Ten days after I wrote a column in 2013 about Hillary Clinton, one that was headlined, “Where’s the message?,” I ran into her at a social event. She was on the way out and I was coming in, so we just chatted briefly. Referring to my column, she said, “Richard, I will have a message,” and then quickly added, “If I run.” Well, she’s running, and we’re still waiting to find out why.
The icky commercial she used to announce her candidacy was hardly a position paper. It looked like one of those Vaseline-lensed dog-food commercials, so lacking substance that I wondered if I had summoned the wrong video from the Internet. I am writing now about 15 hours after seeing the thing, and for the life of me all I can remember is a bunch of happy people and Clinton saying something about being on the side of the middle class. I think it is no mere coincidence that the Clinton campaign now has the services of Wendy Clark, a senior marketing specialist from Coca-Cola. Maybe Clinton will “teach the world to sing.”
As uncharacteristically prescient as I was back in 2013, that’s how hackneyed my point — just being Hillary Clinton isn’t enough — has become. Nary a person can write about her without noting that she, as Winston Churchill once said about a pudding, lacks theme. Karl Rove made such an observation in a recent Wall Street Journal column — “Hillary Needs More Than an Image Makeover.” And while Rove is a Republican apparatchik and not likely to appreciate the many virtues of Hillary Clinton, the Economist magazine splashed a similar point all over its cover: “What does Hillary stand for?” It remains a good question.
It just so happens there is an answer, and if it needs a slogan, then I suggest the Stephen Sondheim song from “Follies ” called “I’m Still Here.” Forget the specifics of the song. Let’s just say it’s about a woman of some years who has led a hell of a life. If that’s not Clinton, then I don’t know who it is. She has been around. She has been walloped. She has been publicly betrayed and damaged and hurt. It’s not that she’s running merely as a woman. It’s that she’s a woman of some years of womanly experiences.
I know, I know. A presidential candidate needs a slogan. (My favorite is Ross Perot’s from his 1992 campaign, “Ross for Boss.” Says it all.) Barack Obama’s original ones were about change and hope. Change fit. He was young and unburdened by previous positions and, importantly, African American. Hope is easily tethered to change. If you have one, you can have the other.
But what worked for Obama cannot work for Clinton. She cannot — she must not — try to reinvent herself. We have known her a long time — ever since Bill Clinton first appeared in the public eye when he became Arkansas’s attorney general. That was 1977, and while a state attorney general might be a minor office, Bill Clinton was never a minor figure. I sometimes think that shortly after his birth he was being mentioned for president.
Hillary Clinton has been a lawyer. She has been an advocate for the poor, especially children. She’s been the first lady of Arkansas and of the United States of America. She’s been a senator from New York and Obama’s secretary of state. Her record in all those positions is worthy of a fair critique, but the fact remains that she’s unique in American political life.
Scanning the mob of Republicans now seeking the White House, there’s no one who approaches Clinton in experience or standing. Jeb Bush comes close. He was the governor of a major state and he impresses with his fidelity to some distinctly un-Republican positions on immigration and education. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is interesting, but he has the “lean and hungry look” that Caesar noted in Cassius. He is not quite ready. As for the rest of the field, it is a political bedlam, quarreling, quibbling and kvetching over same-sex marriage, abortion and immigration, and in general waging the good fight against social progress.
The message that I said in 2013 was missing in Hillary Clinton has been there all along. It is her — who she is, what she has done and what she has been through. Don’t wrap her in gauze and smother her in jingles. “Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all/ And, my dear, I’m still here,” Sondheim wrote. Yes, she is.
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