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The Real Real Hillary

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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A narrow view of women’s roles seems to be a thing of the past for most Americans, except perhaps those on the staff of Hillary Clinton. As they tried to make the Democratic presidential front-runner more likeable and authentic, the best they could come up with was to have her flipping pancakes on the "Today" show.

The pancake breakfast is a compulsory figure of the campaign trail that women should endeavor to ignore. For male candidates, it’s a way to show they’re affable family guys -- a little inept, game for being domestic, but not accustomed to it. For a woman, however, being seen sweating over a hot stove is a loser whether she looks comfortable or not.

The cooking segment didn’t do much to further the Clinton staff's goal of making her seem less “wooden and overly cautious,” as the New York Times described it. Clinton has acknowledged that she hasn’t done much driving since 1996. She probably hasn't spent a lot of time fixing meals either, as she went from the Governor's Mansion in Arkansas to the White House to traveling hundreds of thousands of miles as secretary of state. 

Candidates do all kinds of things to relate to the folks Clinton used to call “ordinary Americans,” but relating is still harder for a woman than a man. A female candidate has to be tough but not too tough and do everything a man does, to paraphrase Ginger Rogers, only backwards and in a pantsuit.

The female candidate who came closest to authenticity was, wait for it, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the second woman to run for the second highest office in the land. You might not like her, but she came across as herself, sometimes to a fault. With her unruly brood, the First Dude away in the oil fields, her life matched her image. She couldn’t pull off a pose as an intellectual, or as a mom baking cookies and serving tea, so she didn’t try.

Clinton probably wouldn't look too authentic doing Palin-like stuff such as skinning bears, shooting moose or catching big fish, but the candidate's humor and heart campaign of recent weeks still needs some fine-tuning. She’s danced with Ellen, responded to questions from Donald Trump as played by Jimmy Fallon, and laughed uproariously after declaring "I am a real person" when asked to describe "the real Hillary Clinton" on CBS's "Face the Nation." (Laughing hard seems to be way of showing she’s full of humor.)

In her defense, authenticity is a tall order, at least on the large stage politicians work on. The only chance the public has to see candidates being the least bit spontaneous is in early nomination states, where the crowds are small and the candidate does not have enough time to put on a different guise, moving from talking to a geezer in a hardware store hat to bending down to ask a 5-year-old about her school.

Clinton isn’t any better at this than Al Gore or Mitt Romney were, but she takes a lot more flak for her seeming detachment than they did. Thus the griddle on "Today."

The most authentic candidate in any cycle is the one who has to fake it the least or is the best at faking it altogether. The authentic person Palin was playing seemed pretty close to the person she was. It’s much harder for Clinton, whom life has carried a long way from her early, Midwestern idealistic self.

But if authenticity is hard to convey, and sometimes difficult to detect, its opposite can be glaringly obvious. When Representative Kevin McCarthy, then the leading candidate to replace John Boehner as House speaker, gaffed last month by suggesting that the Benghazi inquiry was a successful attempt to lower Clinton’s poll numbers, she reacted by saying how “distressed” she was to learn that the inquiry was so partisan. It's a safe bet that, in fact, she was elated to have been handed such a cudgel by the Republicans.

And if it's hard to be yourself when flipping pancakes, it's even harder to do so while flip-flopping on long-held positions. With the first debate of Democratic candidates looming on Tuesday, Clinton used this week to try to disarm two potentially bothersome lines of attack from Senator Bernie Sanders, her nomination rival, who is drawing crowds, moving up in the polls, and even pulling ahead in New Hampshire. On Wednesday, after years of ardent support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Clinton was suddenly against it. On Thursday, she planned to show she can stand up to Wall Street, one of her major sources of campaign contributions, by proposing a tax on high-frequency traders.

But her biggest bungle in the authenticity department may have been when, in the "Today" segment preceding the pancakes, she attempted a non-apology apology for her handling of her e-mails as secretary of state. Clinton told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie that she was “sorry” that she made the “choice” to set up a private server. In the next breath, she blamed the whole brouhaha on Republicans trying to hurt her.

In the end, Clinton’s "realest" moment was her most scripted one. On "Saturday Night Live" last weekend, she played Val, a bartender with Joe Six-Pack common sense who tells it straight while serving a "Hillary Clinton" played by SNL cast member Kate McKinnon. If only someone on her staff had a sense of humor, could write as well as those at 30 Rock, and was capable of getting her to make fun of herself just a little more.

And, yes, it would help if she rehearsed more. Authenticity in politics doesn’t come naturally. Fake it til you make it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net