presidential candidate Hillary Clinton smiles while attending a
roundtable with Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and community leaders at the
Holden Heights Community Center in Orlando. Photo / AP
When she was about 14, Hillary Clinton says, she wrote to NASA volunteering for astronaut training.
NASA’s reply was simple and definitive: No girls.
was the first time I had hit an obstacle I couldn’t overcome with hard
work and determination, and I was outraged,” she would write in her
book, “Living History.”
More than a half-century later, and after
much hard work, much determination, and most of all, many, many
obstacles – some undeniably of her own making – Clinton is no closer to
actual space travel. She may have to settle for becoming the first
female leader of the free world.
Her journey – more than three
decades in the public eye, and counting – has been unlike any seen in
American politics: a story of great promise, excruciating setbacks,
bitter scandal, stunning comebacks, and especially reinvention – of her
own life, and as a result, of the role of women in government.
It’s one that has fascinated not just her own country, but the world.
about it: Is any woman more recognizable on a global scale than Hillary
Clinton? If Barack Obama was the presidential candidate who seemed to
come out of nowhere, Clinton’s the candidate who seemed to come out of
Americans first knew her as a governor’s wife and
working mother in Arkansas, then as the nation’s first lady – famously
claiming an office in the West Wing of the White House, not the East, as
half of husband Bill Clinton’s “Buy one, get one free” bargain.
by scandal from Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky – but also carving out
her own political identity – she emerged to become a hard-working
senator, the first first lady to gain elected office. We knew her as the
presidential candidate who suffered a stinging defeat to Obama in 2008,
but proudly claimed “18 million cracks” in the glass ceiling.
Then she reinvented herself again, becoming Obama’s
secretary of state, traveling almost a million miles to 112 countries.
Finally, after much speculation, she announced her second run for the
We knew her so well by then.
Or not. Who WAS Hillary Clinton, and why, if we’d been watching her for so long, did we feel like we didn’t know her?
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes a photo with members of the audience. Photo / AP
At least, that’s the persistent narrative. Perhaps it’s a
question of layers. She’s had so many different roles, of course we’ve
seen different facets of her. But there’s also a sense of
impenetrability, exacerbated by her penchant for secrecy – a
characteristic that has led to her greatest vulnerability in this
election: the email scandal over her use of a private server.
the last 14 years, and 20 overall, Americans polled by Gallup have
named Clinton their most admired woman in the world. But consider some
other titles attached to her over the years: Lady Macbeth. Washington
insider. Robotic. Wildly ambitious. Congenital liar. (Or Donald Trump’s
current favorite, “Crooked Hillary.”)
But also: Feminist heroine.
Glass-ceiling breaker. The most prepared in the room. The most
qualified presidential candidate ever. Loyal friend. Witty companion.
“It’s an amazing life,” says biographer Carl
Bernstein, who wrote a 600-page book on her and says he still struggles
to define her. “You could not make any of this stuff up.”
have been polarizing figures in politics before, but it’s hard to
imagine any have been called as many things – wildly divergent things –
as she. Does everyone simply have their own version of Hillary Clinton?
THE AMBITION THING
Night Live” has been turning out versions for a good 25 years. Each
actress spoofing Clinton – there have been nine, including Miley Cyrus
rapping in a bandeau – has put her spin on the part. But there’s been
one constant: ambition, pure and unadulterated.
blurted out Amy Poehler’s Hillary, alongside Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin, in
agonised disbelief that John McCain’s running mate was still in the race
but she wasn’t.
Recently, Kate McKinnon has perfected a wackier,
more manic ambition. In a recent scene where Clinton herself gamely
played a bartender, the fake Hillary asked Huma Abedin, her aide, “Why
won’t the people just let me LEAD?”
Comedy aside, the ambition
tag has dogged Clinton, 68, throughout her career, as if it were a bad
quality rather than a necessity in high-stakes politics. The satirical
website The Onion captured the irony in a 2006 headline: “Hillary
Clinton Is Too Ambitious To Be The First Female President.”
That gets a knowing laugh from Melanne Verveer, Clinton’s chief of staff from her first lady years.
a guy is described as ambitious, it’s a noble attribute – he wants to
put himself ahead,” says Verveer. “But if a woman is ambitious, it’s not
an attribute, it’s a negative, a pejorative. It’s not proper somehow.”
Rep. Patricia Schroeder thinks the ambition factor is – unfairly – key
to Clinton’s challenges connecting with the electorate.
don’t like a woman who is showing ambition, especially for that level
of a job,” says Schroeder, who famously explored her own presidential
candidacy decades ago. “It’s: ‘I’d like her if she weren’t so damned
ambitious. How come she wants all that power?’ “
Hillary will husband, and former President, Bill and daughter Chelsea in 1990. Photo / Getty Images
CHAMPION FOR WOMEN
At her college
graduation in 1969, Hillary Rodham was already blazing a trail: The
senior from Park Ridge, Illinois, was the first student chosen to
address a Wellesley commencement. She delighted many classmates when she
delivered an on-the-spot rebuke to the previous speaker, a U.S. senator
whose comments the grads found condescending to women. At Yale Law
School, where she met Bill Clinton, she developed a keen interest in
children’s rights, which she pursued in post-graduate work.
been a particular frustration to Clinton’s campaign that young Democrats
haven’t responded more enthusiastically, with many attracted to the
populist message of Bernie Sanders (six years her senior). There’s a
sense that millennials are too young to remember her efforts on behalf
of social justice, particularly for women and girls on a global scale.
people today want to be part of something bigger … but they don’t
understand how much she shares those aspirations of theirs,” Verveer
A key moment in Clinton’s political journey – and a
defining personal moment – came in 1995, when as first lady she spoke at
a U.N. Congress on women in Beijing, declaring, “Human rights are
women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.”
It was a
time when Clinton was searching for a new identity, having failed to
reform health care back home. But even she had no idea the impact those
simple words would have.
“It not only gave her an instant sense
of the world looking at her differently, but she was also seeing the
role she could play – in ways perhaps she had never understood before,”
Verveer says. “It has remained with her ever since.”
image as a champion for women has been complicated by her, well,
complicated marriage – she’s been an object of both sympathy and blame
for staying with her husband post-Monica Lewinsky.
But memories of Beijing endure.
this day, Verveer says, people come up to Clinton on her travels and
say: “‘I was there, in Beijing.’ It’s something that they instantly
ROBOTIC OR HUMAN?
Part of the
narrative on Clinton has been her trouble connecting to the public. “I
am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed,” she said
recently, “like my husband or President Obama.”
One “SNL” skit
has her showing off her new kitchen in a Senate campaign ad, saying in
robot-speak, “I can’t wait to prepare some food dishes in this kitchen,
such as salads and toast.”
Those who’ve watched her up close say
she’s both natural and an excellent communicator one on one. Friends
always say she’s relaxed, funny, witty, a great companion.
not just her friends. Talk to classmates from Wellesley, even those who
only knew her from afar, and they say they can’t understand the
disconnect between public and private Hillary.
Nancy Herron, who
didn’t really know Clinton at school, reconnected with her decades later
at a reunion, where Herron performed a standup routine on what it’s
like being in the shadows of such a famous classmate. She even skewered
“She sat there and just laughed her head
off,” says Herron. “She really enjoyed being teased. Afterward, she gave
me a hug, and said, ‘We need to take you on the road!'”
another classmate, Cheryl Lawson Walker: “She wasn’t intimidating, easy
to talk to, very funny, hang-loose. She had yet to be hardened.” Or,
Walker allows, maybe the “hardened” Hillary is simply what the public
Hillary Clinton with running mate Tim Kaine
and his wife Anne Holton during yesterday’s Democratic presidential
candidate announcement in Miami. Photo / AP
THE TRUTH ISSUE
In a February Gallup
poll, the most common responses Americans gave when asked what came to
mind about Clinton were “dishonest” and “dislike her.” (For Sanders,
they were “socialist” and “old.”)
Fair or not, it’s a theme woven into the Clinton story – both Clintons – from the White House scandals to the email story.
most difficult thing Hillary Clinton has to deal with right now is her
difficult relationship with the truth,” says Bernstein, author of “A
Woman in Charge: The Life of Hillary Rodham Clinton.”
is quick to point out that Clinton’s version of untruthfulness is in a
different ballpark than that of Trump, who, he feels, “just spouts lies,
and has no interest in existential truth,” where Clinton “tries to
establish a baseline of truth.” (Politifact, the fact-checking
organization, asserted at one point that 27 percent of Clinton’s
statements it investigated were false or mostly false, compared with 76
percent of Trump’s.) Another longtime observer, writer Gail Sheehy,
attributes her difficulties with the truth to a defense mechanism honed
over years of fending off attacks on her and her husband.
“You could call it denial,” says Sheehy, author of “Hillary’s Choice.” ”It’s a defense mechanism she has used a great deal.”
issue has never been more important than in this campaign, when both
Clinton’s veracity and judgment are being called into question.
the email mess shows, Bernstein says, is “this fierce desire for
privacy and secrecy that seems to cast a larger and larger shadow over
who she really is.”
REALLY … WHO IS SHE?
Who she really is. There’s that question again.
Is it a fair one? One we’d ask about other candidates?
thinks not. “I say to people, ‘What more do you want to know?'” the
former congresswoman says. “We can see her voting record. We know what
colors she likes. She speaks about her mother. She’s a Methodist. How
many politicians do we even know that much about? Do they want some kind
of a confession?”
Others note that Clinton has naturally become
very guarded, given that she’s been judged, relentlessly and often
unfairly, “on a huge stage, for all of her life,” in Bernstein’s words.
Besides, “too many people are interested in looking for information that
reinforces their already held prejudices and beliefs,” he says.
Clinton’s college classmate, feels that we don’t subject male
candidates to the same scrutiny, always looking for another layer. “What
do we know about Mitt Romney? What do we know about ANYBODY? We expect
her to let her hair down, to talk about her failures and self-doubt or
“You know what, she’s not like that! Let her be who she is.”