Why is the “real” Hillary Clinton so hard to know? Is charisma the most important quality for a President? Actually getting to know Hillary, changed Rebecca Traiser’s mind. She answers these questions—and more—in this insightful article.
by Rebecca Traiser — Excerpts
There’s nothing simple about this candidacy—or candidate
The idea that, at this point, there is some version of Hillary Clinton that we haven’t seen before feels implausible. Often, it feels like we know too much about her. She has been around for so long — her story, encompassing political intrigue and personal drama, has been recounted so many times — that she can seem a fictional character… As a young Hillary hater, I often compared her to Darth Vader — more machine than woman, her humanity ever more shrouded by Dark Side gadgetry. These days, I think of her as General Leia: No longer a rebel princess, she has made a wry peace with her rakish mate and her controversial hair and is hard at work, mounting a campaign against the fascistic First Order.
Why can’t we see the “real” Hillary?
All the epic allusions contribute to the difficulty Clinton has long had in coming across as, simply, a human being. She is uneasy with the press and ungainly on the stump. Catching a glimpse of the “real” her often entails spying something out of the corner of your eye, in a moment when she’s not trying to be, or to sell, “Hillary Clinton.” And in the midst of a presidential campaign, those moments are rare. Her inner circle claims to see her — to really see her, and really like her — every day. They say she is so different one-on-one, funny and warm and devastatingly smart. It’s hard for people who know her to comprehend why the rest of America can’t see what they do.
I spent several days with Hillary Clinton near the end of primary season. Far from seeing a remote or robotic figure, I observed a woman who had direct, thoughtful, often moving exchanges.
A Woman’s Ambition – Dangerous?
By 1999, Clinton had learned what it might entail to be a woman who competed: She had taken her husband’s last name after his 1980 reelection defeat in Arkansas had been blamed on her independence; she’d done cookie-bake-off penance for her remarks about prioritizing career over domesticity.
When I asked her why she thinks women’s ambition is regarded as dangerous, she posited that it was about “a fear that ambition will crowd out everything else — relationships, marriage, children, family, homemaking, all the other parts [of life] that are important to me and important to most women I know.” She also mentioned the unappealing stereotyping: “We’re so accustomed to think of women’s ambition being made manifest in ways that we don’t approve of, or that we find off-putting.”
A Master Problem-Solver
Clinton is a master at identifying problems and coming up with plans to solve them. There is seemingly no crisis too small to escape her attention, no subject outside her wheelhouse. When she turns her energies onto bigger issues, her ability to see an interlocking set of concerns and her detailed knowledge about …everything can sound like a parody of female hyper-competence.
Clinton’s holistic view of intersecting challenges and multi-tentacled solutions — tax incentives, subsidies, wage hikes, pay protections — is weirdly thrilling in its expansive perspicacity. But it does not fit on a T-shirt. It does not sound good at a rally. You cannot even really show it on the local news, because it is not as simple as, say, “Free college!”
And a hard worker
Clinton self-identifies as a worker more than as a speech-maker. When I told her that the comedian Samantha Bee had described her to me as “a working dog; you’ve got to give Hillary a job,” her eyes lit up. “When I got to the Senate, I said I was not a show horse!” she reminded me.
Hard work is, perhaps oddly, not all that inspiring a trait in presidential candidates. For inspiration, we still demand the rhetorical high notes. Clinton has hit them before, in her speech in Beijing as First Lady, when she said, “Women’s rights are human rights,” and in her 2008 concession speech, when she talked about the “18 million cracks” in the glass ceiling. But those were both instances when she embraced her own symbolic significance as a woman — something she has long been hesitant about.
Is “Magnetism” Overrated?
But if, as in this election, a man who spews hate and vulgarity, with no comprehension of how government works, can become presidentially plausible [simply] because he is magnetic … perhaps we should reevaluate magnetism’s importance. Whatever your feelings about Clinton herself, this election raises important questions about how we define leadership in this country, how we feel about women who try to claim it, flawed though they may be. Watching her, I wondered if it’s possible, after all these years, once she has slipped the bonds of constrained primary combat, that she could emerge as a better and freer performer. In some ways, it seems necessary — not just to win but to govern.
Can we broaden our idea of presidential charisma beyond great men giving great speeches? Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania, made the case to me that Clinton should try to design the job — as much as she can, anyway — around her. “The president gets to select the mode of communicating,” he said. “The president can go out and make speeches in front of large audiences, or the president can make the speech sitting behind the desk talking to a TV camera. The president can do sit-down interviews. If I were Hillary’s chief of staff, I’d get her on as many of those interview shows as I could and just get her talking and not reading a speech. I’d have her do town meetings all through her presidency. Have you seen her in small town halls? Hillary is not a great large-crowd speaker, but in those contexts, I would rate her as close to spectacular.”
“Just Talk to ME”
I thought back to the roundtable discussion I had seen in Lexington, where Clinton was meeting with dozens of parents… A single mother named Jessica McClung, who struggled to earn her undergraduate degree while raising her son, had been so nervous upon meeting Clinton backstage, that she had become tongue-tied. She couldn’t speak, so Clinton took over. “Don’t be nervous,” she told McClung, “Just talk to me, look at me, take a deep breath, forget about all this” — here Clinton gestured at the cameras and Secret Service, the cumbersome machinery that trails her everywhere, and which she herself has such a hard time forgetting about. “Just talk to me.”