It’s biography night at the Democratic Convention. Even though Hillary Clinton — now the nominee by acclamation — has spent 24 years in the limelight, she somehow still needs to introduce herself.
Amazing, really. It’s virtually impossible to think of another first-time nominee who has been on the ubiquitous national scene that long – maybe Ronald Reagan, if you count his B-movie career – yet there are probably tens of millions of Americans who know little about her. In fact, she has been around so long that young voters today were not yet born when she was advocating for kids and families in need.
Her campaign wants people to know about that stuff. The Tuesday night schedule, prior to Bill Clinton’s speaking, features a series of thematic headings. For instance:
Fights of Her Life: Kids and Families
Fights of Her Life; Social Justice
Fights of Her Life: Women and Families
The schedule is packed with legal aid lawyers and social justice advocates who can flesh out a portrait of Clinton as a caring three-dimensional human. This is crucially important, because right now much of the electorate just “knows” her in the one-dimensional sense, either as wife of Bill or as a remote and queenly presence or as a short-hand for Benghazi and emails. For many voters, as the Huffington Post succinctly says, “it’s cool to dislike her – even though they may not be quite sure why.”
Clinton, whatever her faults, has been toiling doggedly on underdog issues since the ’70s, yet relatively few people seem to know it. Partly this can be attributed to the usual American amnesia – her career arc has been highlighted on and off since 1992, particularly in 2008, but the info is rarely retained – and partly, of course, it’s her fault.
Today I asked David Greenberg, a Rutgers University historian who’s in town for the convention, for his take on the Clinton conundrum. He said: “Hillary has been a constant target of the right since 1992, and that (negative) image has stuck to her ever since. But at the same time, she has become notoriously shy about speaking to the press.” (Indeed, when was the last time she held a press conference?) Her instinctive reticence “has created a vacancy that has allowed (critics) to shape her image.”
“She just doesn’t have the kind of personality that Obama or her husband has,” said Greenberg. “She’s a policy wonk and she’s boring – but in a good way….She has been misinterpreted by (ill-informed) young voters who mistakenly think that she’s from the ‘conservative’ wing of the party.. Actually, she has pretty much always been a mainstream liberal Democrat, and now she’s a few paces to the left of where she was in the ’90s,” when she was widely known to be more left-leaning than her husband.
“So what Democrats need to do (on biography night) is bring out the more human side of her. Make her persona come alive.”
It started tonight with Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia: “I’ve known Hillary…for more than half my life. I remember her playing mermaid in the pool with our youngest daughter, Sally, for hours on family vacations.”
That kind of stuff. I know it sounds trivial, but she needs to put her thumb on the likeability scale.