One of the great misperceptions of this political year, among many Democrats and Republicans alike, is that Hillary Clinton is a third-rate candidate with no core or convictions – oops, wrong word, but you get the point.
So in this last column before the election I want to pitch you the reasons to vote for Clinton and not just againstDonald Trump.
I’ve known Clinton a bit for many years, and I have to say: The public perception of her seems to me a gross and inaccurate caricature. I don’t understand the venom, the “lock her up” chants, the assumption that she is a Lady Macbeth; it’s an echo of the animus a lifetime ago some felt for Eleanor Roosevelt.
(When Roosevelt spoke up for Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor, a letter in The Los Angeles Times thundered: “When she starts bemoaning the plight of the treacherous snakes we call Japanese (with apologies to all snakes), she has reached the point where she should be forced to retire from public life.” Strong women sometimes drive people nuts.)
In fact, what makes Hillary Clinton tick has always been a 1960s-style idealism about making the world a better place.
Clinton has made thousands of compromises and innumerable mistakes, her pursuit of wealth has been unseemly and politically foolish, and it’s fair to question her judgment on everything from emails to Iraq. But understand this, too: At the core she is not a calculating crook but a smart, hard-working woman who is profoundly concerned with getting things done for those left behind.
Aside from shattering the glass ceiling for women, Clinton would bring three particular strengths to the presidency:
First, she knows the world exceptionally well and is essentially a very bright, disciplined nerd who traveled to more countries as secretary of state than any of her predecessors.
Second, Clinton had a history of playing well with Republicans when she was in the Senate and secretary of state, so there’s some small hope that we could inch back to governing.
“She is extremely well respected throughout the world, handles herself in a very classy way, and has a work ethic second to none,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said in 2012.
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, described her in 2013 as “a very effective secretary of state.” Even Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, said of her in 2014, “We’re good friends.”
Polls today may show a majority of Americans have negative feelings for her, but two-thirds of Americans approved of her when she was secretary of state.
Third, Clinton cares deeply about impoverished children and others who are voiceless. In Arkansas, she started an early childhood program. In Washington, she helped establish CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which supports more than 8 million needy American kids.
One of America’s foremost needs is to address inequality and cycles of poverty. These are issues that Clinton has wrestled with for more than 40 years.
Some of you are thinking: But the emails! The foundation! Benghazi! So let’s look at the standard accusations.
Benghazi has been examined by at least eight panels, and not one uncovered major wrongdoing by Clinton. The Clinton Foundation created conflicts of interest – and saved countless lives from AIDS. Yes, Clinton appears to have set up her own email server to evade FOIA searches, which was sneaky and wrong, but State Department officials for many years routinely have conducted business on their own email accounts.
In short, the Clinton email “scandal” seems to me to be emblematic of so many Clinton “scandals”: There’s a kernel of impropriety there that in the public mind, thanks to her political enemies’ bombast, has ballooned into something unrecognizably malignant.
Of course, for many, the greater appeal of Clinton is that she’s not Trump. He simply falls outside the norms: A fraudster who seems a racist, who has cheated people not only at Trump University but regularly through his career, who boasts of sexual assaults and whom 17 women have publicly accused of improper behavior, who has flip-flopped 138 times by one count, who lies every five minutes by another, and who has less public service experience than any incoming president in history.
But my point is that this election is not just a weighing of two scoundrels; Clinton is better than that, and she is in politics because she cares about something larger than herself.
In 1993, The New York Times Magazine published a famous article about Clinton titled “Saint Hillary,” mocking her as a befuddled do-gooder trying to help the unfortunate. The article ridiculed her as naive, sanctimonious and incoherent, but it also captured something real about her earnestness and motivations.
In contrast, today’s widely held caricature of an avaricious, selfish and manipulative crook is to me just plain wrong. Sure, she compromises, she sometimes dissembles and at times her judgment has been flawed. But fundamentally she is a morally serious person whose passion for four decades has been to use politics to create a more just society. That’s her real conviction.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, or Twitter.com/NickKristof.