Hillary Clinton, storyteller
Hillary Clinton has a long history of hiding the whole truth about herself. The latest example — declining to reveal for 48 hours that she was suffering from pneumonia — was a serious mistake that chewed another chunk out of her already shaky credibility. But the controversy surrounding Clinton’s illness overshadowed a fascinating moment when she overcame her penchant for privacy and gave a revealing interview to the website Humans of New York (HONY). Just days before she stumbled, literally and figuratively, on a New York sidewalk, Clinton told the story of taking a law school admissions test as a college senior during the height of the Vietnam War.
One of only a few women “in a big classroom at Harvard,” she described the scene: “While we’re waiting for the exam to start, a group of men began to yell things like: ‘You don’t need to be here.’ And ‘There’s plenty else you can do.’ It turned into a real ‘pile on.’
“One of them even said: ‘If you take my spot, I’ll get drafted, and I’ll go to Vietnam, and I’ll die.’ And they weren’t kidding around. It was intense. It got very personal. But I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t afford to get distracted because I didn’t want to mess up the test.”
That experience, she went on, helps explain one of her biggest political weaknesses. “I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions,” she said. “And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’ And sometimes I think I come across more in the ‘walled off’ arena.”
Clinton’s interview was posted minutes before Steve taught a class at George Washington University called “Media, Politics and Government.” The laptops and cellphones of his students immediately pinged and swooshed as dozens of their friends shared the post. Her words ignited a level of interest in Clinton’s campaign that has been painfully lacking among younger voters.
The episode says a lot about Clinton’s continuing struggle to find a narrative that connects to the hearts and hopes of ordinary voters. One of the main reasons she lost to Obama eight years ago was his brilliant ability to tell stories that conveyed a strong but simple message: “I’m just like you.” And as she said in the HONY interview, she might not have that talent, but she knows it when she sees it.
“I’m not Barack Obama. I’m not Bill Clinton,” she said. “Both of them carry themselves with a naturalness that is very appealing to audiences.” It’s “hard work to present yourself in the best possible way . ...
Many commentators on the HONY interview echoed Clinton’s lament. “Women all over the world know this as fact, all too much,” posted Michelle Jenkins. “Be quiet, but not too quiet. Be smart, but not too smart ... it goes on and on.” Added Robin Kennedy: “Be pretty, but not too pretty ... be firm, but not too bitchy ... on and on.”
Clinton knows how important it is to tell compelling stories, and she’s tried out several during the campaign: her immigrant grandfather working in a Scranton, Pennsylvania, lace mill; her mother running away from an abusive home at 14; Facetiming with her granddaughter, Charlotte.
But those anecdotes have not connected with many younger voters. The Washington Post, for example, reports a tightening race in Pennsylvania, and quotes one pollster’s explanation: “We know who is not turning out: the college students and the minorities.”
If Steve’s students are any guide, Clinton’s tale of being berated by hostile men who didn’t think she belonged in law school touched a chord of recognition, especially with the younger women she needs to energize. The lesson: Leave her “walled off” fortress more often, and tell stories that reveal both her struggles and her strength.