Hillary Clinton knows her biggest weakness as a politician is ... she’s not much of a politician.
She admits she’s not a natural at doing things that politicians are expected to do: performing in arenas, charming the media, electrifying huge crowds. She admires great orators and communicators like her husband and President Barack Obama — she calls it “poetry” when they campaign — but admits that’s not her forte.
What is her strong suit, Clinton says, is the nitty-gritty work of governance. She’s right about that. But it’s not just that she’s good at being a policy wonk and pushing paper in a leadership job like secretary of state; she actually came alive on the job — meeting people and connecting with their problems, working crowds, demonstrating a charisma and an ability to connect with people that’s not often visible to American voters watching on TV.
Here are excepts of an interview with reporter Indira Lakshamanan, who has written on the two HIllarys for Politico Magazine.
Q. You were on State Department flights with her throughout her term as Secretary of State — what did you see that we're not seeing now?
I covered her 2008 campaign and then went over to the State Department to cover her as secretary. The contrast between the Two Hillarys was so stunning that I compare it to "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
What happened to the Candidate Clinton who was stiff, defensive and off-putting? Her doppelganger, Secretary Hillary, seemed to have shed a mask. It wasn’t just that Clinton was good at policy stuff as secretary of state; she was warm and comfortable in her skin and actually came alive on the job — meeting people and connecting with their problems, making speeches and working crowds.
And she always drew a crowd — whether it was to a maternal health clinic in Jakarta, where thousands of people crushed in, overwhelming the expectations of security in order to catch a glimpse of her, or in Libya after the revolution against Colonel Gaddafi, where terrifying rebels with bazookas and bandanas mobbed her to get souvenir selfies.
One of her US security detail said privately that if she’d had those kinds of enthusiastic crowds in 2008, that election might have turned out differently. For those four years, she earned consistently high approval ratings from the American public and won praise from the same Senate Republicans who rail against her now. What’s perhaps most striking is that the personal political skills that were obscured in her last campaign were Clinton’s tools of the trade when she traveled as Obama’s envoy to repair the US image overseas
Q. You end your article with a look ahead, to a potential head-to-head contest — Hillary Clinton vs Donald Trump — which Hillary do you think we'd see?
If she secures the Democratic nomination as expected, her weaknesses as a political performer will be even more pronounced if she’s pitted against a Republican front-runner who compensates for what he lacks in governing expertise by thrilling crowds with a no-holds-barred, reality-TV intensity.
If Hillary Clinton the candidate is a guarded policy wonk who lacks an electrifying public persona, Donald Trump is her photo negative. But ultimately, Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate may not matter as much if, as expected, she takes New York and goes on to the nomination.
If she faces Donald Trump in the general election, she’ll be campaigning against someone who polls worse than she does. The latest Associated Press-GfK poll last week found that while 55 percent of the country has a negative view of Clinton, that’s surpassed by the 69 percent of America that has a poor view of Trump.
Still, as Clinton learned the hard way, she can’t assume victory when so much in any election depends on intangibles. Clinton is right that she performs better when she’s already got the job. But she needs to get the job first.
Q. You've covered Asia and Latin America. Where else have you ever seen this kind of split in a candidate's personality? How rare is this anywhere?
It’s pretty rare. Having met world leaders who relied on their charisma to stay in power, like the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro of Cuba, it’s hard to think of one who isn’t great on the stump but comes alive when they’re in office.
If anything, Benazir Bhutto, who I spent a week profiling in Pakistan, was a bit of the opposite: inspiring to her base when she campaigned, but ultimately disappointing to many when she served.
A better comparison might be George H.W. Bush, who wasn’t a great campaigner, but is considered to have been quite effective, especially in foreign policy. Lyndon B. Johnson also was a prosaic campaigner at best, but managed to pass the Great Society, some of the most important legislation of the century.
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan covered foreign policy and politics for Bloomberg News for eight years, traveling with secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and on the 2008 campaign. She has covered domestic politics and international relations for 25 years and reported from more than 80 countries.