Hillary Rodham Clinton has proven she can make history. But can she ever make herself understood?
The primaries were finally over, the general election loomed, and as Hillary Clinton stood in June to address a friendly audience at a Chicago luncheon, she faced a profoundly unfinished item of business. With history in her pocket and the polls tilting in her favor, the former Secretary of State and First Lady finally named the problem that has dogged her for decades. “A lot of people tell pollsters they don’t trust me,” Clinton told her audience, in a voice that, minus the microphone, would have evaporated. “I don’t like hearing that, and I’ve thought a lot about what’s behind it.
“You can’t just talk someone into trusting you. You’ve got to earn it,” Clinton continued, to a smattering of applause that was tentative and awkward, like the moment.
It’s hard to trust someone you don’t know, and few people should be better known by now than Hillary Rodham Clinton. For years, her every utterance, gesture and hairstyle has been scrutinized, yet she is still something of a mystery to voters.
Millions of Americans still don’t know what to make of this trailblazing, catalyzing, polarizing woman–a fact that her friends chalk up to her bone-deep feminism. Growing up in the vanguard of the women’s-rights movement, Clinton asked NASA how to become an astronaut, only to encounter a no-girls policy. When a professor at Harvard Law School said his august school needed no more women, she made herself a superstar at Yale. She kept her maiden name after marriage, in a time and place where that wasn’t done. She outearned her husband for much of her career. And she scoffed at the notion that she could ever be a cookie-baking, stand-by-your-man kind of woman.
The feminist revolution promised that such freedoms would empower women to forge their own strong identities, but for Clinton the promise remains unfulfilled. Her identity is protean, shape-shifting, no less mysterious today than it was more than 40 years ago, when she entered the national spotlight. Her favorability ratings rise and fall, peaking when she is serving the country and sinking when she is on the campaign trail. No speech, no memoir, no interview or barrage of ads has brought her essence fully into focus. Her foes artfully define her even as she struggles to define and redefine herself.
Former chief of staff Melanne Verveer recalls a limo ride with the then First Lady some two decades ago. Clinton slumped into the leather seat and thumbed through a sheaf of papers. This daily task gave her no pleasure, paging through one unsatisfying, unflattering analysis after another of a particular global figure who seemed impossible to describe. “I wouldn’t like this person either,” she remarked wearily. “This person” was, of course, herself.
Things haven’t changed much as she has moved from the White House to the Senate to the Cabinet and now to the final phase of her second presidential bid. Armchair psychologists still muse about her motives, and critics still comment on her character. “Hillary for prison” is a tuning note for the Republican-convention chorus. From her vantage, her career looks straightforward enough: a life of pragmatic politics in service of idealistic ends, like justice and opportunity for women and children. By any objective or reasonable standard, she is someone who has matched every professional challenge placed before her, from the courtrooms of Little Rock, Ark., to the brutish back rooms of high-stakes diplomacy. But from the outside looking in, the pieces don’t easily fit. The champion of working moms who hobnobs with Wall Street bankers. The “dead broke” (her words) public servant who buys mansions in Washington and New York. The hyperqualified executive who proves “extremely careless” (the FBI director’s words) with her unapproved email system. The feminist paragon who defends a philandering husband.
Clinton’s opponent through an unexpectedly bruising primary, Senator Bernie Sanders, made the most of her amorphous identity. He’s the opposite, a figure of almost cartoon clarity. Clinton is not what she claims to be, Sanders charged. She claims to be on the side of underdogs, but she runs with big dogs. She says she will protect jobs, but she championed free trade. She extols the pragmatism that gets things done, but how is that different from cronyism and corruption?
Hillary Rodham Clinton is, in the words of one adviser, the most famous woman no one truly knows. And if distortions wrought by white-hot fame are partly to blame, she, too, is at fault. She has never made it easy to know her. She maintains a tiny circle of trust inside a fortress of supreme caution. Her brother-in-law Roger Clinton noticed this not long after Hillary Rodham joined the Clinton clan. “It was fried chicken and mashed potatoes,” he once said of his Southern family, “vs. a concrete wall.”
To Verveer, Clinton’s trouble is simply the human condition as magnified by the relentless lens of public scrutiny; we all contain multitudes. “At any given time, if you take a snapshot of her, it may not look like the previous snapshot. But in truth, we are all more complex than we may appear on our face,” Clinton’s longtime aide and confidante explained. “Depending on how you look, you see one thing and not another.”
Clinton’s identity could be a collection of nesting dolls, those nearly identical figures that fit neatly one inside the next. You unpack each lacquered image in hopes of finding something new and essential inside, but there is only another version of the same face in different proportions. For Hillary Clinton, the task between now and November is to make those faces add up to one integral, compelling, believable figure.
Picture Hillary Diane Rodham at 21, marching around Lake Waban in the Boston suburbs to 735 Washington Street, the home of Wellesley College president Ruth Adams. Rodham is a familiar visitor. She has lobbied the venerable women’s college on everything from admitting more black students and adding black studies to the curriculum, to grading some courses pass-fail and ditching the skirt-required dress code in the dining hall.
Now it is spring of her senior year; Rodham is the student-government president, and her classmates want a student speaker as part of the commencement ceremony. Coming at the end of the tumultuous and often violent ’60s, the request seems modest enough. “What is the real objection?” the young activist pushes. “It’s never been done,” Adams protests weakly.
This is how Rodham arrived at her first burst of national attention: as a representative crusader in a generation of change seekers. When the Wellesley president backed down, she was given a platform for her speech. And stepping to the microphone on graduation day, she felt compelled to offer an impromptu critique of the milquetoast address delivered by Senator Edward Brooke, the featured orator.
This decision to take on a Senator was a measure of the distance her restless mind and political passions had taken her in a few years. A devout churchgoer and eager Republican–she volunteered as a “Goldwater girl” in high school–Rodham was now scorching the status quo. Her conservative father had done little to seed such confidence. “You must go to a pretty easy school,” Hugh Rodham grunted when shown her perfect grades. It was at Wellesley where she caught fire.
Her speech became one of the most celebrated of that graduation season. “We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us even understands, and attempting to create within that uncertainty,” Clinton said in a clipped accent few would recognize today. “And so our questions–our questions about our institutions, about our colleges, about our churches, about our government–continue.” The applause when she finished reportedly lasted for seven minutes.
LIFE magazine noted her triumph. Photographed in striped pants and thick glasses, Rodham appeared with a headline borrowed from her speech: Protest is an attempt to forge an identity.
And yet: her soul mates of today, the young activists on campuses across the country, shunned her by the millions in favor of Bernie’s bugle call. In their protests against her campaign machine, they forged their own identities–and she somehow became another institution in need of questioning.
“When I go back and read it today, I have to admit it wasn’t the world’s most coherent address,” Clinton has said. What seemed so vivid in 1969 looks to her now like a study in grays. The flaws in her speech reflected a tension within Rodham herself, for she had a mixed view of social protest. She cared less about purity of intentions than about actual results. Student strikes, for example, seemed pointless to her without something to show for them. As she once mused to a friend, she had a liberal’s heart and a conservative’s head.
In any event, “the accolades and attacks turned out to be a preview of things to come,” Clinton wrote years later in her memoirs. “I have never been as good as or as bad as my fervid supporters and opponents claimed.”
After Wellesley and Yale Law School, Hillary Rodham distinguished herself as a young attorney on the team that prepared the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. What happened next shocked many of her friends and admirers. Instead of making her way up through the ranks of Washington, she moved to Arkansas to follow her law-school boyfriend, Bill Clinton, and soon entered the fraught role of wife, placing herself in the outsize shadow of the most talented, magnetic and undisciplined politician of the baby-boom generation.
Most marriages are opaque. The seemingly tranquil and loving union can suddenly collapse, while next door an apparently ill-matched pair sails onward through year after stormy year. Hillary Rodham’s marriage quickly became unusually complicated–and therefore hard to read–because it was only one aspect of a larger partnership embarked on a supremely ambitious undertaking. As she alerted a friend in 1974, “Bill Clinton is going to be President of the United States someday.”
When her identity as an individual has clashed with the demands of the partnership, the union has come first. Arkansas voters were put off by this high-powered young woman who dressed like a hippie, loved policy and spoke with a flat Midwestern accent. In 1980, after a single term, they converted Bill from the youngest governor in America into the youngest ex-governor, and many observers assigned a large share of the blame to his wife. What manner of First Lady didn’t even share her husband’s surname, and why call herself Ms. when she ought to be Mrs.?
So Hillary Rodham added Clinton to her handle, lightened her hair and ditched her glasses in favor of contacts. G’s began fallin’ from the ends of her words. Sunday mornings found the lifelong Methodist in her husband’s pew at a Southern Baptist church.
This was no casual makeover, but it worked. Bill Clinton was re-elected after two years in the public’s doghouse. Husband and wife returned to the governor’s mansion with a toddler in tow. Chelsea delighted her mother even as she further complicated the question of identity, because it was more urgent than before that Hillary assume the role of chief breadwinner. The governor of Arkansas was paid only a modest salary.
Many doors were opened to the governor’s wife, and given Clinton’s talents and education, she made the most of the opportunities. Hillary Rodham Clinton reported a 1992 income of $203,172 compared with her husband’s take-home pay of $34,527. She became a partner at Little Rock’s leading law firm and held plum seats on the boards of Walmart, the frozen-yogurt chain TCBY and the French industrial giant Lafarge. A foray into commodities trading guided by a family friend yielded a tidy 10,000% return. “The ’80s were about acquiring wealth, power, prestige,” Clinton reflected in 1993. “I know. I acquired more wealth, power and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty.”
She filled the chasm with still more roles. She was her husband’s top adviser in private and his best character witness in public. When Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992, it was Hillary Clinton who carried her husband’s speech in the pocket of her blue suit as they arrived onstage outside the Old State House in Little Rock. She helped the President-elect choose his top aides and his Cabinet. She was the first First Lady to have an office in the West Wing. “She knows more about a lot of this stuff than most of us do,” Bill Clinton told the Wall Street Journal.
With her assignment to lead the Administration’s ambitious health-care-reform effort, Hillary Clinton upended the traditional role of First Lady. She had spearheaded projects for the partnership before, but never on such a scale. She shaped policy, plotted tactics, lobbied lawmakers and pitched the public as Cabinet members and presidential aides jumped to her command. But the project ended in defeat, helping to fuel the first Republican takeover of Congress in some 40 years. Her failure was so bitter that Hillary Clinton mused in 1996 that someone in her position might “totally withdraw and perhaps put a bag over [her] head.”
Instead, she chose to fight. Dorothy Rodham, Hillary’s mother, loved to tell about a day in the 1950s when her daughter thrashed the neighborhood bully. But most Americans did not see the fighting side of Hillary until she was embattled in the White House. When they did, this aspect of her identity reshaped what they felt about her–whether they liked or hated what they saw.
The first gauntlet landed at the site of her own initial triumph. She was paying a courtesy call on the president of Wellesley when she received a call from her attorney. She had been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury about a long-ago land deal in Arkansas. It was, Clinton believed, a purely political and mean-spirited investigation.
She prepared so intensely that she lost 10 pounds. When the morning of her testimony arrived, she chose to walk through the front door of the federal courthouse rather than direct her motorcade into the underground garage. Smiling and waving at the crowd that had gathered to see history–the first presidential spouse to testify in such a forum–Clinton was pure sangfroid. “Cheerio! Off to the firing squad,” she said as she left her lawyers and entered the sealed grand jury room.
Afterward, a reporter asked if the First Lady would have preferred to be anywhere else that day. “Oh, about a million other places,” she said drily–but something about Clinton must love the trenches, because she fights so doggedly in them. “I never saw her go into a meeting or a speech or even informal remarks less than fully prepared,” said Bill Galston, a policy adviser in the Clinton Administration. “She has a lot of faith in the capacity of hard work and evidence to win people over.”
On another occasion, when even the White House staff seemed to doubt her innocence of some charge or other, tears welled in her eyes as she said, “I don’t want to hear anything more. I want us to fight.”
And there have been so many, many fights. But as so often in trench warfare, the battle ends in grim stalemate. “Whenever I go out and fight, I get vilified, so I have just learned to smile and take it,” she told White House adviser George Stephanopoulos in 1995, according to his memoirs. “I go out there and say, ‘Please, please, kick me again, insult me some more.’ You have to be much craftier behind the scenes.”
Candidate Clinton was back at the witness table last autumn, when lawmakers grilled her for 11 hours over the deaths of four Americans at a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. In public and to the FBI, she has stubbornly defended every inch of crumbling clifftop beneath her feet in the controversy over her private email server. Under attack by Sanders, she refused to release transcripts of her paid speeches to Wall Street audiences, or even to concede that the speeches were a mistake.
Friends muse that the years of combat have left her unrecognizable in public: hedging, defensive, even misleading. “Sometimes, I am saddened by her understandable loss of spontaneity,” the late Diane Blair reflected on this lasting change to her friend’s personality. “It was one of her most endearing qualities. But in public now, she filters out her first response and sometimes her second one, and that contributes to a sense that she is aloof and haughty.” Another friend of long standing put it this way: “There is a wellspring of bitterness and anger and bewilderment, a deep reservoir of hurt.” Clinton’s explanation for her reticence: “The reason that I sometimes sound careful with my words is not that I’m hiding something. It’s just that I’m careful with my words.”
Identity is not only what we intend to reveal but what is actually seen–and how this is perceived. Now, in the late phase of Clinton’s long career, the face she most wants the public to see, the essential figure at the center of the nesting dolls, is the doer, the person who makes things happen, artist of the nitty-gritty when necessary, a compromiser if that’s what it takes.
After her failure with health care, the First Lady embraced her husband’s strategy of pragmatism. To the extent that two huge characters can lower their profiles, they did. They went to work on projects acceptable to a hostile Congress. Some continue to be a source of pride, like the children’s health-insurance plan that now serves 8 million kids.
Persuaded to run for a vacant Senate seat in New York in 2000, Clinton took the same approach. Though she was a global celebrity, she put her head down and worked on parochial issues. She passed up a seat on the glamorous Senate Committee on Foreign Relations for one on the Armed Services panel, where she could wrangle the concerns of New Yorkers in uniform and build her national-security credentials.
Senator Clinton also grappled with the decidedly unsexy issue of upstate agriculture, connecting New York City’s restaurant industry to the struggling operations of New York farmers. She ferried a delegation of city restaurateurs to the fields and vineyards of the Empire State, where the foodies found produce as good as any shipped from out of state. At the same time, she nudged the farmers to plant heirloom tomatoes, microgreens and other trendy crops that city diners fancied.
Noting the spicy peppers growing in the elephant enclosure of the Bronx Zoo, she asked a shipping distributor to persuade zoo officials to sell their own line of hot sauce. News that small-business owners in rural New York lacked computer resources sent her to cajole Hewlett-Packard executives into donating laptops to enable online sales of moccasins and fishing rods.
It was the same when she served as Secretary of State. Circling the globe to conduct diplomacy face-to-face, Clinton rebuilt a badly frayed U.S. image and along the way specialized in minor, tangible victories, like the clean cookstoves and microloans she put in the hands of poor people. Such achievements don’t tame Putin or stabilize Libya, but as one senior aide put it, a woman in an African village who can feed her children because of a microloan cares passionately about that program. “As an advocate, she is practical about getting results,” said Neera Tanden, a longtime Clinton adviser and friend. “Her real measure is, how do you accomplish something in people’s lives?”
Among the many faces Clinton has slipped on and off, there was–back in the White House years–the Mystic. Critics had a short but happy romp with the news that she was channeling the spirit of Eleanor Roosevelt during sessions with a “human potential researcher.” Clinton was open about such conversations, dating back to her first days as First Lady. In her own head, Clinton asked Roosevelt, “How did you put up with this?” And that much-criticized First Lady replied, “You’re just going to have to get out there and do it. And don’t make excuses.”
In that spirit, Clinton has waged many fights, some admirable, some unnecessary, against enemies real and imagined. Over time, she has built up an outer shell, an armor, that makes her difficult to comprehend. Michael Muzyk, a New York trucking executive, tells the story of a day in 2004 when he accompanied the Senator on one of those upstate missions to promote local farmers’ produce. At the state fairgrounds, Clinton received word that her husband had been hospitalized for emergency heart surgery.
“I guess you gotta go,” Muzyk said immediately. But Clinton demurred. People were waiting to hear her speak. Her husband, of all people, would understand.
“You’re crazy,” Muzyk remembers thinking. And he watched her do her duty, as she has done for years, with admiration–and mystification.
Those closest to her have long worried that she has conditioned herself never to let others in. “I just hope people don’t forget,” the late Dorothy Rodham said of her daughter, “that Hillary’s a human being.” But voters can hardly forget what they haven’t been given a chance to see.
“I personally know I have work to do on this front,” she told the audience in Chicago in June.
But after all that has happened–all the misunderstandings and misdirection, all the identities pried open to reveal other identities that turn out to contain others and so on–perhaps it is too late for a revelation of the “real Hillary,” the authentic champion that her friends tell us we would love, if only we could get to know her. If she opened up, which of the nesting dolls would she be? The activist, pushing for a Sanders-like agenda? The pragmatist, cutting deals with congressional Republicans over a stiff drink? The brawler, leading her band of true believers against a hostile, uncomprehending enemy?
Perhaps the bargain that she struck with herself as a young woman has made these questions as inevitable as they are unanswerable. Free to choose any life she could imagine, Hillary Rodham Clinton tasted many, discarded most and arrived in a place so unique, so vast and variegated, that simply being herself could never be enough.
–With reporting by SAM FRIZELL/WASHINGTON