.” Here, you see the third thing reporters want out of a loser’s postgame interview, one whose value probably rises above all the others. They want the loser to shut up and take the blame.
“I put the blame on me,” the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson said after throwing a game-losing interception in the Super Bowl two years ago. After blowing a 25-point lead in February’s Super Bowl, the Falcons’ Matt Ryan defended his beleaguered offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan.
In all three of the interviews Clinton gave this spring, she included a blame-absorbent statement that would make a losing quarterback proud. “I take absolute personal responsibility,” she told Amanpour. But when she tried to explain there were factors beyond her being a bum candidate, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange tweeted: “Blame yourself.”
Why do people get so mad at Clinton for trying to diagnose how she lost? Some of the reasons are banal. As The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel pointed out, Two Minutes Hate for Hillary allows Fox News to change the chyron from Trump’s blossoming Russia scandal. Sometimes, quotes from Clinton’s interviews bubble up piecemeal on Twitter, making it unclear just how much blame she’s taking and how much she’s dishing out.
But the biggest reason everyone’s mad at Hillary is the same reason sportswriters called the Panthers’ Cam Newton a sore loser for his tight-lipped press conference after Super Bowl 50. It’s not that Clinton’s wrong to blame Comey, WikiLeaks, and America’s lingering stench of misogyny. (Nate Silver reported that the Comey letter probably cost Clinton the election.) But, as reporters see it, Clinton simply has no right to say these things. By blaming anyone but herself, she is violating a sense of locker-room decorum.
If you watch athletes give post-loss interviews, you notice they almost always reel off certain clichés. “I’m proud of what we accomplished this season.” “We did a lot of good things tonight.” “We put ourselves in a position to win.”
The losing athlete also says of the opposing team: “Give them credit.” Notice that Clinton never quite says this about the Trump campaign, which she regards as a venal, ramshackle operation that lost the popular vote. (Speaking about Trump and Bernie Sanders, Clinton boasted to Traister, “I beat both of them.”) It’s here you realize the value of polite lies. Hillary Clinton’s postgame interview is particularly excruciating because she can’t bring herself to give Trump any credit at all.