In the national spotlight for nearly 25 years, Hillary Clinton remains the candidate voters still struggle to know. Labels like “guarded,” “secretive,” “evasive,” even mysterious have dogged her since she first introduced herself to the American public during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.
The labels and the charges of inauthenticity always seem to crescendo when she bids for elective office. In 1998, only months after she won the nation’s sympathy as a cheated-on wife and her popularity as first lady soared, that popularity took a dive the moment rumors spread that she planned to pursue a U.S. Senate seat from New York. Earning high marks as a loyal secretary of state to President Obama, her popularity again dipped when she announced her second presidential bid.
At every turn, when Clinton has tried to break glass ceilings in politics, she is condemned as a political opportunist. What is behind these perceptions of inauthenticity – the perception that she lacks a genuineness of character and is hiding her true self from the American public?
1. Gender politics
Clinton’s unique career trajectory has doubtless been a contributing factor to her authenticity problems. No other American in U.S. history has shared Hillary Clinton’s career arc: first lady, senator, secretary of state, presidential candidate. Her arc flagrantly trespasses conventional gender boundaries.
First ladies are supposed to support their husbands without destiny of their own. The way Bill put Hillary in a virtual “co-president” role at the helm of the health care task force in his first term made her impossible to classify for much of the American electorate. After the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke and the public embraced Hillary as the “scorned wife,” Hillary might have soared to celebrity status had she milked the role, divorced her husband, written a “tell-all” memoir about her marriage or hosted a reality show. But Hillary rejected that path and became Bill’s staunchest legal counsel and helped save his presidency.
2. Partisan politics
Since the country’s founding, politics has often descended into a rancorous, partisan affair that fronts character interrogation over policy. In times of heightened partisanship, campaigns focus on attacking the opposition’s basic decency and fitness to serve. Hillary Clinton has been a Republican target since Bill’s first presidential run, which means she had to face one character “double bind” after another. When she speaks her mind about issues, Hillary is painted a brash and unlikable “feminist.” When she maneuvers to soften those stereotypes, she is portrayed a chameleon willing to say or do anything to further her political interests or her husband’s.
Opponents say that her own “arrogance” and carelessness have contributed to never-ending rounds of Republican investigations into Whitewater, Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Benghazi. Smoking guns have yet to be found as of this writing, but allegations about the Clinton Foundation and her 33,000 emails persist, raising new questions about her character. The cloud that hangs over her only intensified as word spread of new emails, plus those associated with Huma Abedin – her close aide – whose husband Anthony Weiner is being investigated for a sexting scandal.
3. Press politics
As part of an echo-chamber effect, the news media often emphasize Clinton’s alleged “inauthenticity” as a journalistic shorthand to describe any political headwinds she faces. Over the course of her time in Washington, articles either presuming or exploring her “inauthenticity” number in the thousands.
Unlike media coverage of Bernie Sanders, which focused on how his policies inspire millennials, Clinton’s policies have been treated more as political calculation than conviction. Even before Clinton announced her run for president in 2016, news articles made clear that authenticity, not policy, would be her biggest challenge.
4. Clinton’s politics
Finally, Clinton’s years of scrutiny have produced a guardedness that ironically feeds the “inauthenticity” machine. Clinton seems most comfortable when she is the policy wonk who can keep her private life private. A political campaign, however, is largely about disclosure of the person behind the public deeds and words. Defying these expectations, Clinton has gone to great lengths to guard her privacy – even leading to decisions that have harmed her political career like setting up an email server in her own home.
Her “Living History” memoir illustrates that, even as she understands that voters expect candidates to bare themselves, she always defaults to reserve over confessionals. In the book, she explores her anger and hurt following the news of her husband’s affair in only the briefest of terms. She then quickly pivots to her comfort zone as a woman in charge. Hillary refused to be the scorned wife, weak, out of control and needing to blab her story to salve the pain. She instead stepped directly into the litigator role, chastising her husband for his misbehavior but then aligning with him to take on special prosecutor Kenneth Starr and salvage her husband’s presidency.
We see these debates over Hillary Clinton’s authenticity as being less about the “true” Hillary Clinton and more of a Rorschach test about gender politics, partisan politics, and press politics in the early 21st century.
The “inauthenticity” argument seems to reveal more about the electoral process than about Clinton herself. Of course, character matters and questions about a candidate’s character are fair game. Yet, campaigns in the current environment have devolved into toxic character inquisitions that leave much of the electorate disaffected, disheartened, and, worst of all, cynical.
The 25 years spent interrogating Clinton’s character have not resolved anything. And if the interrogations were meant to block her elective aspirations, they were not well-designed for that purpose either.