“I get it that some people just don't know what to make of me.”
That is Hillary Clinton in her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Throughout her campaign, she has had to deal with what people see as differences between her public persona and her private self, between public speech and private speech, between public actions and private actions. It is something that all politicians—in fact, all leaders—find themselves dealing with at one time or another. But for Hillary Clinton, it is an especially open and onerous issue.
Hillary Clinton is not the only female national political figure who has had to deal with differences between her public persona and her private life. Think of Eleanor Roosevelt. Think of Jacqueline Kennedy. But she is the first woman to be nominated by a major party to be President of the United States, and as such she is being examined on issues that most male candidates never have to face. Questioning her private versus public persona is one of those issues. Moreover, she has stepped into this limelight not only with more than five decades of public service behind her (see her website for details), but she is doing so in a time when privacy is very difficult to maintain and when one’s past is always in danger of popping up in the present. Today’s online environment leaves very little to be truly private. The 24-hour news channels are always hungry for new material.
This came up at the October 9 televised “town hall” debate, where she was asked about comments she made in private meetings that were leaked to the public in an attempt to discredit her. She used as an illustration, the scene in the move Lincoln where Abraham Lincoln talked privately about the CSA sending a delegation to Washington to pursue peace while publicly stating that no delegation was in D.C. His goal: getting Congressional support for a Constitutional amendment on emancipation before the Civil War ended.
In a recent New YorkTimes Magazine article Robert Draper notes that, since Bill Clinton’s first loss as a candidate for Governor of Arkansas, Hillary has built defenses between her private self and her public persona. He quotes Gay White, the wife of the candidate who defeated Bill Clinton, as saying that, as a result of trying to differentiate her private and public personas, Hillary “has not been able to be an authentic person.”
Well, one might ask, have other Presidents been “authentic” people? What did the public really know about the “authentic” presidents of the past? Did we really see the authentic Jack Kennedy when he was elected in 1960? What about the authentic wheelchair-ridden Franklin Roosevelt? We tend to focus on whether a public person presents an “authentic” public persona, understanding that some things remain private. Not so, apparently, for a woman.
There is another important factor in the case of Hillary Clinton. Draper notes in his article that, when Bill Clinton first ran for governor, his wife was Hillary Rodham. This Baby Boomer had learned the lesson of the women’s movement and had kept her birth name in marriage. In fact, much of her early career had been as a social advocate for children and families. As I have noted in a recent blog posting popular culture has long ago buried the experience of the 1960s. Today’s young adults enjoy the benefits of the social revolution of the sixties—civil rights, women’s rights, gay/lesbian rights, etc. – but most have no idea what the young social activists of the sixties went through to expand opportunity and rights to all Americans. I cited Carla Bingham’s comment that, “even hazier was the understanding of what could possibly have mattered so much.”
After that first defeat, Hillary Rodham changed her name to Hillary Rodham Clinton. She began to accept that the public passions of the sixties needed to be privatized if she was to achieve public change. The result is a tension between private passion for improving lives and public position on how that improvement can be effected—a tension heightened by the public’s tendency to be over-concerned about the private personality of the person who, I certainly hope, will become our first female President.
Hillary Clinton has been a public figure for most of her adult life. Much of that has been beyond the scope of any elected position. Instead, she has simply devoted her life to the public good, seeking elected office for herself only in the last 15 or so years. She stands as perhaps the most qualified candidate for President in many decades. I hope that, as we move into the final weeks before the election, the American public will focus on her qualifications—her real achievements in public life—as well as her qualities as a person. She is not just the best alternative to her opponent; she is the best candidate for our times.