The Hillary Clinton I Know

The rancor of this presidential election has reached levels of hostility previously unseen in modern national politics. It is hard to imagine during the 1984 election people chanting “lock him up” about Ronald Reagan in regard to the 241 American soldiers killed in the brutal attack in Lebanon in 1983. And I doubt any elected officials in 2000 suggested putting Al Gore in front of a “firing squad.”

The election’s animus obscures the serious issues facing the nation and the challenges our next president must confront. But, as the campaign grinds towards election day, America’s voters will have to wade through the vitriol and try to form opinions about how the real individuals behind the evil caricatures may govern. I can shed little light on Donald Trump, but I can help illuminate Hillary Clinton as a person and as a leader. Sometimes one’s character can best be seen through their personal, rather than their public persona; and a private story, or an individual moment, can reveal more than a litany of policy positions.

My father was a Democrat who grew to know the Clintons well during their first presidential race in 1992. He always spoke of them with affection, respect and admiration, which led me in 1996 to volunteer to advance campaign events for the then-first lady. Even before we met on the campaign trail, I felt I knew her from my father’s stories of a warm, engaging woman who loved public policy and all of its complexity.

I got to witness her generous heart first-hand at the end of a long day when, after finishing her speech at a raucous union hall, she didn’t hurriedly leave for a warm meal and the relative quiet of her hotel. Instead, her traveling chief of staff asked if I could gather the 20 or so children in attendance and bring them backstage. She explained that the first lady wanted this to be unofficial – no press, no cameras, just her and the children.

“I’m Hillary Clinton, what’s your name?” she said to child after child, greeting each with that giant, infectious smile that is such a part of her real persona. As she spoke to each of them, I could see the passion she has for children and I understood why advocating for them had always been at the center of her life’s work.

Fourteen years later, my father suddenly passed away. I answered my phone to “Al, it’s Hillary Clinton.” I was stunned. She didn’t call me for publicity, but rather as a sad friend of my father’s who hoped to offer comfort to a shocked and grieving son.

As I began my dad’s eulogy, I saw Hillary discreetly take a seat in the back of the church, accompanied by a sole staff member. After the mass, she offered words of strength and consolation to me and my family. A few days later, she requested a copy of the eulogy, once again astonishing me that she took the time to be not just present, but demonstrably engaged, during an emotional time for me and my family.

Another measure of an individual’s character is the type of people they attract and whether they inspire loyalty. Talented senators always attract talented staff, and Senator Clinton was no different. But what stood out aside from her staff’s skill was the obvious affection they had for her and she for them. While I was at the Democratic National Convention this summer, I saw many of her former staffers who, 10 years after she left the senate, are still dedicated to her with an unabated fondness that runs deep and strong. These are not the usual relationships between politicians and their employees. There is something special here. These people would do anything for her, and did, in Philadelphia – staffing her campaign, working the convention floor, and joining the cable shows as surrogates.

This is who Hillary is. This is the loyalty she inspires. And this is how she comports herself in the private and often most important moments in life. It is impossible for anyone – particularly someone whose life has been as examined, investigated, and often unfairly criticized as Hillary Clinton’s – to be perfect. But we don’t expect perfection – even in our president. Most Americans want someone eminently qualified. They want someone who can meet the unique and sometimes terrifying challenges of our turbulent times; who can summon compassion when needed, compromise when called for, and elicit a steely resolve when required; who can apply these traits while “sweating the details.”

While I would gladly support her because of her impeccable qualifications, it is these personal qualities that lead me to proudly state that #ImWithHer.