Can Hillary Really Change?
By e-mail, video and on Twitter, Hillary Clinton made it official Sunday afternoon: She is a candidate for president.
Barring something completely unforeseen, that means the country is in for a minimum of 20 months of the Hillary and Bill Clinton show. And that could be followed by a four-to-eight-year booking in the White House.
If you're like me, this prospect arouses mixed emotions. Not to be jaded about presidential politics, but we’ve seen this movie before. And I fear the next installment in this franchise -- "She's Back: This Time It's Personal" -- may just be more of the same.
Sure, the hair, the flare of the pantsuits, the net worth and girth of Bill (he complained about being called “frail” in the New York Times last week) have changed since I first met the Clintons in 1991, but none of the fundamentals really are different.
I first spent time with Bill Clinton when I traveled around Arkansas on a four-seat plane as the governor dropped in on high school graduations and cut a ribbon at the opening of a health care center. He was then as he would be later: a big-brained smoothie who could reel off the crops grown in his state or how much Medicaid paid for prenatal care.
He was a little bit undisciplined, a little bit too chummy with his security detail, which, as we would find out later aided and abetted his indiscretions. As we hit a thunderstorm, Clinton leaned forward to pat my arm. “I’ve been in much worse,” he said. “We landed in a rice field one time.”
Then there was the other Clinton, about whom everyone repeated the mantra “buy one, get one free.” Hillary was the smart Yale Law grad who could work in any New York firm but instead became a star as the co-governor. You could see the seeds of the temperament that would hobble her again and again in her response to then-former governor Jerry Brown's suggestion that Bill Clinton had funneled state business to Hillary’s Rose Law Firm.
Hillary's retort was one schoolchildren could recite: “Well I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas,” managing to alienate any number of constituencies in one fell swoop. Despite the gaffe, after Gennifer Flowers came forward to claim a longstanding dalliance with the governor, Hillary upped her campaign appearances. A missed campaign stop or a cold shoulder to her husband would have looked like she wasn’t standing by her man.
But her common touch left something to be desired. For example, arriving at a stop in Manchester, New Hampshire, where people were chatting amiably about the cost of groceries (and making fun of the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, for not knowing the cost of milk), Hillary killed the light buzz with a treatise on infant mortality. Her introductions of the candidate were as long as the candidate's speeches. She seemed to hate every minute of it and probably did.
For the beginning and even today, misogyny is a prime motivation for some of the obsessive focus on Hillary, but so is sheer (and sometimes morbid) curiosity. Watching her is like watching a fuse you know will blow from time to time. It wasn’t a surprise when she blamed a “vast right-wing conspiracy” for the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Or when she claimed the couple was “dead broke” upon leaving the White House, this the woman who had taken a charitable deduction for Bill’s used underwear. Or when she asserted more recently, as the private e-mail story broke, that the separate server was a lucky break for the public, allowing an “unprecedented” look at her correspondence.
And this is the old routine that makes part of me dread the prospect of another round of Clinton-mania: Hillary's tendency to try to deflect first, resist second, rarely admit anything’s wrong, grudgingly stand for questions (remember the press conference in pink about Whitewater), and then say something unsatisfying.
The way she handled the revelations about her e-mail was of a piece with the way she handled the travel office, the land deal, the Rose Law Firm billing records, which mysteriously turned up years later, and removing furniture from the White House on the way out the door. She may be the only person to blow the soft questions of a book tour. Her default position is, move on please, there's nothing to see here, except what I want you to see. She neither asks for permission nor begs for forgiveness. How will that play in Clinton, the Sequel?
But maybe, just maybe, we'll get something a little different. Back then as now, friends insist that behind the helmet-haired, concede-nothing public persona, there is a funny, warm and loyal woman.
I saw flashes of that side of her when I got to ride from one event to another with her during the 1992 campaign. She explained how she endured campaign food by pulling out a bottle of Tabasco. She wolfed down popcorn while calling about Chelsea’s booster shots and joked about being a bad athlete. “I should have learned profession enhancing games like tennis and golf, rather than volleyball.” Her friend, the television writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, says Hillary was always the one to inject spirit into an evening, to “try the hippopotamus stew, or order the blue drink.”
As a candidate, or president, can she show more of that? Or will she continue to be the rare politician to forsake natural charm and authenticity in private in favor of being cold and suspicious in public? Al Gore’s friends insisted, also correctly, that in private he was ever so loose, dry-witted and fun to be around. But in politics, if you can’t take it public, you don’t have it.
That may be impossible to change, but there is one change that she will have to account for: Back in the day, the Clintons could claim to want to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Now, they are the comfortable. While Hillary talks about income inequality, so do the Republicans, and neither side has a coherent plan for doing something about it. Accepting hundreds of thousands dollars to give bland speeches isn’t going to help make the case.
In a speech in Silicon Valley in February, for example, she said nothing that would upset a tech billionaire. “I’d like to bring people from right, left, red, blue, get them into a nice warm purple space where everybody is talking and where we’re actually trying to solve problems.” Next, she’ll be promising to make the appropriately hued Barney the dinosaur her running mate.
Even Hillary’s most fervent supporters say this campaign has to be different from her last one. But when you listen to them talk, you realize that they know it’s not just the campaign that has to change, but the candidate, too. It’s hard for any of us to change and maybe a little harder for her. Not having the pressure of a strong primary challenge may make it harder still.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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