By Marc Fisher,
The real Hillary Clinton — the funny, kind, passionate woman her friends and colleagues insist actually exists — has been missing from public view for so long that even some of her most admiring defenders wonder if she will ever emerge again.
On the eve of the first presidential debate, Clinton’s campaign is launching a drive to persuade voters that she is, well, human. The move, coming just six weeks before the election, is a frank admission that whether it traces to her embarrassingly public marital traumas, or to the arrows aimed at her during the White House years by conservative activists and news reports, or to a lifetime playing the role of the serious, responsible daughter, sister and wife, Hillary Clinton still struggles to be even “likable enough,” as candidate Barack Obama put it during the 2008 campaign.
“It is something that we’re aware of and it’s a gap that we are seeking to eliminate at all times,” said Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon. “Every week, we are rolling out a new video introducing people to somebody that’s gotten to know Hillary Clinton in a personal capacity.”
There will be stories about a supporter in Iowa who, despite being weakened by chemotherapy, came to see Clinton, who then privately kept in touch with her; and about a young girl who wrote Clinton letters when she was first lady, starting a pen-pal relationship that continues to this day. And one about a connection with a Bronx, N.Y., girl that became so close that Clinton attended her junior high and high school graduations.
What’s not in those videos is Clinton talking about herself. Nor would Clinton agree to be interviewed for this article. Although her campaign is intent on showing voters that she is more than just a policy wonk, her friends and former staffers aren’t sure it can happen this late in the campaign. They say the woman being presented this fall seems more wooden, distant and disconnected than ever before.
In a rare presidential campaign in which large majorities of voters say they dislike both major party nominees, sharply different kinds of criticism rain down on the candidates: Donald Trump is often accused of being obsessed with himself and lacking in impulse control, whereas Clinton is widely viewed as hiding her true personality behind a hard, defensive shell of anodyne comments and legalistic language. In the most recent Washington Post-ABC News survey, 34 percent of voters called Clinton honest and trustworthy. Trump fared no better.
The public’s perception of Clinton is off, sometimes dramatically so, according to friends, colleagues, staffers and the candidate herself. Sometimes it’s Hillary’s humor — which can be biting — that her friends say the public is missing. Sometimes it’s her kindness, especially her quiet acts of generosity, the videos she sends to ailing staffers or the times she shows up unannounced to visit someone she’s met only in passing. And sometimes it’s the passion — the enduring belief that she can make a difference, that intractable problems can be solved no matter how paralyzed government may be.
For decades, Clinton has occasionally promised to do something about the problem, to shrink her “zone of privacy” and show some of the emotion and vulnerability that many aides believe would make Americans like her more. More than a dozen former aides and close friends said they have told Clinton that voters like her more when they see her, for example, hug an immigrant child worried about being deported, or get teary answering a voter who wants to know “How do you do it?”
But close friends and supporters say Clinton is skeptical of such emotional appeals, even if they are pure gold to most politicians. There’s no point in exposing her feelings to the public, Clinton argues, because she’ll only be attacked with greater fervor.
As early as 1993, Clinton gave two long interviews to the late Michael Kelly for a profile in the New York Times Magazine. She thought she had bared her heart about her struggle to find a path in politics that might break down barriers between liberals and conservatives. The article, headlined “Saint Hillary,” won much praise, but Clinton read it as a caricature that only solidified her public image as a moralistic, know-it-all crusader.
Clinton’s caution stems in part from her conclusion that the public would believe almost anything derogatory about her, friends and aides agreed. As first lady, according to a close friend, Clinton was on a small plane with a staffer who was reading aloud a magazine story that repeated an accusation that Clinton had had sex with a colleague.
Clinton’s eyes filled with tears and she said, “It really says I had sex with a collie?”
The staffer quickly corrected her boss: “No, a colleague!”
“That’s how far down her expectations had gone of what people thought she was capable of,” the friend said.
Dislike, even in her own party
Clinton is keenly aware of what people think of her.
In 1996, Clinton said that “I apparently remind some people of their mother-in-law or their boss, or something.”
Clinton’s explanation for her lousy likability numbers usually focuses on her vocal defense of her decision to eschew the traditional role of a political wife. “I do make some people uncomfortable, which I’m well aware of,” she said in 2009, “but that’s just part of coming to grips with what I believe is still one of the most important pieces of unfinished business in human history — empowering women to be able to stand up for themselves.”
She has often told staffers that no matter what face she presents to the public, her political opponents and the news media will portray her as deceitful, cold and distant. “I don’t think you can ever know anybody else,” she told The New Yorker in 1996, and certainly not “through the crude instruments available to us of exposing bits and pieces of somebody’s life.”
Aides and friends have tried for years to persuade Clinton that the public would likely embrace the woman who connects easily in off-camera, one-on-one encounters. Friends say the Clinton presented in this year’s campaign has grown ever more distant from the caring, even warm person they know.
“She seems remote and not forthcoming to a lot of people,” said Melanne Verveer, Clinton’s chief of staff when she was first lady and U.S. ambassador for global women’s issues while Clinton was secretary of state. “And she is extremely cautious. Over the years, that perception has just snowballed.”
“Everybody who’s worked with her talks about it,” said Christy Macy, a speechwriter for Clinton during the White House years. “How she could do it better, how she could get people to see what we see, the constant commitment to improving people’s lives, the passion we know she has underneath that reticence to make yourself vulnerable.”
Clinton herself has joked about the barriers she’s built around her personality. In a rare appearance before an audience of journalists last year, she flashed an impish smile as she promised “a new relationship with the press — no more secrecy, no more zone of privacy. After all, what good did that do for me?” She added, with a laugh: “If you look under your chairs, you’ll find a simple non-disclosure agreement. My attorneys drew it up. Old habits last.”
This year, Clinton has only in recent days confronted the fact that many voters — even in her own party — don’t like her. Her friends believe that she indeed has “her share of poetry, places where people can really fall in love with her,” in the words of Linda Bloodworth Thomason, who got to know her in Arkansas and stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom on the Clintons’ first night in the White House. Thomason wishes the campaign would focus on winning aspects of her friend’s personality, such as “her relationship with her mother, the deep bond between them. Her quiet work around the world saving women’s lives.”
Clinton’s reticence, Thomason said, creates an opening for others to caricature her: “If you have a natural reluctance to talk about yourself, it can create a vacuum that people are all too happy to fill.”
Campaign spokesman Fallon acknowledged the problem: “The ball tends to bounce in a tricky way for her, and her motives get judged in a different way. When you’re in public life this long, a narrative cements itself.”
The origins of her reticence
In January 2008, at a coffeehouse in New Hampshire, Clinton took a question from a woman with a sympathetic tone. “My question is very personal,” Marianne Young said. “How do you do it — how do you keep upbeat and so wonderful?”
Clinton nodded, smiled, nodded harder, and her smile was softer than usual — knowing, even tender. She sighed. Her voice grew smaller and sweeter, no longer the deeper, resonant tone she assumes when she’s talking policy.
“It’s not easy, it’s not easy,” she said. She shook her head twice and made eye contact with Young. “And I couldn’t do it if I just didn’t, you know, passionately believe it was the right thing to do. You know, I have so many opportunities from this country.” She rested her head in her hand, swallowed, and her voice became tiny and strained. “Just don’t want to see us fall backwards.” She squeezed out the words as her eyes welled, her voice cracked, and the crowd, looking to help, broke into applause.
The next day, asked on CNN about that moment, Clinton said, “Well, you know, I actually have emotions . . . you know, I’m not good about talking about myself.”
Where exactly that reticence came from is the subject of much debate. Some of Clinton’s longtime aides believe she became especially cautious after the traumas of the White House years, starting with the “bimbo eruptions” of the 1992 campaign, when news reports about Bill Clinton’s extra-marital relationships led his wife to take a stand — “I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette” — that played to some as supportive and to others as defiant.
Clinton has often told friends that the public was just never going to be comfortable with her role as a driven, talented woman who was determined to make a difference. In this view, in the 1980s and 90s, some Americans would see any outspoken career woman as a Lady Macbeth — cold and calculating. Add in the many investigations and allegations that peppered the Clinton years in the White House, and that image — and Clinton’s caution — hardened.
Others say the zone of privacy tightened as the first lady methodically built a wall around Chelsea, seeking to shield her daughter from cameras and public attention.
But some longtime associates say the bottled-up Hillary traces back well before any clashes with conservatives or news reporters. They point to Clinton’s childhood with a difficult father and rambunctious brothers as the period when Hillary took on the burden of being the mature, responsible one.
It was Dorothy Rodham, Hillary’s mother, “who put the steel rod in her daughter’s spine — no whining, no self-pity,” Thomason said. “Always maintain your dignity, mind your own counsel.”
Still others say the sharp distinction in how the Clintons present themselves derives from their religious upbringings.
“She’s a buttoned-up Methodist with a more traditional, private faith,” said a former staffer who worked closely with both husband and wife, “and he is a Southern Baptist, a much more outwardly expressive faith. He’s out there spreading the good gospel news, while she carries her scars and develops a kind of fatalism, that it doesn’t matter what she does, they’re still going to attack her.”
Other friends saw Clinton’s caution emerge in Arkansas, where she was first exposed to insistent questioning by reporters. From then on into the White House years, a sense of siege developed as she “was being pummeled with one supposed scandal after another,” said Verveer, who recalled riding in a car with Clinton as the first lady read a story about herself. “She put the paper down and said, ‘I wouldn’t like that person either.’”
The reticence that developed after the 1992 campaign “is a reflection of how normal a person she is, rather than how abnormal,” said Don Baer, who worked with the first lady when he was White House communications director in the 90s. “It’s an unnatural act to feel comfortable with that level of scrutiny and intrusiveness.”
Flummoxed advisers on how to change her
From the White House years through Clinton’s Senate campaign and on to her two presidential campaigns, Verveer saw the strategists around Clinton grow flummoxed about how to move the needle.
“A pollster told me when she was running for Senate, ‘this doesn’t require focus groups. It requires a shrink,’” Verveer said. “In the first campaign, she had a very difficult time initially talking about ‘I’ and ‘me.’ She was much more comfortable talking about issues. At some of the toughest times in the White House, she would say to us, ‘Stop and think, why are we here? How can we make a difference for people? It sounds trite, especially in our political culture of suspicion, but that’s how she really is. But if she talks this kind of talk, you’re back to ‘Saint Hillary.’ Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
If Clinton has become even more guarded in this campaign, that’s the result of decades of harsh criticism — and, some say, of a campaign staff that has not pushed her to open up.
“Hillary is a Rorschach test for how people feel about a powerful woman,” said Thomason. “She can exhilarate, irritate, threaten or terrify, according to who you are. When she said she could’ve stayed home and baked cookies, people were cheering, people were outraged, but she was showing everyone who she really is.”
Thomason and some other friends believe Clinton’s caution has been reinforced by a staff that hesitates to let her speak off the cuff and by strategists whose response to low likability numbers is to rely on appearances in friendly, easily managed settings, such as late-night comedy shows and local TV newscasts. On Thursday, she played straight woman to comedian Zach Galifianakis on his online show, “Between Two Ferns,” showing that she can take zesty barbs and even be a bit silly — but giving away little about herself.
“Why not just let Hillary be herself and allow the chips to fall where they may?” Thomason said. “The Clintons’ marriage is the number one thing people ask me about. The campaign never addresses this. Why not just tell the truth? Has their marriage had challenges? Yes. But it’s also a kind of love story. It’s not just about what has been enjoyed, but also what has had to be forgiven… It’s clear to all who know them well that they would be lost without each other.”
Thomason, who has produced four films about the Clintons for Democratic conventions, said campaign managers told her that her documentary about Clinton’s historic achievement as the first woman nominated to run for the presidency was scrapped at the last minute in July because “it might make women who only have sons feel left out. Hillary’s life story provides a lot of poetic opportunity, but an in-depth, epic, Cinderella story of her mother was rejected.” Clinton campaign officials said the movie was not shown only because Bill Clinton’s speech ran long.
In public, ‘a totally stilted person’
As she traveled the world as secretary of state, Clinton scheduled private meetings with women from all walks of life. The idea was to give her a window onto the lives of women who were neither diplomats nor politicians, and to show ordinary women Clinton’s passion to solve their problems.
“She’d much rather go down some dusty road for an hour and visit a school to find out why girls aren’t going there than stand up in any formal meeting,” said Macy. “These are really, really emotional sessions. That is her authenticity. And she feels freer there than back home, where I think of her as having gotten burned on so many levels that there’s a defensiveness that I can understand.”
On at least one occasion, Clinton invited reporters who covered her to join her — off the record — on an informal visit to a Mongolian village. The journalists “were so surprised,” a former staffer said. “‘She’s so funny and good to be with,’ they said. And then they turn on the TV and see this totally stilted person that doesn’t square with the person they’d just met.”
The gap between Clinton’s public persona and what only friends, co-workers and well-to-do donors get to see in closed-door sessions “is just too great for any stories about her concerned and caring side to break through,” said a longtime friend, who declined to be named because Clinton did not grant permission to discuss personal matters.
“I know she’d be a great president,” the friend said, “but she has this weird stubbornness that borders on self-righteousness. You can explain to her that she needs to let people see her at her best, and she gets it, but she still resists. It’s like she’s insulted because she believes we should always be talking about something bigger than yourself. The problem is, I don’t recognize her now. The Hillary I know and love, who can riff off the cuff and have people teary and laughing — I just don’t see her now. She’s beaten up and exhausted and weirdly defiant. She’s — she’s joyless.”
Earlier this month, Clinton took a stab at confronting the problem. She told the Humans of New York website that “I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’ And sometimes I think I come across more in the ‘walled off’ arena.”
She said she is “not Barack Obama” or Bill Clinton, whose “naturalness… can be more difficult for a woman.” When she sees male politicians “pounding the message, and screaming about how we need to win the election…, I want to do the same thing. Because I care about this stuff. But I’ve learned that I can’t be quite so passionate in my presentation. I love to wave my arms, but apparently that’s a little bit scary to people. And I can’t yell too much. It comes across as ‘too loud’ or ‘too shrill’ or ‘too this’ or ‘too that.’”