Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with local residents in LeClaire, Iowa. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)
NORWALK, Iowa – She was a young attorney at one of Little Rock’s most prestigious law firms when she became pregnant, but as Hillary Clinton recounted to a small group of voters here on Wednesday, she didn’t dare tell any of her co-workers. Her firm didn’t offer maternity leave.
“I got pregnant, and nobody said anything to me, and I didn’t say anything to them. We didn’t know what to say to each other. So I walked down the hall going to the conference room or the library or something, and I would see one of the partners coming, and he’d go, ‘Ohhhhhhhh,’ and look away,” Clinton recalled with a chuckle.
Seated around her at a table inside a sterile corner of a fruit wholesale warehouse here in the Des Moines suburbs, six Iowans — four women and two men, handpicked to join Clinton at her second official event as a 2016 presidential candidate — laughed, too, at the image of the pregnant lawyer waddling past her awkward employer.
Shared in response to one voter’s concern about balancing work, personal life and medical expenses, it was an anecdote meant to amplify not only Clinton’s personal story but also her ability to truly understand and connect with average voters — “everyday Americans,” in her much-commented-on phrase. To do that, Clinton is trying to get voters to look past her storied résumé — as a former first lady, senator and secretary of state — and show that she is an ordinary, down-to-earth person just like them.
Hillary Clinton with members of the small business community in Norwalk, Iowa. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty)
But as with any politician trying to get personal on the campaign trail, Clinton’s story was a bit more complicated than she let on. She wasn’t just some young lawyer when she became pregnant with daughter Chelsea. She was also the first lady of Arkansas. And she was working for the Rose Law Firm — the firm at the center of the Whitewater scandal that dogged Bill Clinton’s presidency, which critics and conspiracy theorists are determined to resurrect to block her own path to the White House.
After being criticized eight years ago for being distant and inaccessible to voters, Clinton is seeking to correct the failings of her 2008 presidential bid by appealing to early-state voters on a more intimate level and showing a more human side. She wants to show “the real Hillary,” as some advisers have put it — an approach that even some Republicans grudgingly agree is a smart move. But as Clinton moves her nascent campaign next week to New Hampshire and later to South Carolina and Nevada, her strategy faces clear challenges: How does a public figure who has been in the spotlight for decades and whose biography has been picked apart again and again reintroduce herself without looking like she’s pandering or coming across as inauthentic?
Over two days in Iowa, it was hard to miss how Hillary 2.0 wants voters to see her. Her remarks were peppered with references to her modest upbringing — the daughter of working-class parents who’d struggled to make ends meet — and her new role as a grandmother.
The Democratic frontrunner holds court with educators and students in Monticello, Iowa. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)
At a small community college in Monticello, Iowa, a tiny town on the eastern side of the state, the former secretary of state held a roundtable with seven students. Behind a yellow rope line, roughly 70 reporters jostled for a clear view of the Democratic frontrunner. As camera shutters furiously clicked, Clinton casually led a conversation about education policy and other issues that concerned her audience. Throughout the back-and-forth, she sprinkled in choice autobiographical details she hopes will shape voters’ perceptions of her over the next year and a half.
“A lot of people in the last few days have asked me, ‘Well, you know, why do you want to do this? What motivates you?’” Clinton offered at one point. “And I’ve thought a lot about it, and I guess the short answer is, I’ve been fighting for children and families my entire adult life, probably because of my mother’s example. She had a really difficult childhood — was mistreated, neglected, but she never gave up. She had to basically be on her own at the time she was 14, and she just kept going. And my father was a small businessman and just believed that you had to work hard to make your way and do whatever you had to do to be successful and provided a good living for our family.”
A few seconds later, Clinton hinted at her faith, telling voters the “lessons I learned from my church” had influenced her decision about running for president. “You’re supposed to give back,” she said. “You’re supposed to do what you can to help others, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
The Clintons with granddaughter Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky. (Photo: Office of President Clinton, Jon Davidson/AP)
As she would also do the next day, Clinton repeatedly mentioned her new granddaughter, Charlotte, telling voters that her desire to build a better future for her and other generations was a driving force in why she’d decided to run again. “I have this new granddaughter, and I want her to have every opportunity. But I want every child in our country to have every opportunity,” she said.
Her campaign hopes that Clinton’s anecdotes, opening up about her upbringing and personal beliefs, will humanize her with voters. But it can also be treacherous terrain for a candidate who has scores of journalists and opposition groups combing over and fact-checking her every word.
In Norwalk on Wednesday, Clinton was discussing the need for immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship when she brought up her own family history as the granddaughter of immigrants.
“All my grandparents, you know, came over here. … My grandfather went to work in a lace mill in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and worked there until he retired at 65,” she said. “So I sit here and I think, Well, you’re talking about the second, third generation. That’s me, that’s you. And we are saying to all these other people who want the same dreams and the same aspirations and the willingness to work hard just like our families did that, ‘No, we’re not going to make it easy for you, we’re not going to make it legal for you.’ That’s such a short-term, unfortunate outcome for us as well as for them.”
But within hours, Buzzfeed posted a piece, quickly circulated by Republicans, pointing to records that showed only Clinton’s paternal grandfather was an immigrant; the rest were born in America. In response, a spokesman for the Clinton campaign told Buzzfeed, “Her grandparents always spoke about the immigrant experience and, as a result, she has always thought of them as immigrants.”
Clinton also has to balance the imperative to tell voters more about herself — to appear more authentic — without it seeming contrived or carefully poll-tested. At her first event on Tuesday, Clinton laid it on a little thick with words her campaign has settled on — repeatedly saying the “deck is stacked” against “everyday Americans” and reminding people that she desired to be their “champion.”
Hillary at a campaign stop in Des Moines. “She does do well in smaller settings,” a Republican operative admitted. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)
When she mentioned granddaughter Charlotte a second time, reporters in the room dutifully noted it on Twitter — checking off yet another talking point.
Not everybody was so jaded. A Republican operative who previously worked for George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns but declined to be named saying anything nice about the opposing party’s likely nominee told Yahoo News he generally admired Clinton’s approach so far. “They are right: She does do well in smaller settings,” the operative said. “She seems softer and more approachable. … Is she talking about being a grandmother because it helps her? Maybe. But she’s also a grandmother, and that’s what grandmothers do, talk about their grandkids, about wanting their grandkids to have a better life. That doesn’t seem phony to me and probably doesn’t seem that way to Iowa voters.”
As she prepares to expand her visits to other early-voting states, one unknown is how Clinton will fare in less-controlled situations. In Iowa, the former senator interacted with only a handful of people who hadn’t been preselected by her campaign — mostly in short visits to coffee shops in limited view of reporters. And with the exception of her answer to a shouted question on Tuesday, she mostly avoided interactions with the media.
But Clinton hinted at a looser candidacy in coming months. On Wednesday, she queried one panelist at the roundtable about the hours at his bowling alley — hinting that she might like to visit.
“I’m going to be in Iowa a lot,” she said, smiling. There was nothing to fact-check about that.