“Grandma would be so, so proud of you tonight,’’ said Chelsea Clinton as she ushered her mother to stage to accept her nomination as the Democratic National Party’s presidential candidate. 'Grandma' was Hillary Clinton’s mother, a woman whose early history must have had a very strong influence on Hilary, and has perhaps hardened the steel in her will and spirit.
Hillary pulled aside the curtains just a wee bit on Friday, shining a light into where she comes from. Her family, said Hilary, were builders of a different kind (a dig at rival Donald Trump’s construction conglomerate), they came from humble beginnings. Her mother, Dorothy, was abandoned as a 14-year-old by her family and worked as a housemaid initially.
Perhaps it was Dorothy’s story that drove Hillary to work for adopted children, foster families and so many other underprivileged groups. Dorothy, said Hillary, instilled upon her the quality of not backing out, however tough the adversary was. She recounted how she once ran home to avoid a bully, only to have her mother shut the door on her and forced her to face the adversary.
Hillary learnt an early lesson that bullies will back off if you stand up to them. In the rough and tumble of her public career, that was perhaps a more valuable lesson than all her smart degrees put together. A lesson that is going to be even more crucial as the face-off between her and Trump begins in the days to come.
By her own admission, talking about herself doesn’t come easily to Hillary. “Through all these years of public service, the service part has always come easier to me than the public part," she said as she proceeded to give a thumb nail sketch of her beginnings.
For Hillary, to have opened up even this much must have been a huge step, a necessity she realises, now that she has to compete in the popularity race.
In her hour long address, the most important one of her career so far, Hillary tried not to leave out anything. While the main ingredient was her plans (she admitted she loved talking about her plans as she had many, hinting that Trump had none), she did attempt a “masala package" of a speech, into which she packed in everything – a dollop of emotion, a dash of the “I am a woman’’ acknowledgment (which again is not easy for someone who sees her gender as incidental and competes in a world of men) and even a rather strained attempt at humour (she commented that Trump “spoke for 70 odd minutes, and I do mean odd.").
However, what the speech lacked was that sprinkling of magic pixie dust, the ingredient which makes a carefully drafted speech become rousing, inspiring crowds into impromptu (and not stage managed) standing ovations. She was trying too hard, but lacked the flavour which is essential for the person to person connect.
Hillary’s approach to a problem is not as much as wiping the tear of the victim as it is about developing legal and institutional frameworks to sort it out. Even her approach to gender issues is all about having systems in place. Sample is this: “If fighting for affordable child care and paid family leave is playing the woman card, then deal me in.”
She laid out her plans over the course of an hour, from her approach to climate change solutions to making education affordable, and at every opportunity, juxtaposed these well-thought out plans with Trump-talk. She spoke about inclusion and team work, about raising minimum wage and increasing domestic production. At times, it was easy. Repeating Trump’s criticism about the military made it so much better for her to project herself as a better commander in chief. At times, it was a tightrope of a walk. Even as she spoke about injecting vigour into the economy, she had to be careful not to be too critical of the present scenario; that would reflect badly on the Obama regime, and that can be fatal to her run.
There is a girl scout zeal to Hillary. In choosing between a populist statement and a practical one, she prefers the latter. This almost became her undoing in the run up to the nomination, where rival Bernie Sanders could promise raising minimum salary to 15 dollars an hour without bothering to explain where the money would come from. Hillary, with her background in governance, would feel compelled to say that she would raise it to 12 dollars initially, and 15 subsequently. No prizes for guessing why the old man had the momentum and why Democrats would still rather 'Feel the Bern'.
An important point in Hillary’s favour is that she’s zealous about her carefully thought out plans and is likely to execute as many as she possibly can given the dynamics of governance. What she needs before that is to get voters to ensure she reaches White House. For that, even as she keeps her Power Puff Girl image intact, she has to soften her approach. She’ll have to quickly learn how to talk with the voters, rather than talk down to them. Even as she wears pantsuits and blazes her way, breaking ceilings so that “the sky is the limit’’ as she says, it would help her case only if she tempers her internal steel with a veneer of softness.
She has to appear, at least occasionally, as one of them with a carefully chosen flaw or vulnerability on display, rather than being this intimidating superwoman all the time. She'd do well to remember that Obama's chainsmoking and his attempts at ridding himself of the habit weren't seen as a weakness by the people. Instead, they only made him more identifiable.