Moments before Hillary Clinton gave the first major speech of her presidential campaign on Saturday, Ruth Christianson, 28, said of the candidate, “Sometimes I just go sit and read her Wikipedia page.” Christianson, one of the 5,500 who came to hear Clinton speak at Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on New York's Roosevelt Island, said she is inspired by Clinton's career, how she's "evolved as a candidate and a person."
Much has been made of the obvious fact that Hillary Clinton isn't the thrilling public speaker that Barack Obama was in 2008. But the symbolism of her candidacy is just as exciting for supporters as it was for Obama's. When Clinton gives a speech, listeners rarely reach that political version of suspension of disbelief that both Obama and Clinton's husband are known for: that what she is saying is what she's really feeling at that exact moment and that she’s speaking just to you and you alone. Her comic asides usually sound too practiced. But if she is not an expert at whipping up the crowd with the rhythm of her words, she is a master of the words themselves, particularly "women," which got huge woos every time. One of the biggest applause lines:"Well, I may not be the youngest candidate in this race. But I will be the youngest woman President in the history of the United States!" After the speech, I spotted multiple middle-aged ladies doing little dances as they walked toward the subway.
Mary Jane Sander, 81, said she came to Clinton’s announcement because she read an article in The New York Times this weekend about the difficult childhood of Clinton’s mother and how it led to Clinton's advocacy for children. “I wept when I read it,” Sander said. “The first time she ran, she didn’t want to be called ‘soft.’ This time she’s doing it right. I didn’t even realize it till I read that article.”
The beauty of giving her speech in New York is that beautiful New York people show up. One woman didn’t want to comment on the record because of her job (model). An attractive trio of spectators included two Dutch designers and the head of an outerwear startup called The Arrivals. I spoke to two Canadians, an Australian, and six people from China. Pierre Qian said Clinton was “really aggressive in her diplomacy towards China,” but he didn’t want to go into “details.” Mengyu Chen said she came to the speech because, “This kind of thing doesn’t happen in China, because she’s a woman and because she’s not so young.” Also: “We all watch House of Cards.” When I asked a Canadian why she came, she said rather defensively that the U.S. was Canada’s biggest trading partner so our politics affected her country, okay?
The ratio of reporters to normal humans was uncomfortably high, giving the press pen the feel of a networking event. Attracted to a captive media audience, a large group of young staffers for the Republican National Committee showed up wearing "Stop Hillary" shirts that Hillary's people eventually demanded be turned inside out. (Raffi Williams, deputy press secretary for the RNC, told me he was there to, among other things, "talk to people like you.") Two people I approached had already been interviewed by another reporter; I eavesdropped on two young women with southern accents talking behind me—"Did I sound good in my interview?”
The Stop Hillary crowd was handing out red-framed sunglasses, because Clinton is “#Shady.” “Shield your eyes from her hypocrisy!” one guy shouted. It was a missed opportunity. “You don’t want them to shield their eyes from her hypocrisy,” I said quietly to one RNC guy. “You want to open their eyes.” He accepted this criticism gracefully. Why they didn’t go with BluBlockers, I don’t know.
While there have been lots of news reports about liberals being not particularly enthusiastic about Hillary—"fine with Hillary" was the rallying sigh of one donor in Politico—the supporters who showed up, especially the women, were thrilled by her. “I can’t wait to vote for her,” said Josephine Cortes, 79. "I love Hillary," said Marjorie Gilbert, a home health aide who brought along a patient. Liz Collins said Clinton was “the first female role model I ever had.” Her mother grew up thinking she could be the wife of a president, not the actual president. “I’ve never done anything political ever, besides vote,” Collins said. “We’re going to be able to tell our kids we were here.”
Many of the women I spoke to emphasized that Clinton was a boss. It was very Sheryl Sandberg-ian. Christianson, the Wikipedia reader, said, “She’s the most intelligent candidate out there, the one with the most experience—man or woman.” Althea Wiltshire, a 75-year-old from Brooklyn, said, “It’s time for our country to have a woman who’s truly a leader." (Also: “Obama should have waited.”) “She’s a leader,” said Emahn Erving, who brought along her 3-year-old son. “The Republicans don’t represent my interests. I’m not rich… They don’t have anything to offer me.” Clinton is “fighting” for a broader group of people, she said—“people who don’t have money.”
“I love Bill Clinton,” Gabrielle Lopez, 23, from Queens, said. “I want Bill Clinton all over again. Maybe without the Monica Lewinsky.” “She has the experience. When you’re applying for a job, when do they say, ‘Oh, you can’t do this, you have too much experience’? She’s the best qualified.”
“I felt she should have won the last election,” said Althea Wiltshire, a 75-year-old from Brooklyn. “Obama should have waited.” “It’s time for our country to have a woman who’s truly a leader. She has so much to bring: knowledge, experience. We need a woman as a leader in the country who knows what we need.”
Jack Resnick, a doctor on Roosevelt Island, said Clinton's speech was “fabulous.” But was it as thrilling as Obama in 2008? “I was a big Obama fan. Still am. She’s not as exciting as Obama—but she’s real smart. I think she’s as smart as Obama, which is saying a lot.”