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Anjuly Mathai
Anjuly Mathai

COVER STORY

Finishing touch

Finishing touch

Why do Americans love to hate Hillary Clinton?

When Hillary was four years old, her family moved to Park Ridge, a middle-class suburb. There, she was neighbours with a girl called Suzy, who would bully the young Hillary. Once, she ran home crying and her mother told her that there was no room for cowards in her house. “The next time she hits you, I want you to hit her back,” she said. The next time Hillary went out she saw Suzy amid a group of boys. She mustered all her courage and punched Suzy. Suzy fell and the jaws of all the boys dropped. A triumphant Hillary went home and told her mother, “Now I can play with the boys.”

That girl who punched the bully went on to play in the big league—as first lady, senator and secretary of state. But the ultimate prize of becoming the 45th President of the United States eluded her. So, what went wrong?

No one can deny that she has done a lot for the country. She has been fighting for the rights of children for more than 40 years now. As first lady, she worked to create the children’s health insurance programme, which provided health care to more than eight million people and has reduced the number of uninsured children by half. As New York senator, she helped expand health care and family leave for military families. As secretary of state, she negotiated a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, and tough sanctions for Iran.

She also had the future of the country all figured out. In her book, Stronger Together, which she co-wrote with running mate Tim Kaine, she laid out her vision: to make the boldest investment in good-paying jobs since World War II, to ensure debt-free college for all Americans, to rewrite the rules so that companies share profits with employees instead of shipping jobs and profits overseas. Each subject had various sub-categories, displaying the extensive research that had gone into it. Unfortunately, the book was a dud, selling less than 3,000 copies in its first week. The truth was stark: Americans wanted to make policies into catchy T-shirt slogans (“Say no to abortion”, “drugs end dreams”), while Hillary was offering them a PhD thesis in complicated language.

As Joe Scarborough, a cable news and radio host, reportedly said, “If you want to go to sleep, go to Hillary Clinton’s website.” In an editorial in The New York Times, David Brooks narrowed down her unpopularity to one unanswered question: what does Hillary Clinton do for fun? Obama plays golf and we know, unfortunately, what Trump’s favourite pastime is. But what about Hillary? “Except for a few grandma references, she presents herself as a resume and a policy brief,” he wrote.

The truth is that, unlike a man, a woman candidate for presidency doesn’t have the luxury of presenting herself as she is. As a result, Hillary has done a lot of flip-flops with regard to her image. Long ago, she had got a makeover to help her husband become governor in Arkansas. She started wearing contact lenses, defrizzed and lightened her hair and hired a fashion consultant. She also adopted her husband’s name. When Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, Hillary portrayed herself as a strong and independent woman. But this didn’t find many takers among the women, especially after her comment of not having stayed home to “bake cookies” and “have teas”. Republicans labelled her “radical” and a “dowdy feminazi”. She was forced to pull back, going to the extent of submitting a chocolate chip cookie recipe to Family Circle magazine. Since then, Hillary has been facing a Catch-22 situation. She couldn't appear too strong without making Americans dislike her and she couldn't be too soft for fear of not coming across as competent. While Trump was portraying himself as virile and macho, Hillary had to play the granny card to appear less ambitious and more family-focused.

But the biggest factor that plagued Hillary throughout her campaign was the issue of trust. According to a New York Times/ CBS survey in July, 64 per cent of voters found her untrustworthy and dishonest. Her personal favourability rating was a dismal 28 out of 54. It is ironic that Hillary started her innings in the limelight with her commencement speech at Wellesley College in 1969 and one of the major themes of that address was trust. (The address earned her national publicity and a feature in Life magazine).

“What can you say about it?” she said. “What can you say about a feeling that permeates a generation and that perhaps is not even understood by those who are distrusted? All we can do is keep trying again and again and again. There’s that wonderful line in East Coker by Eliot about there’s only the trying, again and again and again; to win again what we’ve lost before.”

That was a great speech she gave, with passion devoid of drama, idealism not yet contaminated by pragmatism. The listeners believed her. But not when she talked, during the presidential campaign, about “progress” and “development”. Voters recognised it for the rhetoric that it might or might not have been.

The thing is, we know so much about Hillary we don’t know who she is anymore. In the muck and mayhem of campaigning, one forgets that arresting image of a woman in a pantsuit breaking into dance with a toddler, stamping her kitten heels and pumping her hands. Hillary can have fun. We wish she had got an opportunity to show it.

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