A year ago this month, though it seems another lifetime, I went to see Hillary Clinton speak at a Silicon Valley women’s conference.
She wasn’t technically a presidential candidate yet, just a political celebrity on the circuit. Still, everyone expected her to run, and the ballroom – actually, it was three conjoined ballrooms – bristled with excitement.
Old, young, middle-aged, executives to interns, thousands of women leaped to their feet to applaud as she took the stage, waving. Giant screens to her right and left broadcast her face to the cheap seats. The air filled with raised pairs of manicured hands, aiming iPhones.
But what was most striking, if you were down front, was Hillary the person, standing alone before that sea of ambitious feminine faces. She was well groomed, of course, and wearing her signature pantsuit, but also tired around the eyes and shorter than you’d think, with the smile, surprising at her age, of an A student, ready and earnest.
She seemed to want so much to get everything right, even after all she’d accomplished. She seemed to have come to the conclusion that, for her at least, there was no room for the slightest error. She seemed to work so very hard for the money.
I expected not to connect, given the glitz and the hoopla, but just for a moment, if you focused, there was a glimpse of the woman behind the curtain, and my heart went out to her.
It’s too bad for Clinton’s candidacy that voters seem not to have also glimpsed that woman. Choosing would be so much easier if it were easier for her to present herself authentically.
Anyone who has watched her career knows she’s not some Fox News bogeywoman conniving about Benghazi via illicit email, that she’s put in her time and paid her dues and thought long and hard about every issue anyone would want a president to prepare for.
But as the campaign has progressed, her critics have succeeded in painting her as artificial. Bernie Sanders implies that she’s an establishment tool. Carly Fiorina implies that her marriage is loveless. Right-wing pundits imply that Bill Clinton’s infidelity somehow makes her the bad guy.
If people talked about Eleanor Roosevelt that way, and they could, we’d think they were crackpots. But Hillary is fair game, in part because we’ve forgotten that, like Eleanor Roosevelt, she’s human.
And who can blame us? She’s set us up, polishing her talking points until she sounds canned, tamping down her passion until her vehemence, when it breaks through, just sounds like yelling. In her public service, she’s been painfully conscientious and almost too moral. But that awkwardness is what voters mean when they say they don’t “trust” her.
If only she could offer her private self up, like Sanders, warts and all, take it or leave it – just as she is, as Bridget Jones would put it – it probably would be a relief and a revelation. But we are who we are, as her husband has no doubt told her. People who understand the charm in frailty usually don’t fear what will happen if the world sees that they are as frail as anyone else.
That guardedness may be why young female progressives aren’t more enthusiastically behind her. I wish that, like older voters, they could focus more on the issues beyond the personalities.
Feminist icons Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright may have done her no favors in reproaching young women for taking Clinton’s historical candidacy for granted; no one in her 20s wants some great-aunt telling her to respect her elders.
But they are correct in pointing out that the stakes are high in this election. Anyone who doubts Albright’s assertion that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other” can just check out Texas, where the conservative male majority of the U.S. Supreme Court appears ready to all but eliminate the right to an abortion.
Or Congress, where conservatives have for years bottled up basic pay-equity measures.
Or Silicon Valley, where women such as the ones who came to see Clinton last year can’t seem to get promoted.
Sanders may have no trouble conveying his essential self to voters, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be in a position to look out for women in November. Ask anyone who stumped for George McGovern or “Clean” Gene McCarthy: Backing someone just because they are ideologically pure to the point of hipness is a luxury.
In my perfect world, every candidate would have a moment like the one I experienced watching Clinton. Too much of our politics takes place at arms length, across ballrooms and filtered by iPhones and big screens.
We might not like the particular frailty we’d find, but it’s too easy to forget how tired we all get around the eyes, how hard we all work for the money, how much humanity goes into maintaining a democracy.