Humanizing Hillary: Why it's such a challenge for her

Hillary Clinton has spent decades in the public eye, turning her into a caricature of a cold, emotionless woman. She's trying to fix that. 

Andrew Harnik/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waves as she finishes a speech on the economy after touring Futuramic Tool & Engineering, in Warren, Mich., on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2016.

It was the most engaging moment in Hillary Clinton’s economic speech: a description of a man printing fabric for draperies.

He would lay out the fabric, she said, then put down a silk screen, pour in paint, squeegee it across, and repeat the process over and over, down the table, until everything was printed.

“He worked hard,” the Democratic presidential nominee said Thursday, speaking at a manufacturing company near Detroit.

That man was Hugh Rodham, Mrs. Clinton’s dad – the son of a factory worker, she noted. The point of her story was to paint a contrast with GOP nominee Donald Trump, who has an alleged history of not paying small businesses for their work on his properties.  Clinton said that, given her dad’s work as a small-business owner, she took this aspect of Mr. Trump personally.

But in telling her dad’s story, Clinton was also revealing something of herself, and not just her middle-class upbringing. She relaxed, she smiled, she seemed more, well, human and relatable in her presentation - more, certainly, than when she’s talking tax rates or college debt.

And that goes to a core challenge Clinton faces in her cage match against Trump: getting voters beyond the caricature of her - and to actually like her. In focus groups earlier this week of “Wal-Mart moms,” the descriptions of Clinton were devastating, even among women who may vote for her. Words like “emotionless,” “cold,” and “untrustworthy” flowed freely.

Why is Clinton so challenged on the likability front? Women voters blame sexism, echoing the findings of political scientists who say women candidates are more constrained in their behavioral options than men, because of gender norms. Female politicians, for example, have to be careful not to get too "huggy" with voters.

“A lot of women in power, you have to give up something,” said Ivania L., a radiation safety officer in Columbus, Ohio, in a Wal-Mart moms’ focus group. “If she was a man, we wouldn’t be saying she’s cold-hearted.”

But “running while female” doesn’t fully explain Clinton’s challenge. For example, liberal heartthrob Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, has no problem displaying what voters perceive as authentic emotion in a political speech.

Clinton’s old friends are frustrated that most Americans don’t see the same woman they know and love. Washington lawyer Lanny Davis got to know Clinton right after she arrived at Yale Law School in 1969, and they’ve been friends ever since.

At Yale, “I got to know her as a friend, someone with a winning and compelling personality: friendly, genuine, funny, down-to-earth, fun to be with, smart, a great laugh, and always concerned about you and others more than herself,” Mr. Davis wrote recently in The Hill newspaper.

The papers of Clinton’s close friend Diane Blair, who passed away in 2000, shed some light on why Clinton has built up a protective shell over the years.

In 30 years of friendship, Ms. Blair observed Clinton as a lawyer, an advocate for children, then a first lady, first of Arkansas and then of the United States, breaking the boundaries of a traditional political spouse’s role. She also saw up close how the Clintons’ opponents sought to derail them. As an adviser to Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, she was assigned to counter attacks on both Clintons.

“I know how necessary it was to keep them from ever scoring a fatal hit on BC or Hillary, and I guess I was uniquely qualified to do it,” Blair wrote in a letter, as reported in a recent article in the Washington Post.

She also saw how Hillary Clinton’s spearheading of health-care reform, early in her husband’s first term, ignited a fierce backlash – a reaction for which Mrs. Clinton was unprepared.

“Clinton asked Blair to reconstruct her ‘first hellacious year’ in the White House,” the Post reports. “Blair’s account, which she called ‘Hillyear,’ is a dizzying report on a woman pushed close to the brink, juggling family responsibilities with high-level political battles.”

Blair’s papers, which include personal correspondence with Hillary Clinton, also portray a hostile press and the first lady's view that the White House wasn’t fighting back hard enough against both Clintons’ detractors.

If Mrs. Clinton seems guarded to those who don’t know her, then a review of her eight years in the White House – a period marked by scandal and ultimately her husband’s impeachment – certainly provides clues as to why.

But those who have worked for Clinton, a world dubbed “Hillaryland,” remain intensely loyal to her. And when she won a seat in the Senate in 2000, the first presidential wife to win election to public office, she earned the respect of her colleagues, including Republicans. 

In a Monitor profile of Clinton in 2008, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina called Clinton "a smart, prepared, serious senator" with an ability to "build unusual political alliances on a variety of issues."

Still, the Clintons have always seemed to attract controversy, partly of their own doing. Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State – raising questions about her handling of classified information – hangs over her presidential campaign, despite the Justice Department’s decision not to pursue legal charges. Ditto the allegations of “pay to play” over donations to the Clinton Foundation, in which critics say large donors were given preferential access to the State Department. 

By now, Clinton’s negative image seems so baked into public consciousness, it may be impossible to fix.

Still, efforts persist to improve perceptions of her. President Obama, who derisively called her “likable enough” in a 2008 primary debate against her, now speaks of her with genuine warmth.

At the Democratic National Convention last month, daughter Chelsea Clinton introduced her mother with a deeply personal portrait. Also at the convention, Mrs. Clinton appeared in a video sitting at a kitchen table, talking about her life and her goals – a more relaxed presentation than her formal speeches.

Clinton also talks more freely about her family than she did in her last campaign – her mother’s tough childhood, daughter Chelsea, now two grandchildren. And she’s less shy about the historic nature of her candidacy.

Whether Clinton can pass the “living room test” – that is, reach the point where enough voters are comfortable seeing her on the news each night – is an open question. But with an image-challenged Trump on the ballot against her, it may not matter.

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