MONTICELLO, Iowa—Hillary Clinton’s first campaign event as a declared candidate went smoothly and was full of contradictions. Held in a working garage where students at a community college learn to fix cars, it was a venue for a jumpsuit, not a pantsuit. But Clinton glided into the room as if she had just come out of bilateral talks in Switzerland. Two cars were parked with their hoods open and three engines hovered on stands—like transplants-in-waiting—and yet the room was totally odorless. Though it was an intimate conversation among eight people, a press corps of more than 10 times that number hovered out of the camera view and an even greater throng agitated outside.
The message had tensions, too. Though Clinton has had a beneficial association with Wall Street financiers during her political career—so much so that she is receiving grief from her party’s left wing—she talked about outrageous CEO pay and hedge fund managers who aren’t taxed enough. Though she will likely raise a record amount of money for her campaign, she complained about how money is corrupting the political process.
Clinton referred to herself as the “people’s champion,” an idea that was launched by her soft-sell video announcing her campaign. “There’s something wrong in America,” she said and then promised the audience of Iowa voters that she would take on four big fights. She wants to improve the economy by helping workers share in productivity gains and lessen the burden of college debt, strengthen the family, diminish the role of money in politics, and protect America from foreign threats.
The event took place at Kirkwood Community College in eastern Iowa and lasted for more than an hour. During that time Clinton listened more than she talked as students and instructors explained how the school allowed flexible learning and has partnered with local high schools. Occasionally, she took notes. Often, she nodded purposefully as if set to some inaudible metronome.
The Clinton campaign had promised to try to create small, intimate events, even though the press following Clinton is gargantuan. Outside the school, the line of cars from media organizations stretched beyond the power of the eye to see—which is far in a rural area where the flat land stretches to the horizon, interrupted only by a collection of grain bins. Two desultory protesters were interviewed by so many news organizations—foreign and domestic—you’d think they were responsible for deflating those Patriots’ footballs.
But the Clinton campaign wisely limited the press that could get in the room (though it was still a large number), which meant by the standard of campaign chaos, this was a placid event. The stagecraft matters for the campaign. Even if any event would feel somewhat phony with scores of reporters looking on (watch me relating!) the picture fed to the audience at home was of Clinton making intimate connections with everyday Americans.
All campaigns and candidates require the manufacturing of authenticity. The best candidates manufacture it really well. As Ronald Reagan often said, being an actor was great training for the presidency. So Clinton was engaging in a familiar ritual by trying to set up a tableau that suggested she understood real people’s concerns. (In the television age, candidates since Eisenhower and Kennedy have used regular people in this way.)
But Clinton, despite the formality that seems to fit her titles as former senator and secretary of state, has something going for her that other politicians do not when it comes to these kinds of events. Though she is now encased in extraordinary privilege, which shields her from the normal abrasions of life that voters worry about, she has thought about family issues her entire life. So when one of the participants, a single mom, talked about how hard it was to attend community college, care for her three kids, and afford tuition and school materials, Clinton could refer to a scholarship she’d set up in Arkansas years ago for women in just that situation.
This may explain why, despite her celebrity, polls show that voters believe she is the candidate who understands their concerns the best. Normally in these kinds of staged campaign events, candidates are mostly there to be shown looking like they’re listening—and that was obviously the case here—but Clinton actually appeared to be listening, remembering the number of college credits one high school student had earned and quoting from her host, letting him know she was stealing his line. When one instructor talked about the changing economy, he said “Fifteen to 20 years ago, things were great.” Without explicitly noting that this was the period after her husband’s presidency, Clinton interjected briskly with a smile, “I remember.”