Why Clinton doesn’t inspire us — and why she should

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Hillary Clinton at a rally in Brooklyn in June. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

A few years back, during a visit to the Kennedy Library in Boston, I bought a terrific children’s book called “So You Want to Be President?,” which contains all kinds of fun historical facts.

When I read it to my daughter, who was then about 5, I was surprised to find that her first question had nothing to do with Washington’s teeth or TR’s horse or Nixon’s bowling alley.

“Why aren’t there any girl presidents?” is what she wanted to know.

If you can answer that question for a 5-year-old without immediately shrinking her expectations for the world, you’re a better dad than I am.

My daughter is 8 now, and she is obsessed with Hillary Clinton. She knows nothing of the politics, of course, or the vexing public persona. What my little girl knows is that if this woman can be president, then so, perhaps, can she.

So why shouldn’t this moment be more inspiring to the rest of us?

I’m not talking about the partisans on one side or the other, those who are programmed to see Clinton as an icon or a demon, no matter what she says or does. I’m talking about those of us in the broad center, including a lot of women I know, among whom a common sentiment is that it’s about time we had a female nominee, but in a perfect world it might have been someone else.

As Clinton prepares to take the stage tonight for a speech history may long remember, I’ve been trying to grapple with why — beyond ideology or fashionable cynicism — that really is.

This isn’t an easy subject for a guy to write about, of course. Inevitably, someone will say you’re sexist even for raising the question, or at a minimum that you lack the standing to weigh in with any insight. I heard the same thing when I wrote extensively on race and the presidency in 2008.

And it may be true, except that all of us are limited by perspective, in one way or another. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

It’s too simple to say that Clinton isn’t likable — she’s “likable enough,” as then-Sen. Obama once put it — or entirely knowable. (I do find her inscrutable, probably because she’s been dodging a substantive interview with me for the better part of two decades now. But you know, I wrote a book about Gary Hart, so inscrutability doesn’t faze me much.)

Nor can you just point to the email imbroglio or the polls that say Clinton is less trusted than any other nominee of the modern era. Clinton’s “trust deficit,” as we like to call it, is likely more a reflection of our ambivalence than the cause of it.

No, I think this has to do with our own conception of what a societal trailblazer is supposed to look like.

Obama inspired even those Americans who were skeptical of his candidacy in 2008, in part because everything about him screamed, “This is the guy who changes things.” He was young and cool and eloquent, an outsider in both politics and temperament. He arrived from nowhere, unblemished.

Obama fit the mold of a barrier buster like Martin Luther King Jr. or Jackie Robinson or John Kennedy. We had little concept of who any of them were before they were pioneers, beyond the mythologies that surrounded them. It’s as if we dreamed them up to fulfill a narrative whose time had come.

That’s not Hillary Clinton. She’s not new or young; she is, near as I can tell, the oldest nominee in Democratic history. She’s neither eloquent nor rhetorically fearless. She calculates and deflects.

Far from bursting onto the stage in heroic fashion, Clinton has pretty much hung around for longer than anyone thought possible, seizing opportunities and outlasting rivals.

Ironically, since she helped investigate Watergate early in her career, the politician Clinton resembles most in her path to power is probably Richard Nixon, circa 1968.

A fundamentally insecure and untrusted politician, Nixon refused to fade away after losing the presidential race in 1960 (and the California governor’s race two years later). Eight years on, after the implosions of Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller, his moment came back around.

Clinton, eight years after her own loss, will accept the nomination tonight, in part because of two disastrous midterm cycles that essentially wiped out a generation of potential adversaries.

And if Clinton is about to blow through a marker women have eyed for generations, then she is doing it in a decidedly unfeminist way. This isn’t Margaret Thatcher, who threw herself into an all-male establishment and dominated it through sheer steel and charm, accompanied all the while by a subservient husband.

If we’re honest about it, Clinton’s presence on the stage in Philadelphia owes a lot to the two presidents who spoke before her. One empowered her as his spouse in the White House, without which she could never have sought a Senate seat in a state she’d never lived in. The second rehabilitated her career after derailing it, by appointing her to a senior Cabinet post.

Her rise is inextricably linked to the successes of two successful men, in a way that probably belies our ideals — so ingrained in us as to be almost subconscious — about self-reliance and meritocracy.

Clinton is an imperfect vehicle because she’s not the cinematic version of our first woman president, like Geena Davis in “Commander in Chief.” History did not pluck her from obscurity to fulfill America’s promise; if anything, it tried to sideline her and failed.

But here’s what occurs to me now, as I FaceTime my daughter from the Wells Fargo Center and tell her I am about to see Clinton accept the Democratic nomination for president — a conversation that thrills her, and that fills me with hope that she may yet believe in a limitless future.

We don’t get to hold casting calls for the roles of our change agents, to hold out for the social pioneer whose image we project in our heads. We can’t always wait around for what Norman Mailer called the “existential hero” in our politics to come along.

Clinton may not be the trailblazer we envisioned, but she’s transformed herself, through sheer tenacity, into the trailblazer we have. Tonight, at least, we should all appreciate what that means.
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