Hillary, We Thoroughly Knew Ye

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

DES MOINES It was very nearly a case of Too Much Information.

Sen. Hillary Clinton was campaigning in a Hy-Vee grocery here Tuesday, on day two of her effort to display warmth and fuzziness, when she divulged some startling news: She was dispatching across Iowa "people who have known me, who can talk about what I do when the lights are off."

As luck would have it, Bill Clinton was campaigning with his wife in the Hy-Vee, and he was asked what he and the senator do in their, um, downtime.

"Sometimes we're just sleeping," the former president answered, "because we're so tired."

Those crazy kids. But then, the effort to humanize Hillary was bound to encounter some hitches.

As Clinton struggles to recover in Iowa and New Hampshire, her aides are trying a last-minute fix for a potentially fatal flaw: Voters like her brains and her experience, but they don't necessarily like, well, her. And so the campaign rolled out (what else?) a new slogan -- "The Hillary I Know" -- and a new Web site with 38 videotaped testimonials from the senator's friends and constituents.

But the get-to-know-me campaign has hit a snag: Hillary. "I know that people have been saying, 'Well, we got to know more about her. We want to know more about her personally.' I totally get that," Clinton acknowledged at the Hy-Vee. "It's a little hard for me. It's not easy for me to talk about myself."

Just how hard became clear at her next stop, in Ottumwa. Early in her speech, she tried gamely to speak in the first person. "I was raised in a middle-class family," she said in a soft voice. "My father, who was a World War II Navy vet, came home from serving our country and wanted to start a family and start a small business and save enough money to buy a house."

But after a minute of this, Clinton retreated to what for her is safer ground: the impersonal world of policy.

"I figure that we can provide 50,000 Iowa families with at least $300 in additional emergency heating assistance, and I can help 80,000 Iowa families reduce their energy bills by up to 20 percent through immediate weatherization plans," she vowed. Silence in the room.

"My plan would provide 930,000 Iowa households with new matching tax cuts to save," she read from a sheet of paper. "I would also provide 774,000 Iowa workers who currently have no employer-sponsored retirement accounts an opportunity to save in your own retirement account." Crowd noise at pin-drop decibels.

The appearance ended after a similarly informative discussion about health care, alternative energy, immigration and veterans' programs. And at the end, The Hillary We Know was still enigmatic.

The likability campaign started out promisingly enough. In Johnston on Monday, lifelong friend Betsy Ebeling spoke about how Hillary was "the captain of the crossing guards" in sixth grade. "Do all of you understand she's a mom, she's a daughter?" Ebeling asked the crowd. "She takes care of her mom."

Clinton followed with a very human story of how, in junior high school, she had "really thick glasses" but took them off while walking in the hallways because "there was always some boy or another that I was hoping would notice me."

The videos, likewise, give hints of a private Hillary. With soft piano music playing in the background, we hear from her dress designer ("Hillary came into the store and bought one of the dresses"), a former law partner ("I remember helping them paint their kitchen . . . this real ugly orange") and the woman who hosted the Clintons' wedding reception ("It bothered me the other day to hear somebody say that she doesn't have any religion").

Yet even these private reflections of the candidate frequently centered on public policy: "Senator Clinton was one of the first people to realize that the air was toxic. . . . She wants a good education for everybody. . . . She helped set up the system to provide services to indigent clients." Even the candidate's mother, Dorothy Rodham, noted how "she's been very active with social justice causes."

Maybe, then, The Hillary They Know isn't so different from the Hillary everybody else knows: She's a public-policy savant whose idea of a good time is reading white papers into the wee hours. It was only a couple of weeks ago, after all, that she described as "fun" her now-abandoned plans to attack rival Barack Obama.

By the time Clinton arrived in Ottumwa, the slogan on the backdrop ("Working for Change/Working for You") suggested she had already moved beyond The Hillary I Know. Aides promised that she would continue to talk about the personal -- and for a brief moment, she did. "My dad," she said, "believed in people fending for themselves and taking whatever they could to get a better life. And my mother believed in reaching out and helping people and being compassionate, and so I was lucky that I got all those values."

But enough about me, she decided. In a flash, she was proclaiming: "Thank goodness for the children's health insurance program!" Moments later, she whipped out a piece of paper to list her specific proposals. "I'll have a moratorium for 90 days on foreclosures," she said, "then I want to have a five-year freeze on the mortgage rates."

Still consulting the paper, she pledged her fealty to "the program called LIHEAP."

The speech reached its climax when she promised "to fully fund the VA, to make sure that we clear the backlog of compensation claims."

Now, that's The Hillary We Know.

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