A 1980 election defeat for her husband set in motion a process of endless revision, by herself and her opponents, that defined her career, writes Robert Draper.
Two weeks after Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination for president, I flew to Little Rock, Arkansas, to visit Gay White.
White is the widow of Frank White, a conservative Little Rock banker who in 1980 toured all 75 counties in Arkansas in a quixotic attempt to unseat the incumbent governor, Bill Clinton. Frank had no previous experience campaigning, but proved to be an enthusiastic retail politician. Gay, then 32, accompanied him on his statewide tour of cattle auctions, parking lots and chicken-processing plants.
“Hi, I’m Gay White,” she would tell the people they met. “My husband’s running for governor, and I’d sure appreciate your vote.”
Though that year was a momentous one for the Whites, one detail had stuck with White 36 years later. “I cannot tell you the number of times they would say to me, ‘If your husband wins, are you going to keep his last name?’” she told me. “I heard it over and over and over.”
It had not occurred to the Whites or their campaign advisers that attitudes toward the governor’s wife, Hillary Rodham, might be what Gay White would later term an “undercurrent” in the 1980 election. They knew, of course, that Arkansas had seen no first lady like Rodham, a Wellesley graduate who wore bookworm spectacles and a hairdo that was not blown out in the Southern manner. At 32, she was a full partner at one of the nation’s oldest law firms. She had never changed her name, and Rodham was how her clients knew her.
While Gay dutifully barnstormed alongside her husband, Clinton’s wife had her own pursuits, as well as an infant daughter whom she was determined not to use as a political prop. “Frank and I went to every festival in Arkansas. I had lots of people say, ‘Hillary’s never been here — and she’s the first lady.’ I think the fact she did not go to these little county fairs and she was seen as not embracing that role caused people to resent her, right or wrong.”
The White campaign focused on Bill Clinton’s tax hikes, his willingness to accept Cuban refugees and — as White’s former campaign chairman, Curtis Finch, told me — “the perception among people older than he was that he was just young and arrogant and brought in all these people who had beards and long hair.”
If Hillary Rodham’s feminism was part of this picture, White didn’t feel the need to campaign on it overtly. Still, he knew voters would get the joke when, after criticising Clinton for allowing married couples to hold state-government positions, he could not resist adding: “How many husband-and-wife teams has he hired? It’s hard to find out, because they don’t have the same last names.”
Six weeks before the election, Clinton enjoyed a 41-point lead over the challenger, who entered the race with only 2% of the public knowing who he was. But on November 4, Frank White beat Bill Clinton, 52% to 48%. A few weeks later, explaining the results, the governor’s wife observed somberly, “It’s more easy to enthuse people if they think there’s going to be a change, instead of more of the same.”
Rodham may not have been on the ballot, but Gay White remains convinced that “how they perceived her was very much a factor.”
Two years later, when Clinton ran again against White, he ran a television ad apologising for his mistakes. And, Gay remembers, Rodham “changed everything: her whole appearance, her wardrobe. She started wearing makeup. She took Bill’s last name. They did the things they needed to do.” Bill Clinton won the rematch in a landslide. The Clintons returned to the governor’s mansion in 1983. Neither has lost a general election since.
“I get that some people just don’t know what to make of me,” Hillary Clinton said in her speech accepting the nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July. It was a rare acknowledgment by her of what has been the defining paradox of her career: She has been a presence in American public life for more than a third of a century, and yet for all her ubiquity, she remains a curiously unknown quantity to many voters.
It’s possible to glimpse the origins of this paradox in the time between Bill Clinton’s 1980 loss and his 1982 victory. Upon facing the electoral judgment of her persona for the first time, Hillary Rodham Clinton began what has gradually evolved into a precarious shadow game with the American public — a ritualised series of reveals, retreats, and resets, each iteration seemingly more freighted with recrimination and self-doubt than the one preceding it. It was the moment when Hillary became “Hillary” — a collaborative creation by herself and her political enemies, both a reflection and a source of the uncertainty and mistrust with which the public has so often regarded her.
In the early months of his 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton confidently told voters they would be getting “two for the price of one” with Hillary in the White House. Still, George Bush’s campaign operation, like White’s, did not give much thought to attacking her.
Although the race was seen by many on both sides as a sort of generational referendum, the Bush campaign did not disseminate the photos it had gathered of her dressed in hippie attire or details of her 1971 clerkship for the left-wing lawyer Robert Treuhaft. In part, this simply reflected a political era that still observed certain unspoken rules. “In those days, you didn’t go after a candidate’s family,” says David Tell, who ran Bush’s opposition-research team. But it also reflected the feeling that, as the Bush campaign strategist Charlie Black recalls: “We didn’t need to talk about it. There already were certain people, especially older voters, who didn’t like the idea of a co-presidency and a ball-busting first lady.”
Arkansans had struggled with the same notion throughout Clinton’s tenure as governor. Hillary gave thought to running for governor herself in 1990, but her polling showed the public was disinclined to vote for her.
Still, Hillary’s national debut in the 1992 election suggested the Clintons believed things would be different outside Arkansas. The Hillary that America came to know in the first months of the campaign was the woman who, confronted with Bill’s affair with Gennifer Flowers, was not “some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” who later said she “could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas” but became a high-powered lawyer instead.
After the second comment, however, angry calls flooded into the campaign’s offices, along with packages of home-baked cookies. Alarmed, the Clinton brain trust directed pollster Celinda Lake to conduct focus groups on the candidate’s wife. A follow-up memorandum warned: “In the focus groups, people think of her as being in the race ‘for herself’ and as ‘going for the power.’ She is not seen as particularly ‘family oriented.’ More than Nancy Reagan, she is seen as ‘running the show.’”
The campaign responded by relegating her to campuses and libraries and smaller markets. The Clintons’ showbiz friends Harry and Linda Bloodworth-Thomason assigned her three fashion consultants — one each for her makeup, hair, and wardrobe — and her headbands were consigned to the dustbin of history.
At that summer’s Republican National Convention, Patrick Buchanan derided Clinton’s “radical feminism.” Marilyn Quayle — a lawyer who gave up her career to support her husband’s — presented herself and Dan Quayle as an alternative vision of the husband-wife partnership. “Most women do not want to be liberated from their essential natures as women,” she said. But the convention drew poor reviews; The New York Times’s conservative columnist William Safire complained that “the party displayed the basest of its base.”
From then on, the Bush campaign team confined its direct attacks to Bill Clinton.
In 1992, as in 1980, the Clintons forced Americans to confront an unsettled landscape of shifting cultural boundaries; voters might have rejected Marilyn Quayle’s worldview, but they had not yet fully embraced Hillary’s. It fell to Hillary to resolve a conflict that Americans had not yet really resolved for themselves, and her response was what we now recognise as the quintessential Clintonian defence: to offer up a cosmetically reassuring version of “Hillary” while resolving thereafter to reveal as little of Hillary as possible. A pattern had also emerged that would carry on throughout Clinton’s public life: Her protectors would overprotect; her attackers would overattack. And the American public would emerge from the episode with a welling distaste for all parties involved.
Clinton’s decision in 1999 to seek office herself — motivated, the longtime Clinton friend Paul Begala says, by “a real desire for the legitimacy that comes from earning votes” — meant that the first lady was now a legitimate target. Once again, however, the Republicans overplayed their hand. Rick Lazio, her opponent in the 2000 Senate race, pursued a campaign strategy that was foremost about driving up her negatives — in particular, the ghosts of Clinton controversies past. He devoted a speech to Whitewater and mocked the Clintons’ failed health-care initiative — which was criticised for the secrecy Hillary imposed on policy discussions — as “an unmitigated disaster.”
He released an ad attacking her untrustworthiness. “At the heart of this campaign,” Lazio said during their first debate, “are two words: character and trust.” It backfired.
“In the polling data, it was clear people still remembered Hillarycare, and plenty of them didn’t like her,” recalls Lazio’s campaign manager, Bill Dal Col. “But the biggest thing was the sympathy factor. The Lewinsky scandal clearly gave her another breath of life. Trustworthiness was the back end of the chain at that point. It was, ‘Look at what this woman’s been through.’”
But in the Senate, Clinton found that once again, the act of making herself into the person voters seemed to want her to be made her an object of suspicion. She embraced the grind of the job, distancing herself from the accusations of dilettantism and entitlement that had been levelled in the 2000 race. In so doing, however, she acquired a new stigma: that of Washington insider. And the first rivals to exploit it were her fellow Democrats.
In late 2006, Barack Obama commissioned the pollster Larry Grisolano to conduct a series of focus groups in Iowa and New Hampshire to test themes that might support an insurgent candidacy by the first-term senator. “What that research showed,” Grisolano recalls, “was that there was a market for a fresh truth-teller like Obama. And it worked well in contrast to somebody who was eagerly grabbing the mantle of the establishment.”
But Clinton’s senior strategist, Mark Penn, argued that she should emphasise her gravitas over the history-making prospect of a female president. “We opted for qualified and experienced over relatable,” says her former campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, “which I think was a mistake.”
Clinton didn’t need much convincing. She was proud of her hard-earned experience in Washington and affronted by Obama’s lack of it, and she campaigned accordingly. “The one thing everybody in America knew about her,” says her former speechwriter Lissa Muscatine, “was that she was tough and strong. What they didn’t know was her 40 years of advocacy, the background she came from, how her faith motivated her. All of this history got swept away. Her campaign should have been a movement campaign like Obama’s. And it never was.”
At the Democratic National Convention in July, the retelling of Clinton’s story fell chiefly to her husband, who laboured over his speech for days, showing it to no one until a couple of hours before he delivered it on Tuesday night. (He did proudly share the opening line — “In the spring of 1971, I met a girl” — to at least one close adviser on the phone the night before.)
When it was the nominee’s own turn to speak, she devoted a scant three minutes to her drape-making father, her orphaned mother and her early work with the Children’s Defence Fund. Then she beat a retreat into the working-class stories of others she met on her long road to becoming the most famous unknowable person on the planet.
Even 20 years ago, Clinton was clearly exhausted by the project of untangling “Hillary” and Hillary. “I don’t think you can ever know anybody else,” she told The Washington Post in 1995. “And I certainly don’t think you can know anybody else through the crude instruments available to us of exposing bits and pieces of somebody’s life.”
Gay White watched Clinton’s convention speech and her first debate against Donald Trump from her home in Little Rock. Being roughly the same age as Clinton, she was offended to hear Trump attack his opponent’s physical capabilities. “I’ve been in a little statewide campaign where we went to 75 counties,” White said. “I’ve not been through a national campaign. Anyone who can do that has got to have stamina.”
For the first time in her adult life, White does not know for whom she will vote. She has found little to admire in Trump, but she is a lifelong conservative, and her husband ran quite literally against Clintonian liberalism.
There is disapproval in her voice when she speaks of the Democratic nominee, if also a trace of respect, and she strains to recognise the independent young woman whose decision not to change her last name so alienated rural Arkansans back in 1980. What she sees instead, she says, is “layer after layer of armour.”
Still, White believes she knows the woman underneath it, and understands the choices Clinton made to recover from defeat 36 years ago. “She really hasn’t been able to be an authentic person, you know,” she told me. “And so she hasn’t been. Not for some time.”
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