photo by Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images
Ezra Klein wrote an excellent essay for his Vox news website about Hillary Clinton, focusing on why some people like her and others so vehemently dislike her. I will do a combination of quoting and summary, hoping to adequately cover what this smart, evidence-driven news analyst says.
* * *
"This is an effort to answer a question I’ve been struggling with since at least 2008: Why is the Hillary Clinton described to me by her staff, her colleagues, and even her foes so different from the one I see on the campaign trail? . . . .Klein also interviewed Clinton herself, and they specifically discussed this gap in how she is perceived. She pointed out that when she has a job and is doing it, she always gets high ratings: re-elected to the Senate with 67% of the vote; had a 66% approval rating as Secretary of State. So she thinks that the "dislike" factor is the result of all the attacks on her and her husband that fill people's minds. But then Klein says:
"There is the Hillary Clinton I watch on the nightly news and that I read described in the press. She is careful, calculated, cautious. Her speeches can sound like executive summaries from a committee report, the product of too many authors, too many voices, and too much fear of offense. . . .
"And then there is the Hillary Clinton described to me by people who have worked with her, people I admire, people who understand Washington in ways I never will. Their Hillary Clinton is spoken of in superlatives: brilliant, funny, thoughtful, effective. She inspires a rare loyalty in ex-staff, and an unusual protectiveness even among former foes. . . ."
"I don’t buy it. Other politicians find themselves under continuous assault, but their poll numbers strengthen amid campaigns. . . . [Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton] All three sustained attacks. All three endured opponents lobbing a mix of true and false accusations. But all three seemed boosted by running for the job — if anything, people preferred watching them campaign to watching them govern."Klein then describes trying to understand this difference by talking to Clinton's staff, friends, colleagues, and even foes. He asked them "What is true about the Hillary Clinton you’ve worked with that doesn’t come through on the campaign trail? And he found their answers startlingly consistent.
"Every single person brought up, in some way or another, the exact same quality they feel leads Clinton to excel in governance and struggle in campaigns. . . .Klein says the first five or six times he heard that he thought it was stereotyping about a woman politician. But after hearing it 15 times, it began to make sense.
"They said over and over again, Hillary Clinton listens."
"Modern presidential campaigns are built to reward people who are really, really good at talking. So imagine what a campaign feels like if you’re not entirely natural in front of big crowds. Imagine that you are constantly compared to your husband, one of the greatest campaign orators of all time; that you’ve been burned again and again after saying the wrong thing in public; that you’ve been told, for decades, that you come across as calculated and inauthentic on the stump. What would you do?Melanne Verveer, Clinton's chief of staff at the time, told Klein: “What they missed was she was actually listening! By the time she finished those listening sessions around New York, she really knew more about New York, about the issues there, about what was on people’s minds.”
"When Hillary Clinton ran for the Senate in 2000, she tried to do something very strange: She tried to campaign by listening. It was called her 'listening tour,' and the press did not like it. . . . [The New Yorker said] . . . [S]he tried to elevate nodding into a kind of political philosophy."
Another aide explained how, during her travels, she stuffs notes from her conversations into suitcases, and then every few months she sifts through all that stray paper, sorting and categorizing, and following up. Clinton's campaign chair, John Podesta, says: “Her way of dealing with the stories she hears is not just to repeat the story but to do something about the story.”
Klein then references the work of linguist Deborah Tannen who studies differences in how men and women communicate. Women tend to emphasize listening and rapport. Men, by contrast, emphasize status dimension.
"Talking is a way of changing your status: If you make a great point, or set the terms of the discussion, you win the conversation. Listening, on the other hand, is a way of establishing rapport, of bringing people closer together; showing you’ve heard what’s been said so far may not win you the conversation, but it does win you allies. And winning allies [and endorsements and delegates] is how Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination." . . .
"One way of reading the Democratic primary is that it pitted an unusually pure male leadership style against an unusually pure female leadership style. Sanders is a great talker and a poor relationship builder. Clinton is a great relationship builder and a poor talker. In this case — the first time at the presidential level — the female leadership style won. . . .
"But that wasn’t how the primary was understood. Clinton’s endorsements left her excoriated as a tool of the establishment while Sanders's speeches left people marveling at his political skills. Thus was her core political strength reframed as a weakness.
"I want to be very clear here. I’m not saying that anyone who opposed Clinton was sexist. Nor am I saying Clinton should have won. What I’m saying is that presidential campaigns are built to showcase the stereotypically male trait of standing in front of a room speaking confidently — and in ways that are pretty deep, that’s what we expect out of our presidential candidates. Campaigns built on charismatic oration feel legitimate in a way that campaigns built on deep relationships do not.
But here’s the thing about the particular skills Clinton used . . . [they] are very, very relevant to the work of governing. And they are particularly relevant to the way Clinton governs.
* * *
There's a lot packed into this very long posting. I think Klein is on to something important. I hope Clinton has talked with him and takes this in as reinforcement for her important listening skill and method. The most important point here is that what she does and gets excoriated for will make her a terrific president.