A Chink in the Steely Facade of Hillary Clinton

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton was near tears during a campaign stop in New Hampshire where a new poll shows Clinton is trailing front-runner Barack Obama by a wide margin. Video by AP
By Robin Givhan
Tuesday, January 8, 2008

For a brief moment at a campaign stop in Portsmouth, N.H., Hillary Clinton let slip a glimpse of uncontrolled emotion. In response to a question from an empathetic voter who wondered how she remains upbeat and "so wonderful," Clinton's voice cracked as she conceded that the nonstop campaigning -- and all it entails -- is not easy.

Clinton got choked up. Her voice grew softer. Her eyes grew moist. And she cupped her chin in her hand in a gesture that seemed to indicate both exhaustion and frustration. The candidate, who has presented a consistent face of steely determination and invincibility, had a jarring moment of vulnerability.

Clinton didn't cry. God, no. A woman seeking the presidency isn't allowed to do that no matter how tired she gets and how often she hears: People just don't like you. As if choosing the next commander in chief is akin to electing a student body president. So there were no tears rolling down Clinton's cheeks, and there was no messy sniffling. As displays of emotion go, this one was tasteful and reserved -- and ever so brief. It was like one of those perfect flickers of sadness that won Helen Mirren an Oscar for "The Queen." It was dignified, yet human.

But nothing is ever that simple with Clinton. As she herself has noted, she is a Rorschach test for the way in which we believe women get ahead, handle power, negotiate marriage and make us all feel warm, fuzzy and protected. With Clinton, whom people so often view through their own personal lens, the same fleeting gestures can be interpreted as both coldly calculating and wimpy.

Over the past 17 years, Clinton has constructed a public face that is controlled and largely inscrutable. Spontaneity and emotional frankness are not character traits one associates with her. During her greatest public trials, even when discussing her husband's betrayal while promoting her memoir, Clinton presented herself as a fighter.

She never has come across as wounded. Angry maybe. Defiant perhaps. The public is accustomed to seeing those on her face and hearing them in her voice. They ring true. Everything else seems suspect. (Even her laughter has been analyzed and judged inappropriate, insincere and annoying.)

It's no great leap to wonder whether that cracking in her voice yesterday had been self-consciously conjured up. Clinton got teary-eyed? Really? The disbelief might be cynical, but not unreasonable.

How does she convince observers -- those pesky pundits, the annoying media, the relentless bloggers -- that her husky-voiced emotion was real? Would she have been more persuasive if she'd shed one perfect tear like Demi Moore in "Ghost"?

Of course, if she comes across as too authentically vulnerable and tender she runs the risk of being called a wuss. Can't stand the heat, Hillary? The mere indication that her tear ducts are in working order is enough to raise that question. And reporters did so with John Edwards, who was on another 36-hour campaign marathon. "I think what we need in a commander in chief is strength and resolve," Edwards said. "Presidential campaigns are tough business, but being president of the United States is also a very tough business."

In this rare public moment when raw humanity flashed across Clinton's face and got caught in her voice, she was explaining why she's running. She was explaining herself: "Some people think elections are a game, lots of who's up or who's down. It's about our country. It's about our kids' futures. And it's really about all of us together."

A lifetime of work, sacrifice, frustration, patience and defiance seemed to be compressed in a few sentences. There was a little bit of disappointment in her words. A hint of exasperation. Her voice sounded heavy with tearful emotion. Not crocodile tears, but real ones. Not because she's a wimp. But simply because she's human.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company