Breaking stories about social media, polarization, fake news, and outside influencers are again plentiful this week, and it remains a top-of-mind issue for me. In spite of that, I feel a desire to write about something else I have been watching recently: the return of Hillary Clinton to the public arena, with some truly fascinating television interviews. The defeated former candidate has re-emerged to promote her new book, What Happened. The title, of course, refers to her continuing effort to explain the still surprising result of the 2016 presidential election.
I use the word “fascinating” for the sessions I saw recently because there was an extraordinary change in Mrs Clinton’s demeanor. In lengthy exchanges with Fareed Zakaria and Anderson Cooper, she impressed me with her spontaneity, candor, humor, and dynamism. As I touched on in several posts following the election, these are qualities that were completely absent in her interviews when she was running for the presidency.
Hillary Clinton’s suddenly more spirited persona succeeded in keeping me engaged for the duration of each of the conversations. At the same time, listening to her elicited two divergent reflections in me, about her failed candidacy. My first thought was that she would probably be president today had she shown these sides of her personality in the run-up to the election.
My second observation, though, concerns a shortcoming I find truly remarkable. In my view, she still fails to truly understand the fundamental cause of her defeat, or what she could have changed in order to emerge victorious.
On the first point, I am thoroughly convinced that her electoral “personality” would have benefitted greatly from any public interaction that showed a more human face, a bit of spontaneity, humor, or enthusiasm. And, while I have often stated that I am certainly not very qualified as a political pundit, I am reasonably certain that she would be president today had she spoken in this relaxed and engaging style when she was running for the office.
Similar thoughts had run through my mind in 2000 and 2004, after the electoral defeats of Al Gore and John Kerry. Much like Mrs Clinton, these democratic contenders failed to express clearly who they are, where their core values come from, and what they stand for. Though they are charming individuals in small group sessions, all three of them came across on television as distant, stiff, and lacking humor. In addition, each was more concerned with criticizing a flawed opponent than with defining themselves for the electorate, or with showing anything of their human sides.
As I have often stated before, it is rarely my intention to take positions with respect to the political merits of candidates. However, when I do watch political debate and discourse, it is often with considerable interest. This is because I like to root for candidates on both sides, looking to see them use the powerful type of storytelling I teach to my clients and students. In particular, I am keen to observe public figures who try to connect with the electorate by using their personal stories of identity to express who they are, where they come from, and what they stand for. To me, Hillary Clinton’s failure to do these things was the biggest single flaw in her campaigns.
Shortly after her electoral defeat one year ago, I commented that I was thoroughly mystified that someone of the stature, experience, and intelligence of Hillary Clinton was so incapable of using any type of personal discourse in her campaign. Her lack of ability to define herself by talking about her life lessons, beliefs and values was all the more surprising because Barack Obama had done it so well when he beat Mrs Clinton and won the Democratic Party’s nomination in 2008.
When I wrote that observation, along with several other blog posts about the election in early 2017, I thought that would be the culmination of my commenting on Mrs Clinton. What has provoked my renewed interest today, and my desire to write about her once more, is one specific assertion she made during a recent interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.
The statement that troubled me deeply came at a key juncture in the dialogue. Mr Zakaria was probing Hillary Clinton about what she thought were the most critical causes of her electoral demise. One of her laments was that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had such fascinating and usable life stories. She, on the other hand, had struggled because she really did not have one. Once again, I found myself a bit incredulous. From my perspective, Mrs Clinton had the perfect life story to help her win the election, and she simply failed to use it.
Next time, we’ll take a closer look at what that story might have been.
Image source: CNN