U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks in Hampton, Ill., on Labor Day. (Photo: Brian C. Frank/Reuters)
Summer is officially over and so is the first phase of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that the Democratic candidate will no longer use the term “everyday Americans” when promoting her plans to bolster the middle class. While continuing to draw on her experience as a new grandmother, Clinton will talk in more general terms about bettering the U.S. for future generations, instead of making specific references to her own, privileged granddaughter. And five months after launching her candidacy with a series of small, media-free meetings with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton’s fall schedule includes upcoming appearances on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon, and plans for larger, more informal gatherings with supporters.
In the face of an email scandal that has swelled alongside the unexpected surge in support for her less-scripted rivals Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, Clinton aides told the Times that they are determined to highlight the former secretary of state’s sense of humor and compassion on the campaign trail.
This is, of course, just the latest attempt to reshape Clinton’s public image. In the many public roles she’s played over the last two decades — from first lady to U.S. senator to secretary of state — appearing down to earth and even human has been among Clinton’s most difficult challenges.
‘Inspiring’ or ‘overbearing’?
The word “polarizing” has been used to describe Hillary Clinton since she first hit the presidential campaign trail alongside her husband in 1992. Clearly interested in more than just a supporting role in the White House, Clinton’s unabashed ambition became a source of contention early on in the primary race.
“You know, some people think of you as an inspiring female attorney mother, and other people think of you as the overbearing yuppie wife from hell,” a reporter from Ohio told the would-be first lady in May 1992. “How would you describe yourself?”
By then, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote at the time, Clinton was already “on a mission to soften her image and show that she has a sense of humor.” Months earlier, she’d caused controversy with the now infamous quip, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was to fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life.” So, Dowd wrote, “she smiled and described herself as a wife, a mother and an activist.”
‘First lady as Rorschach test’
After spearheading a plan for health care reform that crashed and burned in Congress, Clinton decided take on a more first lady-like endeavor: becoming a newspaper columnist. Like Eleanor Roosevelt before her, Clinton would politely appeal to the American public through a weekly, syndicated column. In the inaugural edition of “Talking It Over” in July 1995, she described trying to avoid recognition at a crowded art museum. New York Times reporter Todd Purdum described Clinton’s newspaper debut as “her latest effort to explain herself as something other than someone else’s cardboard conception,” and wrote, “If her husband is the President as kaleidoscope, she remains the First Lady as Rorschach test.”
‘A wonderful opportunity for Hillary’
In 2014, the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Ark., released nearly 4,000 pages of internal White House communications, including a series of confidential memos revealing much of the behind-the-scenes work that went into crafting Hillary Clinton’s public image.
Memos from 1995 show Clinton staff determined to rehabilitate the country’s perception of the first lady in the wake of the health care reform failure and ahead of the 1996 election. In one of many memos sent that year, press secretary Lisa Caputo described the Clintons’ 20th wedding anniversary as “a wonderful opportunity for Hillary” to regain public affection and suggested they throw “a big party” and invite People magazine to do a photo spread of the event.
Some of Caputo’s other image-conscious ideas for the first lady included an appearance on ABC’s family-friendly sitcom “Home Improvement,” a birthday celebration for Eleanor Roosevelt to make her look “less extreme” and monthly meetings with women’s magazine editors in an effort to “turn the editors into Clinton surrogates.”
‘A painful reincarnation’
“This is, in some ways, a women’s issue,” said Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University and author of the 2006 biography “Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady.” His latest book, “The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s,” comes out next month.
“Despite the fact that we’re decades into the feminist revolution, it’s still in many ways a man’s world, and politics is a man’s business,” Troy said. “The need to reinvent isn’t unique to political spouses or Hillary Clinton, but something many women have experienced.”
Before anyone had ever heard the name “Monica Lewinsky,” Troy said, Hillary Clinton realized that “Americans didn’t want a superduper modern first lady, they wanted a traditionalist.” When the Monica Lewinsky scandal did eventually unfold, Troy said, Clinton’s efforts to pull back and become the traditional first lady America wanted really worked in her favor.
“She became the wronged wife, the victim. She bonded with traditional women who could see her pain,” Troy told Yahoo News. “The tragedy of that was she was becoming precisely who she didn’t want to be. It was a painful reincarnation.”
A “more liberating reincarnation” happened during the second half of the Lewinsky scandal, in 1998, when “she was the Democrat on the road.”
“She was the pop star, she was the celebrity,” Troy said. “Bill was only going to very controlled Democratic fundraising events, but she was out there on the campaign trail” with the support of modern women as well as the traditional women who had started to sympathize with her.
“That was the beginning of ‘Hillary exclamation point,’” Troy said. “You had Cher, you had Madonna, and you had Hillary. That was the reinvention that led her to become the New York senator.”
The return of Hillary Clinton
When Hillary Clinton launched her primary bid for the White House in 2007, there was something noticeably missing from her campaign website: her maiden name. Known to the public as Hillary Rodham Clinton since she first entered the White House as first lady in 1993 — a fact that did not get by the public or the press — Clinton apparently ditched her family name when she decided to make her own run for the presidency. Her campaign said at the time that the nomenclature was not a strategic move, but the Associated Press noted that it wasn’t the first time Clinton had changed her name before a big campaign.
Tapping into her softer side
“Hillary Clinton is married to the most natural, brilliant politician of his era,” Troy said. “In 2008, Barack Obama was becoming a very close second.”
Clinton struggled to shake her stiff, calculating persona as she campaigned against the “smooth, charming” Obama. After losing the Iowa caucuses, Clinton famously teared up in front of press when a New Hampshire voter asked how she keeps going. The next day she won that state’s primary, throwing a wrench — at least temporarily — into Obama’s momentum.
Allow me to reintroduce myself
By the spring of 2015, the American public had known Hillary Clinton for nearly two decades and in a variety of different iterations. There would be no shortage of reintroductions, or as Mark Leibovich put it in the New York Times Magazine, “re-re-re-reintroductions” on the road to 2016. But rather than shy away from this fact, Clinton embraced it, announcing her candidacy with a video that portrays reinvention and new beginnings as a strength, not a weakness.
Clinton began her campaign with a series of small roundtable discussions with voters in early primary states. She reintroduced herself to the public as a new grandmother and the daughter of a strong woman who influenced her interest in helping children and families.
The presidential hopeful’s new strategy is just the latest reincarnation of Hillary Clinton, the Candidate, but it surely won’t be the last.
“For someone like Hillary Clinton, who has gone through so many incarnations in the public eye, at some point they lose themselves,” Troy said. “It’s not just about her finding her voice, it’s also about her trying to convince people that she’s authentic.”