Hey Hillary Clinton, aren’t you a mean bitch that nobody likes? As hot-button issues explode and fade, this is the persistent question that Clinton has faced in her long career in public life. Sure, other candidates get asked about their personalities—a reporter once shouted at Mitt Romney, “WHAT ABOUT YOUR GAFFES?”—but Clinton’s personality is a real fixation for the press. It would be no surprise if she's asked about it at the first Democratic primary debate on Tuesday.
Dig through transcripts of her many television interviews and you'll find countless variations of the question—about the "real" Hillary, or her softer side, or her human side, or her authenticity. Clinton alludes to this in a new interview with the BuzzFeed podcast "Another Round," in which she's repeatedly asked about what kind of deoderant she uses, because she never sweats on camera. The interviewers suggest she might be a sweatless robot. "You guys are the first to realize that I’m really not even a human being," Clinton quips. She says she was built in Palo Alto.
This is a new, fresh way for her to answer the personality question. Maybe she should run with it, because her more sincere answers never seem to satisfy. In April 2008, Bill O’Reilly asked Clinton if she was vulnerable to Barack Obama because voters liked him more, because they "perceived him as a nicer guy." O'Reilly was not very interested in the answer, but was quite proud of himself for asking the question. (Full transcript here.) Afterward, he said on Fox News, “I think it was the toughest interview [Clinton’s] ever done." Why, Megyn Kelly asked? “Because I asked very obnoxious questions and demand answers,” O’Reilly said. “That separates me from pretty much everybody else, right? Who else is going to ask her, as you just played, 'Hey, you're meaner than [Obama] is.'"
Actually, everybody else is going to ask her a version of that question—of whether she's friendly enough to win the presidency. To appreciate how frequently Clinton has fielded it, I’ve pulled a bunch from transcripts and LexisNexis. One thing you notice from the archives—and it’s very obvious once you think about it—is that the authenticity question disappears during her time as secretary of state. When Clinton talks about an “authentic” partnership with Pakistan or whatever, journalists don’t ask her if the foreign ministers of Europe or Asia feel like they know the real Secretary Clinton. Maybe that's because we imagine secretary of state to be a job with a specific set of requirements. And unlike the American presidency, those requirements do not include pulling off some mixture of dad, cool older brother, and best friend.
Here are a few of the variations on the way Clinton is asked whether the United States is ready to bear the burden of her terrible personality.
Type I: People don't like you; could you just look kind of uncomfortable on camera while grappling with that for a minute?
John Dickerson: Give us three words that is the real Hillary Clinton. Just three.
Clinton: Just three? I can't, possibly, do that? I mean, look, I am a real person.
That was Clinton's first time on a Sunday show in four years, and she tried the opposite of the you-got-me-I'm-literally-fake tactic she used with BuzzFeed. CBS described the interview on YouTube as "all about 'getting real.'" But it wasn't, really. The point wasn't to get an answer, but to ask the question.
Type II: Do people dislike you because you're a scary, angry lady?
Barbara Walters: Did you ever throw a lamp at your husband?
Clinton: No, I didn't.
Walters: Did you ever throw a bible at your husband?
Clinton: No I didn't.
Walters: Do you have a terrible temper?
Clinton: No. But I do get angry about things. I'm not going to deny that.
And from a January 6, 2008, interview on CNN:
Suzanne Malveaux: Last night, there was a moment in the debate, Senator Edwards joins Senator Obama in trying to characterize you as the status quo, them being the age of change. You responded very strong, even with a flash of anger. In light of the fact that this campaign has been so much about likeability, do you think that helped or hurt you? ...
Malveaux: Governor Bill Richardson joked about it and said he has been in hostage negotiations that were more civil than last night. What do you want voters to know about your temperament as a leader?
Type III: Do people dislike you because you're hiding who you really are?
Diane Sawyer: And what does she do about the focus on her appearance that she says once kept her so on guard?
Clinton: Well, but I think part...
Type IV: Do people dislike you because your opponent is nice and/or funnily mean?
Scott Spradling: My question to you is simply this: What can you say to the voters of New Hampshire on this stage tonight who see a resume and like it but are hesitating on the likeability issue; where they seem to like Barack Obama more?
Andrea Mitchell: Looking at the campaign now, you see huge crowds for Bernie Sanders and for Donald Trump. And people talking about Joe Biden having an opening if he decides to make a difficult choice on—on an emotional level, which we understand. They talk about how authentic these candidates are. Does it—does it hurt you when people say you’re too lawyerly, you parse your words, you’re not authentic, you’re not connected?
And from the April 30, 2008, episode of The O'Reilly Factor
Bill O'Reilly: Some people say that there's not a big difference between you and Barack Obama—overall philosophy, overall outlook—it's the Democratic liberal line. He's more liberal than you, but it's the same thing and it's a personality run, which is why before Reverend Wright derailed him, Barack Obama had some momentum because you're a more polarizing personality than he is. Would you agree with that? They perceived him as a nicer guy. ...
O'Reilly: But you're a more polarizing personality. You're like I am. And I hate to say that, with all due, but you are. And Obama's such a nice guy. And that's what this is all about. …
O'Reilly: You got to be tough. …
O'Reilly: All right. But I'm just trying to tell you that it's a personality contest, a lot of this. That's what it is.
While everyone who runs for president should answer tough, confrontational questions, it’s fun to imagine what it would be like to be asked, “What do you have to say to the millions of people who hate your personality? Does it hurt your feelings? Please address the camera directly and beg them to like you.” And then answer over and over again, for 25 years. Contrary to Kate McKinnon’s one-note impression of Clinton on Saturday Night Live, it seems less like maniacal ambition than masochism.