The Complex Hillary Clinton

In many ways Hillary Clinton is a paradox, someone who does not fit our standard configuration of how a politician performs and what skills they bring to a successful career. Yet she is now a presumptive candidate for the presidency of the United States from one of the two major political parties. An unexpected source of historical analysis provides some, although not all, explanations as to why Secretary Clinton has come so far.

A recent biography of Richard Nixon, of all people, offers some insight into this subject. Whereas most biographers chronicle the details of their subject's life, Evan Thomas, in Being Nixon: A Man Divided, starts instead with a tantalizing question: how did Richard Nixon, with a terrible shortage of the social graces that most pols command in abundance, get elected to the nation's highest office by popular vote, twice? Thomas wrote, "One wonders how someone who preferred to be alone, who often seemed so ill at ease in company, chose as his life's calling a profession that requires constant attention to others--in the stereotype of the classic pol, endless glad-handing, schmoozing, shoulder-squeezing, and baby-kissing."

The author starts by documenting Richard Nixon's astounding lack of people skills. His prime example: during the 1970 elections, Nixon was in St. Petersburg when a policeman who was part of the presidential motorcade had his cycle flip over and was severely injured. "Nixon rushed from his limousine to express his sympathies. As was his way, he didn't know what to say, blurting to the policeman who lay bleeding on the ground, 'Do you like your work?'"
Yet RMN still enjoyed a long political career with many victories. Thomas claims Nixon achieved these milestones by dint of advanced political competancy and very hard work: "politics...was something at which he could succeed. He may have lacked the natural gifts of the smooth sophisticates...but by dint of shrewdness and hard work, he could work around, compensate, overcome....Nixon possessed a long-range vision...."

This analysis parallels Mrs. Clinton's weaknesses and strengths, and helps explain her rise to the top. Like Nixon she lacks the communication talents of many of her contemporaries. In a famous line she recently admitted, "I am not a natural politician, in case you haven't noticed, like my husband or President Obama...."

But much like Nixon, she brings to her candidacy clear assets: top political skills, a long career resulting in more and more varied experience than most seeking the presidency, the ability to work--and fight--in different arenas. Also, one other trait she shares with the 37th president: a pronounced ability to overcome opposition and persevere, what Thomas called, "a great capacity to accept discomfort and endure blows." Employing this quiver of resources, Hillary Clinton, like Richard Nixon, may reach the highest office.

Conservatives will now leap on this analogy, declaring that she exhibits one other trait of the Nixon years, that of the profound corruption that lead to his downfall, and that will inevitably lead to hers. But a close reading of Thomas' book also makes clear other, fundamental differences that explain Nixon's demise and rebuts any argument that Mrs. Clinton will follow in those ignoble footsteps. He argued that Nixon's disaster stemmed, not from any fundamental trait of dishonesty, but from an overwhelming self-pity, insecurity, and self-doubt, character flaws that lead to the terrible crimes of his administration. But Hillary Clinton exhibits few of these symptoms. The right claims instead that she is anything but insecure, depicting her as arrogant and driven. Based on their own claims, it is unlikely that she will fall into a similar funk of profound proportions.

There is one other fundamental way that she differs from her predecessor, and that is their respective genders. And that may be the most significant factor of them all in explaining her rise to the top despite all odds.

A remarkable article by Ezra Klein that raised the same issues as the Thomas biography bore the title, "It's Time to Admit Hillary Clinton is an Extraordinarily Talented Politician". But Klein wrote, "it would be impossible, and dishonest, to not recognize gender as a central, defining, complicated, and often invisible force in this election. It is one of the factors that shaped Hillary Clinton, and it is one of the factors that shapes how we respond to her." He pointed out that presidential campaigns favor male traits, which disadvantages a woman. "Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are both excellent yellers, and we love them for it. Nobody likes it when Hillary Clinton yells....research shows people don't like it when women yell in general....Even though women are interrupted more often and talk less than men, people still think women talk more." Still, even among the small pool of women politicians on the national stage, Clinton comes up short: "It is not that no women possess a public magnetism; Sarah Palin could rock a room, and Elizabeth Warren can work a crowd."

Thus the key to Clinton's success, therefore, and what makes her unique in the history of American presidential politics, is her female-centered approach, eschewing the standard male route. Klein described how, "Clinton employed a less masculine strategy to win. She won the Democratic primary by spending years slowly, assiduously, building relationships with the entire Democratic Party. She relied on a more traditionally female approach to leadership: creating coalitions, finding common ground, and winning over allies....This work is a grind -- it's not big speeches, it doesn't come with wide applause, and it requires an emotional toughness most human beings can't summon."

But as a result of this gendered strategy, "Clinton is arguably better...than anyone in American politics today. In 2000, she won a Senate seat that meant serving amidst Republicans who had destroyed her health-care bill and sought to impeach her husband. And she kept her head down, found common ground, and won them over. 'We have become, actually, good friends,' said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who served as one of the Republican prosecutors during impeachment. 'And that was a surprise to both of us.'"

Hillary Rodham Clinton brings an astounding and sometimes unique set of qualifications to her candidacy, some harkening back to past presidents, while others are unprecedented. If she succeeds, she may change our definition of what it means to be a winning politician.