The hunt for an authentic Hillary Clinton has been going on for more than a decade, but she’s actually very easy to find. She lives on YouTube, in clips of news reports from the early ’90s, and in newspaper and magazine archives. There was a time when Hillary Clinton was not seen as too phony, too fake, too inauthentic, too scripted, but more as a case study in “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong”—the classic Dave Chappelle skit in which a person says what he really thinks, and absolute disaster ensues.
In New York magazine this week, Jason Zengerle writes about that struggle. “The primary source of fear among her supporters has always been her struggle to appear natural and relaxed in public,” he writes. “She is an introvert by temperament, surely traumatized by the invective thrown at her during her time as First Lady, consequently terrified of spontaneity, and insufficiently skilled at pretending otherwise.” In 2008, he says, Clinton “seemed either unwilling or unable to campaign in a way that allowed voters to feel they got to know her personally.”
This is fairly standard analysis of Clinton’s weaknesses as an almost-certain presidential candidate for 2016. Journalists “view her as joyless, scripted and inauthentic,” Howard Kurtz wrote on FoxNews.com last month. “This is such a blatant display of Clinton inauthenticity,” Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News last August, after Clinton’s walking back of her apparent criticism of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy. “Remember,” he continued, “With these people, meaning the Clintons, do you ever know if they are saying something sincere?” A country song was an “odd fit” for Clinton in a video produced by Stand with Hillary in December, according to a Breitbart News analyst, because country music is authentic and she “is better known for being predictable and inauthentic.” Even the Canadians agree: “calculation and inauthenticity are all part of the package,” wrote a Globe and Mail columnist in March.
But the conventional wisdom wasn’t always so. A 1992 Vanity Fair profile of Clinton is almost shocking, as it is basically the opposite of how so many people see Hillary today. A sample:
- On a May 1990 incident in which Hillary crashed an event of one of Bill’s critics: “The Eyewitness News man wound up his thrilled coverage with the tag line ‘Hillary Clinton showed again that she may be the best debater in the family.’”
- “In Los Angeles, at a March 26 salmon-and-spinach luncheon... Hillary dazzled an audience that is usually ho-hum about stars and plenty impressed with themselves. … Producer Sherry Lansing pronounced it ‘an extraordinary speech, extraordinary.’”
- “As one listener put it, ‘She’s unbelievably articulate and connects with her audience with a message that hits home.’ Then she joined the buzz heard all over the room: ‘You can’t help but think, Why isn’t she the candidate?’”
- “On February 7, when I asked if [Bill] was concerned about being upstaged by his wife, Clinton was unfazed.”
- 60 Minutes's Steve Kroft on Clinton’s handling of an interview about Gennifer Flowers: “She was very delightful and charming. When they left the room, everybody pretty much said, 'Boy, she’s terrific.'"
Want to see for yourself? In a 1992 interview with the Clintons on the Arsenio Hall Show, Hall tells Hillary that he heard a political analyst say, “You’ve been instructed not to say as much or be as outspoken.” She laughs like she doesn’t think it’s funny. “I’ve heard that but I don’t know who says it. I think it’s wishful thinking on the part of some people.” She is not faux modest or self-conscious. Hall raises his eyebrows, the audience laughs uneasily. It’s honestly pretty great to watch, if you enjoy the comedy of awkward social situations.
In this video, which appears to be from the 1992 campaign (given her headband) a man who seems to be homeless and intoxicated approaches Clinton while she's out campaigning. She asks him if he's going to vote in the primary, and then genuinely laughs when he says, "You're damn right." Handlers pull him away, and, on camera, an aide tries to register him to vote while he repeatedly asks for $1. "I'll give ya back your dollar if you can put it in front of the camera just to make it look good," he tells her. The aide replies, "I would never do something just to make it look good." That statement is real inauthenticity.
“One needn’t approve of what she says or does (though often it is highly approvable) to recognize her as real,” Paul Greenberg wrote in the Los Angeles Times in April 1992. “What a relief from her spouse.” In Clinton’s most famous feminist moment—"I suppose I could've stayed home and baked cookies and have teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life"—she was too authentic. History has mostly forgotten that Clinton was responding to Jerry Brown’s claim that her law firm benefitted from Arkansas state business, and not speaking about stay-at-home moms. But if you watch the video, there's an edge to her voice, an obvious annoyance at what she considers a sexist attack. According to the book Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership, both reporters and campaign staff instantly knew the power of the cookies comment. It was dissected endlessly in op-ed columns and on TV. In a "Nightline" segment, Ted Koppel asks political analysts again and again if there aren't probably some sexists out there—"to what degree are we still such a retrogressive society that when we see a smart, tough woman up there, we almost infer that it reflects badly on the guy... ?"
In the ’90s, Clinton's problem with authenticity was that a lot of people didn't like The Real Hillary. A 1992 Clinton campaign memo, unearthed last year, said voters needed to meet the real Clinton—"real," meaning "She needs to project a softer side." They should meet "Hillary Clinton the mother, the activist, the daughter of middle-class parents, the romantic, the advocate for children and education, the working mother, and the career woman." Hillary the woman, the female human, the adult female, the woman who was once a feisty girl, the woman who was once a teen girl, and also the woman. Sheehy later said on C-SPAN that Clinton confessed in a bathroom in 1994, "I just don't know what to do anymore, nothing I do works... I understand that I'm really threatening to men, that the velocity of change between men and women and the way the country is going and for one generation to the boomers is overwhelming, especially to men,” she said. “I'm threatening to them and I don't know what to do about it." (In the Vanity Fair profile, Clinton explained what initially attracted her to Bill: "He wasn’t afraid of me.")
When I sift through media coverage of Hillary Clinton from the ’80s and ’90s, it reminds me of what it’s like to be a childless female in the office when someone brings their baby to work. If you don't hold the baby, act in love with the baby, you’re a failure as a woman. If the baby doesn't like you back, you're a failure as a woman. You want to yell—I REJECT THIS GAME! THE RULES ARE WACK!—but it will only be interpreted as another sign you will die a cat lady.
In the office, you can opt out of this performance of womanhood by hiding from the baby in the bathroom. But if you’re running for president? You have to play the game.
To become more “authentic,” Hillary must become even more fake, set us at ease by playing to all the dumb tropes of the popular portrait of the everywoman—one who is devoted to slopwave food (premium juice, premium oatmeal, kale slurry) but is a little embarrassed about it. A wacky career gal who is unlucky in ... something. Clinton should consider tripping publicly, perhaps while eating yogurt. Then laugh really loud, but not inauthentically loud. The only thing worse than being fake in politics is being real.