It was a common refrain throughout the primary: that it would be nigh impossible for the former first lady, senator, and secretary of state, who has lived the bulk of her adult life in the harsh glare of the national stage, to get voters to see her in a new light. Voters had made up their minds, the thinking went. Their conception of Hillary Clinton had set long ago, and was as hard as plaster. And what that meant, for the most part, was that she would go into the general election as one of the least popular candidates in modern history.
But on the day after she became the first woman to accept the presidential nomination of her party, there is a sense that our idea of Hillary has changed—and that her image has grown more malleable at the edges. Part of this the afterglow of a convention that successfully cast her candidacy as a culminating struggle of the women’s rights movement. It also cast her as an inveterate do-gooder, diving into thankless, unsexy social work from the second she graduated from college, a portrait that could not be further from the scheming Lady Macbeth version of Hillary that we are all so familiar with. The two strands, of course, are intertwined: A woman winning the Oval Office after years of virtually invisible hard work and very public abuse is just about the only way it could have happened in America.
But there is another reason Clinton seems made new, and it lies in the age-old notion that, for whatever reason, she is incapable of revealing her authentic self to voters. Admittedly, it’s a complaint that rests on a dubious premise, for politics is perhaps the only field outside the theater where one can truly say the world is all a stage. (The political genius of Trump, in many ways, is to completely collapse the distinction between a private and public self.) Still, it can’t be denied that Clinton can be cagey, scripted, an outgrowth of her practically pathological relationship with the press. There have been times when an inner chink of light has burst forth—such as when she nearly, but not quite, let a tear fall down her cheek prior to the 2008 New Hampshire primary—and the response from voters has been immediate.
There was something of that light in her eyes last night—when she mentioned her mother, Dorothy Rodham, for example. But it was most evident when she first came out on stage, when she was, for lack of a better word, happy. The ungenerous interpretation would be that only victory can appease a soul that is Machiavellian all the way down. But you could also say that being the first woman presidential nominee suits her; furthermore, that it has changed her, enlarged her, giving some relief to a person whose innermost ambition has never had its outer validation. Perhaps this is Hillary’s true self at last, or at least her true self-conception. If we would scoff at that, it might be because we’ve never seen its like before.