Live at Politics and Prose

Does Hillary Clinton Need to “Be Real”?

No. There is nothing more fake than trying to appear authentic.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, Former Secretary of State speaks during an event at the University of Miami.

Just be yourself, Hil. As long as it’s “real.”

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

“Be careful to ‘be real.’ ” That was Hillary Clinton adviser Mandy Grunwald’s advice in 1999 as the first lady took her first steps toward running for the Senate seat from New York. The document was one contained in the 4,000 to 5,000 pages just released from former President Bill Clinton’s administration. The line referred to Clinton admitting, in an interview, that the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment had been hard. This admission helped create a bond between Clinton and the audience, Grunwald said. 

Asking a candidate to “be real” in a campaign is like asking someone to put on a happy face during dental surgery. It’s just not the venue for that kind of thing. Campaigns are phony by design. Candidates inhabit multiple personalities every day as they switch from one audience to the next audience. They bury complexity in favor of soothing bromides and though they are human, they are never allowed to admit mistakes or say the wrong thing. Still there is a demand that candidates “be real,” because voters can make their decisions based on their heart, not their head. Or if it’s not what governs their final decision, your authenticity is what may at least get you a hearing. Grunwald puts “be real” in quotes because she and Clinton know she is not talking about actual reality. She’s talking about what the political press and voters think is “real” in the context of the intense scrutiny Clinton faces. 

As Hillary Clinton thinks about running for office again, the process of being careful to be real has to be among the least attractive aspects of the task before her. It is an impossible target to hit because, as Al Gore and John Kerry and Mitt Romney know, when a candidate tries to “be real” it can often have the opposite effect. That’s because being “real” isn’t something that you’re supposed to need a memo to remind you to do. The most wonderful version of this is the Nixon administration effort to humanize their boss. He met small groups of reporters for cocktails and tried to peddle amusing stories to make them think he was not such a cold fish. He didn’t succeed, because he was a cold fish. 

When a candidate tries to be real it can enliven the great underlying fear that “authenticity” is supposed to expel: the fear that politicians are phony at heart. Still, candidates drink boilermakers and go bowling in staged events meant to convey that they are real because if their real self is wonky, excessively earnest, a little dull or introspective they’re not going to inflame people.

Hillary Clinton has faced a particularly shifting form of this test. It has dogged her for her entire public life as voters tried to figure what to make of the first modern woman as a first lady, an office steeped in the past. In the recently uncovered diaries from her friend Diane Blair, Clinton is in a constant tug-of-war between trying to be herself and trying to fit the shifting image required of her. “I’m used to winning and I intend to win, on my own terms,” Ms. Clinton is quoted as saying. She “professes indifference to what people think, she is acutely aware of public opinion polling of her,” writes Blair. “On her death bed, [Clinton] wants to be able to say she was true to herself and is not going to do phony makeovers to please others.” 

A 1992 political memo contained in the Blair documents outlines several gambits intended to convey the real, warmer Clinton to help her husband’s campaign and overcome people’s negative image of her. In this recent batch of documents, a staffer in the first lady’s office suggests a scheme where her advisers have informal meetings with reporters to drop warm anecdotes about Clinton to improve her image as a real person. Remember her 2008 campaign: It started with a video in which Clinton sat on her living room sofa looking approachable. She and Bill also filmed a Sopranos knock-off video. It was all an effort to portray her as “just like us.” Polls showed that “likability” was a bigger political weakness than whether she was qualified for the office. 

If she runs, Clinton will be more qualified than she was in 2008 and even more people will have an opinion of her. Will she still have to be “real”? Given where she is in her career maybe she’ll be able to say no to the whole goopy kabuki. But the political benefit of being “real” is tantalizing. When Secretary Clinton broke down and cried during the New Hampshire primary, it was seen as a great political moment because it supposedly offered an authentic window into who she really is. And the advice in 1999 paid off. Clinton won that Senate race.