The most fascinating thing about Hillary Clinton is that, despite our country staring at her face for nearly 30 years now, we seem to know her less than we did when we first met her. Clinton has been at the center of American life, American culture, American policy and zeitgeist and ego and dispute and how the country sees itself and what it loves and what it hates, since before Barack Obama took over the Harvard Law Review, since before Marco Rubio was busted for underage drinking in a park after hours, since before Jennifer Lawrence was born. And none of us can confidently say we know a damn thing about her.
We certainly have tried to find out whatever we can, in ways that are sometime so invasive that we wouldn’t subject a Kardashian to them. Last month, on CBS’s Face the Nation, moderator John Dickerson asked Clinton the following question: “Donald Trump put out an Instagram video featuring your husband and Monica Lewinsky. Your reaction to that? … What do you say to people, even in your own party, who believe that section of your husband’s career is fair game to talk about?”
Whatever your thoughts on the appropriateness of Dickerson’s questions—and he’s certainly not the first to ask them—it’s sort of staggering, when you take a step back, to comprehend just how unprecedented they are. This is a woman, on national television, being asked about an affair her husband had 20 years ago. This is the most invasive thing you can ask a person, respond in public to the most private thing a person can experience, something we wouldn’t put to even the most brazen contestant on The Bachelor.
And Clinton got it before breakfast. She handled the question like she handles all questions: competently, matter-of-factly, and dutifully, in a way that’s nonetheless completely unsatisfying. What was it like to go through that in front of the entire world? What’s it like to continue to be asked about it today? What’s it like to have people think you’re a liar or a murderer or both? What’s it like it have every move you’ve made your whole adult life be a referendum on, well, everything?
We can only guess. Clinton has been hiding in plain view for three decades, and honestly, who can blame her?
This week, Clinton, who by all accounts is about to cruise to a double-digit victory in South Carolina en route to the Democratic nomination for president, sat at the Central Baptist Church in Columbia, South Carolina, in front of a crowd of supporters and reporters, and she heard just the saddest stories imaginable. Accompanying Clinton to the event were the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland, along with two other African-American mothers of victims of violence, as well as former Arizona Representative Gabby Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly. But Clinton spoke first.
After prayer and an introduction, Clinton walked to the lectern and gave a boilerplate speech that lasted about 15 minutes. She spoke forcefully, and clearly, with detailed policy stances and plans, and she paused for applause lines and then plowed forward again. It was efficient and effective and professional and utterly impenetrable. Clinton is practiced and accomplished as a speaker, and she has learned that uplift and inspiration just aren’t her bag. She has had two famous emotional moments in her political career, and they were both born from failure: Her tears before the New Hampshire primary in 2008, and the concession speech in which she endorsed Obama and uncorked the memorable 18-million-cracks-in-the-glass-ceiling line. Clinton might want to inspire people, but she wants to win more, so she is straightforward and diligent and meat-and-potatoes about everything. She has learned to scrub the Tracy Flick out of delivery, so she no longer seems like a know-it-all: Now she is simply someone who knows it all.
This is all to say that Clinton speaks behind an armor of facts and research and experience, armor she has built up for obvious reasons and armor she wears well, if not comfortably. We, as a culture, have put her through so much, still do—we still act like she owes us everything, that we can slap her in the face and continue to believe that she needs to apologize to us. There are myriad reasons for this: Clinton has not come upon a national distrust of her by accident. But that she still stands there, confident, undaunted, prepared, it’s her silent protest, her way of punching back against 30 years of unrelenting attack. It almost seems defiant: All you did to me, and not only did you not stop me, I just went back and worked harder. Now what can you say against me? We have still found plenty.
After 30 years of this, her armor is no longer armor: It’s her skin. Clinton's speech drew polite applause, and a quiet respect that she has become so in control of her instrument. But then Clinton did something that reminds you why so many Democrats have been so nervous about her as standard-bearer: She sat down.
Clinton is not good at sitting down, at least not in a way that conveys any sort of relief. She can seem constitutionally incapable of looking comfortable. The laugh can be too loud, the serious face too serious, the body language scrunched and constricted. Crossing her legs, she can end up looking more like someone trying to hide in a glove box.
Except: Then the women spoke. And they were so moving, every single one of them. Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, talked about how baffled she still is by what happened to her son. Sandra Bland's mother told stories of her daughter and how strong-willed and hard-headed she was. Maria Hamilton, the mother of Dontre Hamilton, a mentally ill man who was shot and killed in a Milwaukee public park, became deeply emotional, talking about how confusing it is that police officers can shoot a man and then “just go on with their shift.” Giffords spoke only briefly, but as powerfully as she usually does, as she can. The women were there on political business—they were there to support Clinton ahead of a primary with a high percentage of African-Americans voting—but they are not politicians themselves. They told their stories with passion and pain and sorrow. It would require a hard heart, regardless of the issues themselves, not to be touched by their loss.
But what was most fascinating was what they had to say about Clinton. Eric Garner’s mother said, “We didn’t have to go out looking for Hillary. She found us. Ain’t nobody else reached out to us. She has been there any time we need her. Every time.” She also added that she never wanted to go into politics but was so moved by Clinton's sincere and repeated responses to her pain that she wanted to “turn sorrow into strategy, my mourning into a movement.” (Clinton, who instinctively knows messaging when she hears it, liked her turn of phrase so much she later repeated it three times.) Fulton said she gets so emotional thinking about what Clinton has done for her and her family, how she reached out to her “when there were no cameras,” that “I can’t look at her or I’ll start crying.” Clinton had a private meeting with 12 mothers who had lost children in gun violence, one of whom was Martin’s mother, who said, “Hillary walked into that room a public figure and a presidential candidate, and walked out a compassionate mother.” Geneva Reed-Veal, Sandra Bland’s mother, said, “She has no airs. You cannot fake compassion. You cannot fake that you care.”
Clinton sat in between them all and nodded, dispassionately, as if they were talking about an entirely different person. Which I suppose they were.
The difference between how a public figure acts in front of the camera and how he or she acts behind the scenes is one of the central conflicts of a media age: Navigating that has vexed celebrities and politicians since the emergence of the television. But Clinton has been at the dead solid center of every major American conflict for two generations now.
In 1992, “her assertiveness makes some voters uncomfortable.”
In 1996, she had to pretend she gave two shits about how the White House Blue Room was decorated with Martha Stewart's help.
She has been a mother, a grandmother, a beacon, a power-mad egotist, a betrayed wife, a fierce leader, a vanquished combatant, a diplomat, a caricature, a vision, a concept, a human being. Now she is just a few steps away from becoming the most powerful person on the planet. Merely saying the name “Hillary Clinton” evokes a strong reaction, no matter whom you say it to. But we still never have figured out exactly why because still, after all this time, we still haven’t figured her out. At this date, it is fair to wonder whether we ever will.
And yet still, here she is, still out there, with the armor we constructed for her, still “fighting,” a word her campaign pounds home endlessly. We have shot everything at her. We have called her every name. We have dissected every aspect of her personality, and of her life. And she’s still there. There has been much criticism of the Clinton campaign for its lack of a coherent, cohesive message, but after 30 years, how could there be just one? The message is that nothing anyone did ever stopped her: That she is still here. We somehow know so little about her. But we do know that.
—Will Leitch reports for Bloomberg Politics on the intersection of politics and media.