At some point in a political campaign, a candidate is always advised, “Just be yourself.”
It is almost always terrible advice — though the candidate usually finds it appealing. No more phoniness! No more artifice! No more pretending to be something he or she is not!
Campaigns are about artifice, however, about presenting appealing images, about submerging the personal quirks of the candidate with what is needed for election.
Still, one faction of the campaign always ends up urging people to “let the candidate be the candidate,” largely because nothing else has worked.
No doubt Mitt Romney was told to be Mitt Romney, and no doubt the warm and personal side of Mitt was warm and personal. But that doesn’t mean it played that way on the national stage. Ask people what they remember of him today and they will say putting the dog on the car roof.
Hillary Clinton is currently running vigorously for president under the guise of selling a 656-page doorstop of a book that Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times said presents “little news.” And that was one of the positive reviews.
No matter. The book itself is mere window dressing so that Hillary can go out among the people to reveal the “new, improved” Hillary Clinton, not the Hillary Clinton who hired inexperienced, often quarrelsome staff members in 2008 who spent more time fighting one another than they did fighting Barack Obama.
But now Clinton gets a mulligan, a second chance to make a first impression. Six years have passed since that presidential run, and she is a different person. She is more relaxed, warmer, more human, more connected to the American people.
Except she’s not.
Her current rollout has gotten steamrollered by the media. She has been eviscerated for saying she was “dead broke” when she left the White House and portrayed as testy when a reporter dared to ask follow-up questions.
“Clinton seems to be repeating the central mistake of her 2008 presidential campaign,” wrote Ron Fournier of the National Journal, “burying her personality and passion beneath redundant layers of caution, calculation and defensiveness.”
I respect Fournier, but I think the opposite may be true. Clinton’s personality and passion may be her problem, and her layers of caution, calculation and defensiveness may be her best way of disguising that.
Take her exchange with NPR’s Terry Gross. Gross tried to bore in deeply with questions about whether Clinton’s views on gay marriage had shifted with the shifting politics of the times.
“I have to say, I think you are being very persistent, but you are playing with my words and playing with what is such an important issue,” Clinton said.
“I’m just trying to clarify so I can understand,” Gross said.
“No, I don’t think you are trying to clarify,” Clinton snapped back. “I think you’re trying to say that, you know, I used to be opposed and now I’m in favor and I did it for political reasons, and that’s just flat wrong. So let me just state what I feel like you are implying and repudiate it.”
Which is Hillary being Hillary. You can say it shows admirable toughness, but when she ran last time, her campaign found out she had toughness to spare. “Ironically, our early research found the Hillary attributes that tested the highest were ‘tough, ready, strong,’” a top Hillary staffer told me in 2008. The highest attributes for Obama, Hillary’s campaign found, were “empathetic, sympathetic, cares about me.”
And which set of attributes won?
Last Friday, at George Washington University, Hillary faced a much kinder interview from a close friend and former employee, Lissa Muscatine. Muscatine came to the startling conclusion that the gaffes and heated exchanges during Hillary’s book tour meant one thing: “You seem like you’re having a really good time.”
“Well, Lissa, I am having a good time,” Hillary responded.
“You’re really free to speak your mind these days,” Muscatine said.
“Maybe it’s because I am truly done with, you know, being really careful about what to say because somebody might think this instead of that,” Hillary said. “Whether you agree with it or not, you know exactly where I come from, what I think, what I feel. It feels a little bit liberating, to be honest.”
“And it’s great to watch,” Muscatine said.
Good drama is always great to watch. But I think Hillary Clinton feels about as free and easygoing as a tightly wound watch.
She claims she no longer has to be “really careful” about what she says.
I have difficulty believing that.
And if it is true, I have difficulty believing that it will get her to the presidency.