CHENNAI: It was only day two of Hillary Clinton’s unofficial 2016 campaign for president, launched last week in the guise of a nationwide book tour, but walking out on stage in a Chicago theatre on Wednesday she looked happy to be back in the city where she grew up.
Before getting down to the business of promoting her 655-page manifesto-memoir Hard Choices, there was time for a shout-out to some old school friends sitting in the front row with whom, Clinton revealed, she had shared a giggly girls’ dinner the previous night.
The old friends had reminisced over the embarrassing things they did at school, she told the audience and – she added quickly – “no-one would ever know about them”.
The line raised a laugh, as it was meant to. This was the carefully crafted “human” face of Hillary Clinton, an immensely experienced and powerful woman who is the favourite to break what she calls the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” of them all and become the first female president of the United States.
But if Clinton was hoping for a coronation rather than a contest, she received a rude reminder that presidential politics is a rough business – and that she will need to sharpen her ring-rusty stump skills if she is to prevail.
Asked in her first big television interview to justify the $250,000-a-gig fee she charges for making a single speech, Clinton became defensive, bristling that she and Bill were “dead broke” after leaving the White House and “struggled” to fund “mortgages for houses [and] Chelsea’s education, you know, it was not easy”.
For a woman who has spent 30 unbroken years under the unsparing microscope of American public life, it was a spectacularly ill-judged remark – and one she was clearly anxious to put right. Not surprisingly, the world erupted at the sight of Clinton sitting in her immaculately appointed Washington mansion, with pool, moaning about the cost of houses, “plural”. Fortunately, on this day in Chicago, her interviewer was Rahm Emanuel, the long-time Clinton loyalist who was Barack Obama’s chief of staff and is now mayor of Chicago.
The question, when it came, was a gently delivered softball. “Dead broke?” he hammed. “Really?”
“That may have not been the most artful way of saying that Bill and I have gone through a lot of different phases in our lives,” Clinton dead-panned back in the droll voice she deploys to indicate her frustration with the frivolous “gotcha” nature of modern politics.
The brush-off played well with the faithful, but out there in the real, hostile environment where Republicans are queuing up to batter her image, the “dead broke” gaffe was picked over by the analysts as just the kind of self-inflicted wound that a serious presidential candidate cannot afford.
And Clinton has a history of making mistakes: questioned last year by Congress over her handling of the Benghazi crisis, when four Americans including US Ambassador J Christopher Stevens were killed by mobs that stormed the US consulate there, she needed to show some humility over this big blot on her copybook at the State Department. Instead she bristled again at what she perceived to be partisan political games, raising her voice and demanding indignantly to know “what difference at this point does it make?” as to what motivated the attackers that night.
A year on, that single rash quote still dogs her, another example of how Clinton – the most qualified candidate for president since George H W Bush took over from Ronald Reagan, and a woman who has been on the stump since Bill ran for the governorship of Arkansas in 1978 – is still surprisingly poor at the “retail” side of politics.
The day after leaving Chicago she was at it again, embroiling herself in an unnecessary row with a reporter who had the temerity to ask whether her decision to back gay marriage so soon after leaving the State Department had been one of politics, not principle.
“You are playing with my words and playing with what is such an important issue,” snapped Clinton, rejecting the charge on National Public Radio, a station that is beloved by America’s coastal liberals and should be her home turf.
To some extent her frustration with the hair-trigger nature of modern American politics is understandable. Often the criticisms are unfair – as when Karl Rove, the Republican political consultant, wondered out loud recently if Hillary had suffered “brain damage” after a fall in December 2012.
Sometimes they are just cruelly funny, as when the Conservative Drudge Report said she looked like she was using “a walker” in a poorly cropped cover photo on People magazine that showed her gripping the top of a garden chair with both hands.
But as Clinton is the first to remind everyone, you need a thick skin to play in national politics.
In the eyes of supporters, her impatience with the pin-pricks of political life is simply a testament to her seriousness and her desire to cut through ‘’minor-league ball”, which is how she describes Republican attempts to continue attacking her record on the Benghazi crisis. And in her defence, those who have known Clinton longest say that it is the issues that have always driven her.
Try as she might, her explanation of how her mother, Dorothy Rodham, was neglected by her parents but still managed to retain her zest for life, teaching Hillary the importance of resilience, is painfully laboured. As is her stagey excitement at the prospect of being a grandmother. It’s not that you doubt Clinton feels these things, but she still hasn’t mastered the art of presenting them like she believes they are important. She shares the “backstory” as a chore, before returning to the real work.
During that hour-long talk in Chicago, she was suddenly alive and compelling when discussing the big questions – climate change, China, job creation, immigration.
“Compromise is a fundamental principle of democracy,” she says, that impatience back again, but this time in a righteous cause that draws cheers from the audience.
After the bungles of the Bush years, and the frankly disappointing performance of a young president (though she remains publicly loyal), Clinton clearly believes she can now lay an experienced and more balanced hand on the tiller.
The Daily Telegraph