The Sunday Long Read this week is Rebecca Traister's profile of the Hillary Clinton campaign as she tries to head into the general, but there's a lot of things between her and the White House, and not a few of those things are Clinton's own responsibility. But can she fix it in time to save the country from Trump?
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. To her critics, she is Lady Macbeth, to her adherents, Joan of Arc. 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.
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. You could see her, briefly,letting out a bawdy laugh in response to a silly question in the 11th hour of the Benghazi hearings, and there she was, revealed as regular in her damned emails, where she made drinking plans with retiring Maryland senator and deranged emailer Barbara Mikulski. 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 — which, in campaign time, feels like a month, so much is packed into every hour — and I began to see why her campaign is so baffled by the disconnect. Far from feeling like I was with an awkward campaigner, I watched her do the work of retail politics — the handshaking and small-talking and remembering of names and details of local sites and issues — like an Olympic athlete. Far from seeing a remote or robotic figure, I observed a woman who had direct, thoughtful, often moving exchanges: with the Wheelers, with home health-care workers and union representatives and young parents. I caught her eyes flash with brief irritation at an MSNBC chyron reading “Bernie Sanders can win” and with maternal annoyance as she chided press aide Nick Merrill for not throwing out his empty water bottle. I saw her break into spontaneous dance with a 2-year-old who had been named after her, Big Hillary stamping her kitten heels and clapping her hands and making “Oooh-ooh-ooh” noises. I heard her proclaim, with unself-conscious joy, from the pulpits of two black churches in Philadelphia, that “this is the day that the Lord has made!” and watched the young campaign staff at her Brooklyn headquarters bounce up and down with the anticipation of getting to shake her hand.
But what the rest of America sees is very different. Clinton’s unfavorability rating recently dipped to meet Trump’s at 57 percent; 60 percent think she doesn’t share their values, 64 percent think she is untrustworthy and dishonest (and that doesn’t even account for the fallout from the inspector general’s report about her private email server). Some of this is simply symptomatic of where we are in the election cycle, near the end of a bruising primary season, with Democratic tempers still hot even as the Republicans are falling in line behind their nominee. But some of it is also unique to Clinton, who has been plagued by the “likability” question since she was First Lady (and, indeed, even before that).
In a recent column, David Brooks posited that Clinton is disliked because she is a workaholic who “presents herself as a résumé and policy brief” and about whose interior life and extracurricular hobbies we know next to nothing. There’s more than a little sexism at work in Brooks’s diagnosis: The ambitious woman who works hard has long been disparaged as insufficiently human. And the Democratic-leaning voters least likely to view Clinton favorably, according to a recent Washington Post poll, skew young, white, and male. But those guys aren’t the only ones she’s having trouble reaching. And, no, it’s not really because we don’t know her hobbies (though if that is a burning question for you, read on).
The dichotomy between her public and private presentation has a lot to do with the fact that she has built such a wall between the two. Her pathological desire for privacy is at the root of the never-ending email saga, to name just one example. But how do you convince a woman whose entire career taught her to be defensive and secretive that the key to her political success might just be to lay all her cards on the table and trust that she’ll be treated fairly? Especially when she might not be.
There are a lot of reasons — internal, external, historical — for the way Clinton deals with the public, and the way we respond to her. But there is something about the candidate that is getting lost in translation. The conviction that I was in the presence of a capable, charming politician who inspires tremendous excitement would fade and in fact clash dramatically with the impressions I’d get as soon as I left her circle: of a campaign imperiled, a message muddled, unfavorables scarily high. To be near her is to feel like the campaign is in steady hands; to be at any distance is to fear for the fate of the republic.
And that's why Clinton looks like a terrible, weak candidate on TV, when in person she's not. What bothers me is that Democrats have been running folks like that for years: Dukakis, Bentsen, John Kerry, Walter Mondale, the two guys who were different, Obama and Bill Clinton, won because they looked good on TV as well.
Trump is the opposite: if you see the guy at a rally he looks like a lunatic (and is) but on TV the guy comes across as less insane, if not "exciting" compared to "dull" Hillary Clinton (and to an extent, Sanders is the same way.)
How Clinton can start coming across as the reasonable choice in this media environment that constantly rewards Donald Trump and makes excuses for him daily because he's good ratings? I don't know if she can.
But she has to or...