Hillary Gets Started
Hillary Clinton is ready for Hillary. That could be gleaned from the video officially launching her run for President in 2016, called “Getting Started,” which was posted on a new YouTube channel Sunday afternoon. It was a strange production: for the first few seconds, it seemed to be an ad that preceded the actual video; it could have been for auto insurance, or soap, or anything. “I’m getting ready for a lot of things—a lot of things,” a young mother says. A daughter starting kindergarten, a new home, springtime. She is followed by a man saying, in Spanish, that he is starting a business; a young black couple expecting a baby; a white woman who is going back to work after staying home with her children for five years; an Asian-American college student looking for a job; a gay couple who are engaged; a biracial couple whose dog just won’t stay out of the kitchen garbage. A white man who has changed careers is seen with and without his Yankees cap. If these people have one thing in common, it is their tendency to suddenly offer up a gesture of symbolic cheer—an abrupt laugh, a thumbs-up, a half-jig, spirit fingers, girl-power bicep flexing, a just-kidding-guys elbow-to-the-ribs. The staginess of Hillary’s own bonhomie was something that many observers thought she might have to overcome. But everyone’s glee in “Getting Started” seems staged, raising the question of whether the video is meant to normalize her or whether that quality is now meant to be a shibboleth, a way to recognize the Hillary people. If someone unexpectedly grins and growls, as the mother and kindergartener do, it means that she is ready. Or maybe whoever is thinking through Clinton’s campaign’s rhetoric just doesn’t hear how she sounds.
“I’m getting ready to do something, too—I’m running for President,” Hillary says, more than a minute and a half into the video, which is two minutes and eighteen seconds long. By that point, a small boy has already explained that he is getting ready to be in a play, in which he will play a fish and wear a fish costume, and has, indeed, begun to sing a fish song. (Perhaps one should be grateful that the candidate does not take up the fishy refrain.) The campaign-announcement video is, granted, a tough genre, and not one that is going to decide anything, particularly in the case of Hillary, who has been campaigning for so long. The “ready” trope is also a call back to “Ready for Hillary,” one of the Super PACs that has already been aggressively raising money and hiring staff. (And the candidate does seem to want to be referred to as “Hillary”; the Web site is “Paid for by Hillary for America,” and its logo is a big blue H inset with a red arrow.) The substance of that campaign is not something one learns much about from the video. After the opening, there are references to decks being stacked and people deserving to get ahead, and what seems intended as the statement of purpose: “Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion!” With what programs, and what tools, and against whom? In some ways there was more substance in this week’s “Saturday Night Live” skit on the making of the video, in which Hillary, played by Kate McKinnon, struggles to record herself on her phone, than in the actual finished product.
There were not so many answers in the e-mail that John Podesta, who worked in the Bill White House and is chairing this campaign, sent out Sunday. (“I wanted to make sure you heard it first from me—it’s official.”) That message went to donors and former staff members—the base, so far, of Hillary’s shadow campaign. On her campaign Web site, her biography says that, as Secretary of State, “She built a coalition for tough new sanctions against Iran that brought them to the negotiating table,” but not whether she would fight for the fruits of those negotiations—the draft deal that President Obama has come up with. The choice of an endorser for her foreign-policy work is an unhelpful one, for anyone trying to figure out what she believes: “Even former Republican Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said she ‘ran the State Department in the most effective way that I’ve ever seen.’”
Clinton also, on Friday, published, on Huffington Post, a new epilogue to “Hard Choices,” her memoir of her tenure at the State Department. It begins like this, mentioning President Obama:
“Where did Hillary go?” the President asked, looking around. He was in the middle of a short speech about democracy in Burma, standing on the porch of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house in Rangoon. “Where is she?”
When he sees her, he thanks her—for what, it’s not clear—and she goes on to ruminate about “how far we had come” from their first sit-down after he’d defeated her in the 2008 primaries. That’s about all we get on Obama in the rest of the epilogue, other than him also thanking Bill for campaigning for him in 2012: he is grateful to him; he appreciates her. There are outlines of two separate caricatures in there, and Hillary will have to be careful about which one she chooses to play up during her campaign. One is of an Obama who was able to do what he did with the help of her quiet, wise advice. This option would involve her assuming ownership of his foreign-policy decisions. The other is of a lost President, in over his head, who looks around and asks, “Where is she?” (There were hints of this rendition in an interview that Clinton gave to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic last year.) When the question comes to Obama, and it will, will Hillary be asking voters to remedy a mistake she believes they made in 2008, by not choosing her, or to build on a joint legacy that she is proud of?
A report in the Times this weekend suggested that the Clinton campaign hasn’t quite decided how she’ll talk about Obama. In practical terms, the story said, citing people “briefed on the plans,” the campaign expects him to raise money and that “he would be asked to campaign for her in, among other places, the most heavily African-American counties of the swing states that he won in 2008 and 2012.” But “Mr. Obama would most likely be scarce on the stump in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Mrs. Clinton defeated him in the 2008 primaries by appealing to women and white working-class voters.” Not incidentally, Obama won both of those states in 2012. Hillary has been involved in so many Presidential campaigns, over three decades, that she may be at risk of confusing one with another. It is also not the case that, in modern campaigns, you can confine a candidate’s voice to narrow audiences. And it’s not at all clear that Hillary should. According to the Times, the view in the Clinton camp is that Obama has no choice but to do whatever he can to help get her elected, as his own legacy will be at stake. But they should recognize that there might be a point where Obama stops seeing it that way, or becomes ambivalent in a way that is visible to voters. (So far, he has said that he’s sure she would be “excellent,” but he’s also pointed out that he won’t be on the ballot.) Perhaps Hillary would rather have it that way. But any campaign that says it’s about women and doesn’t make full use of, or even alienates, Michelle Obama may not really be ready to win.
It is clear, at any rate, that one person the Hillary campaign loves to mention is Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky, Chelsea’s new daughter. The grandmother theme is hit on repeatedly in the epilogue to “Hard Choices,” and will be again, and again. (“I was delighted to find that Charlotte’s birth seemed to strike a chord with a lot of Americans.”) Who is Hillary? She has a team, a smile, a grandchild, and a campaign office in Brooklyn, and she is ready.
© 2015 The New Yorker