NEW YORK — Hillary Clinton has said it herself: She’s not the most naturally gifted public communicator.
“I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama,” she said in March.
Yet her first public speech was a star-making one, landing her in a Life magazine write-up at the tender age of 21. She was a senior at Wellesley, the first student chosen to address a commencement there. Unhappy with the words of the U.S. senator invited to speak before her, she parried with an unplanned rebuke, before launching into her prepared remarks. It was unscripted and rather audacious — so audacious, in fact, that the president of Wellesley felt compelled to apologize to the senator.
“Courtesy is not one of the stronger virtues of the young,” wrote Ruth Adams, in a letter recently unearthed by The Washington Post. “Scoring debater’s points seems, on occasion, to have higher standing.”
Nearly 50 years later, Clinton is facing the most important debates of her life as she squares off against Donald Trump beginning Monday — three high-stakes contests that could set the momentum for the remainder of the presidential campaign.
What kind of communicator has she become in those years since Wellesley, the last 30 or so in the public eye? That first speech is significant, says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, because it shows how even a college-age Clinton was able to think on her feet and jump on the moment — a key asset in a debate.
Clinton also showed, and has honed for years, a propensity to engage the other side, to argue and counter-argue like a lawyer, Jamieson says — not surprising, since her next stop after Wellesley was a law degree at Yale.
But along with those and other obvious strengths — such as the depth of her preparation — Clinton can sound scripted, especially in contrast to her husband, a gifted empathizer. “‘I feel your pain’ — that was a joke line about Bill Clinton, but some people have to work harder at it than others,” Jamieson says. “It was more natural for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton than it is for Hillary Clinton.”
She’s also known to be guarded. “People who support her say she is thoughtful,” says Jamieson. “Those who oppose her say she is hiding something. But she adds that there’s good historical reason for Clinton to watch her words.
“She’s been burned by statements that were taken to mean something she didn’t necessarily intend, like her famous 1992 ‘cookies and teas’ remark,” which Jamieson says was “taken egregiously out of context.”
Then, of course, there’s the persistent description of Clinton “lecturing” — or worse, “yelling.” Many counter that this particular description is inextricably wound up in gender perceptions. (One commentator, Mark Rudov, said on Fox News in 2008 that when candidate Obama spoke, “Men hear, ‘Take off for the future,’ and when Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear, ‘Take out the garbage.”’)
“I don’t think one can talk about anything related to Hillary Clinton where gender is not (a factor), whether it’s conscious or not,” says Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University.
“What you constantly hear about is her yelling,” Tannen says. “But of course, candidates all yell. They have to.” That famous 2004 Howard Dean yell was a rare occasion when a male candidate was called out for it, she notes.
Tannen says Clinton — like other women in authority — is subject to a “double bind,” meaning whatever she does is going to violate either expectations for how a woman should speak, or how a leader should.
In other words, for a female candidate, appearing tough and empathetic at the same time is a challenge. Biographer Gail Sheehy says that during Clinton’s 2008 presidential race, her campaign emphasized the toughness, so that she would be taken seriously — especially by the military — as a potential commander in chief.
“She won that battle,” Sheehy says, “but in the process it obscured her nurturing qualities — her ability to understand and relate to people who are vulnerable. We’ve seen that ability in her actions throughout her whole life — but even today she has a hard time conveying it.”
One of Clinton’s most admired moments as a public speaker came in 1995, when, as first lady, she addressed the U.N. World Conference on Women in Beijing and made the powerful declaration that “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” But Sheehy also points to a very different moment as memorable for Clinton — the 2008 “coffee shop moment” in New Hampshire, where Clinton’s voice shook and she seemed near tears as she spoke of her goals for the country.
“She allowed herself to show a little vulnerability — in spite of herself — and wow, women all over the place related to her,” Sheehy says. “The problem is that today, there isn’t very much ‘we’ in the way she speaks. We don’t feel like she’s having a conversation with us.” In the debates, Sheehy suggests, Clinton might do well to inject some humor where she can, to portray accessibility.
Some feel Clinton shouldn’t have to be worrying about that at all.
Why, wonders feminist blogger Andi Zeisler, isn’t it enough for Clinton simply to show her qualifications for the job? When did it become, she asks, about being the candidate you can have a beer with — or who can dance with Ellen DeGeneres on her talk show?
“That’s not the person I want to see, and that’s certainly not who she wants to be,” Zeisler says. “I think she’s from a time when you weren’t SUPPOSED to have a beer with your president. They were supposed to be too busy and too smart.”
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