In a revealing moment, she admits she’s ‘not a natural politician’ like her husband. And it shows all the time on the campaign trail.
It may have been Hillary Clinton’s most revealing moment on the stump since that time she choked up in New Hampshire in 2008, after a sympathetic supporter asked, “How do you do it?” When one of the moderators at Wednesday night’s debate in Miami, Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post, asked Clinton why so many voters find her untrustworthy, the candidate hemmed a bit and then admitted: “I’m not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama.”
Actually, Hillary is pretty politically savvy, and she’s been playing the game most of her adult life. She also possesses many appealing assets other politicians don’t, including the discipline and Washington savvy Bill lacked when he became president in 1993. But the woman cruelly nicknamed Sister Frigidaire in high school, whose mother dreamed of her being America’s first female chief justice of the Supreme Court, does lack Bill’s magnetism and smooth charm. And that is a problem for her, if for no other reason than he will be by her side for the duration of the campaign—and she is hardly the only one to note that, next to him, she’s no “natural.”
If she were Mrs. John Smith—or any of the Mrs. Bushes—the problem would be less glaring. But as Mrs. Bill Clinton, Hillary bears a burden no other candidate has ever had—to be constantly measured against one of the great political talents of modern times. No matter where she campaigns, the built-in comparison to her famously fluid husband helps makes Hillary look even stiffer, even less authentic–despite Bill’s infamously hot-and-cold relationship with the truth. It’s a husband problem for the ages: Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi never worried about their spouses upstaging them; Thatcher’s was self-effacing, Meir was divorced and Gandhi’s was dead. And who gives Mr. Angela Merkel of Germany a second thought? (Professor Joachim Sauer, a German quantum chemist, is her second husband).
This how-do-you-solve-a-problem-like-Bill-Clinton problem emerged vividly at Coretta Scott King’s funeral in 2006, as Hillary was gearing up for her first presidential run. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton’s speech was lovely. But her husband, who preceded her, rocked. He had 10,000 mourners laughing and crying and clapping and amen-ing and remembering his presidency with a rush of nostalgia that blotted out any unpleasant moments. As Bill riffed, Hillary stood by his side, looking like the gawky brainiac sidekick in a teen movie cheering on her cheerleader frenemy in mid-handspring.
Hillary Clinton isn’t the first presidential candidate, of course, to be shadowed by a presidential mentor. Many Democrats believe Vice President Al Gore could have become president in 2000 had he run for a third Clinton term rather than away from his controversial but popular president. Other vice presidents also faced Hillary’s “Gorey dilemma,” wondering how to benefit from a popular predecessor without being upstaged by him. In 1960, the polarizing pol Richard Nixon was humiliated when his well-liked boss Dwight Eisenhower ended a news conference brusquely by asking for “a week” to “think about” what Nixon contributed to the administration. Theodore Roosevelt so dominated the 1908 campaign of his hand-chosen successor, Secretary of War William Howard Taft, that wags claimed the candidate’s last name stood for “Take Advice From Theodore.” And in 1836, the wily Martin Van Buren was cast as a partisan manipulator in contrast to his equal wily but more discreet boss Andrew Jackson.
But Hillary Clinton’s problem is surely unique. More than most presidential couples, the Clintons’ individual fates have been remarkably intertwined. Since most Americans first met the Clintons, during their famous post-Super Bowl interview in January 1992 denying the now-confirmed truths about Bill’s affair with Gennifer Flowers, they have been both each other’s chief asset and great liability. Her role as Mrs. Bill Clinton has made Hillary one of history’s most famous women—and most humiliated spouses. Hillary helped Bill lose the Congress in 1994 by botching health care reform and helped save his presidency four years later by vouching for him during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Sometimes, the two soared together. During the 1992 campaign’s final surge they seemed to be falling in love yet again as Democrats fell in love with their first winning baby boomer nominee. And sometimes, they stumbled together. During Barack Obama’s 2008 surge, Bill’s temper tantrum over Hillary’s losing South Carolina prompted unfair charges of racism.
And even if the Clinton marriage was as solid as George and Martha Washington’s, having the first serious female presidential candidate so dependent on such a charismatic and, well, attractive husband is risky. In fact, Bill’s past has already caught up with him in this campaign. After Hillary said Donald Trump “demonstrated a penchant for sexism” in January, Trump sharply riposted by reminding everyone of some of the 1990s’ worst moments. “She wants to accuse me of things and the husband is one of the great abusers of the world,” Trump said. “Give me a break.” Hillary hasn’t mentioned Trump’s treatment of women since.
What can Hillary do in the end with her husband, “the natural”? Ultimately, she should probably say “Go Bill Go,” but not too much, not too frequently, and not too brilliantly. She wants to tap into 1990s nostalgia, the yearning for the happy decade when the Soviet Union fell peacefully and the stock market seemed to rise endlessly. She wants to remind Americans of what they loved about Bill and the Clinton presidency. But she does not want to stir all the 1990s’ frustrations, the overlooked underlying triggers to 9/11 and the stock market crash, as well as that empty feeling many people had on September 12, 2001, wondering, what did we do with the 90s’ peace and prosperity, why didn’t we make our lives more meaningful, our society more equitable, our family lives more stable? Bill Clinton must not become so prominent in the campaign that he becomes another opponent, another intimidating yardstick, another rival everyone compares her to—causing collective (and sexist) sighs labeling this Clinton the second-rate Clinton.
Hillary should learn what she can from her husband and take what she must without trying to mimic him. As a campaigner, she needs her own style which, rather than inviting murmurs that she ain’t the one-and-only Bill Clinton, starts inspiring cheers based on an excitement of what an America led by this particular Clinton will look like.