Dear Senator Clinton,
I am writing this letter with a feeling of genuine sympathy for you, concerning the difficulties you are facing in the campaign. Let me be clear: I am a supporter of Barack Obama. But this letter is not written to score political points or with tongue in cheek; I truly wish to convey my respect and sympathies.
I also want to try to explain to you what is happening in New Hampshire at the voting booths and all around the country in the polls.
I know that you have dedicated much of your life to the advancement of your political goals -- including health care reform, education and preschool programs, and a more progressive tax structure. You worked closely with your husband during your years as First Lady both in Arkansas and Washington D.C.. You led many initiatives and commissions into many important policy areas in those years. And then in your subsequent career you delved deeply into the minutia of legislation addressing all manner of economic, military and social needs and endured the endless wrangling in the Senate. Many of your colleages -- Republican as well as Democratic -- have attested to your civility, your thoughtfulness, your obvious intelligence, your fortitude. You won them over, just as you have won over the voters in New York.
But Democratic voters all around the country are now going in a different direction. You and your campaign, by all reports, are reeling.
Why are voters -- particurly young voters -- turning to Obama in droves? Why does experience seem a liability these days? Why do people constantly reference the "likability" factor when contrasting your candidacy to Obama's?
There are many explanations of course. For one, there is Obama himself. We could also speak of "Clinton fatigue," gender stereotypes, the Republican noise machine and its villification of you over the 15 years, demographic shifts, celebrity culture, your fateful vote to authorize the war in Iraq, your personal style of self-restraint, the infinite power of Oprah, and on and on. But I want to focus on just one of these many explanations, the one which I think is (other than Obama himself) the fundamental one:
Hillary, the nature of public discourse is changing.
People are getting savvy. They recognize what people in public life are doing, behind the masks. They know how to read motives. We are, each one of us, saturated with images of other people in the media. And we have become, each one of us, highly advanced critics, expert detectors of duplicity, pretense, hypocrisy, inauthenticity, ambivalence. Microexpressions have macro-consequences.
I believe that you are truly dedicated to your political goals. The charges -- the Sean Hannity/Rush Limbaugh line of talk -- that you are driven by avarice, revenge, or ambition are silly and hurtful. But in your long time in the public eye you have developed a habit of speaking which hides more than it reveals.
You purse your lips into a half smile. You focus-group your hair style (I am assuming that it has at least been discussed, for its political import, in your inner circle). You speak in measured cadences with a subtext which consistently advances your agenda, be it tactical or strategic.
This is no longer suitable in the media-driven culture. People see too much.
This change first began to have consequences in the 2000 election. Voters judged Gore and Bush on the basis of their personal style, regardless of the content of their speeches. While Gore -- dear, brilliant, sincere Gore -- spoke in his slightly condescending, calculated way to the voters, George W. Bush spoke from his heart. He has, over a lifetime, developed a consistent, down-home Texas-style delivery, which relies on the talismanic power of short, simple words (You're a "good man"; people want "freedom" -- see my earlier post on Bush's... unique way of speaking). Voters responded to this. Whatever his policies, whatever his values even, they recognized a person speaking to them without artiface.
When I say that George W. speaks without artiface, I know that you and many others may reflexively disagree. Of course he is a blue-blooded New Englander who is pretending to be a Texan. There is a certain artiface in his whole persona. But the important point is that he has genuinely adopted it as his own. So he may recite the cues given to him by Karl Rove, and he may have invented his down-home style back in his childhood, but he believes it now. Gore, on the other hand, is famously different with his friends in private -- cutting, sharp-witted, even irreverent -- than he is in public, where he is serious, self-deprecating, and yawn-inducing. (Though I have to admit I still love the guy, even when he drives me crazy.)
My point about you, Hillary, is that you have a double self. So do I for that matter, when I present myself to the world. I hide my goofy side and get very serious (not unlike Gore, I'm proud to say!). There is nothing wrong with this traditional style of self-presentation, this double self, on the face of it. But it is a serious liability in today's politics.
Voters today -- especially the young -- want someone who is a fully portable package, and someone who allows any voter, anyone watching on TV, to inspect the contents held within. The age of secrecy is over. Love him or hate him, George W. makes no bones about who he is and where he stands. Love him, Barack Obama does the same.
Again, my sympathies are with you. You are a gifted person, and you have done and will no doubt continue to do much good. But the culture has shifted, Hillary.
In your emotionally revealing moment yesterday, your voice broke when you spoke of how hard it is sometimes to continue on with the campaign, and why you do it. Let's forget the supposed risk of crying, considering our country's hang-ups about "showing weakness." I was with you as I watched it. For a moment, you seemed to drop your mask and let us see the contents within. But then, before our very eyes, you put the mask back on. You transitioned, almost effortlessly (I only saw your eyes drop for a moment as you made the switch), into a political speech about how "some of us are right and some of us are wrong... some of us are ready, and some of us are not."
It broke my heart to see you do that. For I knew then, that this dual awareness, this calculation of the words you speak for their effect instead of their capacity to represent your inner reality, is your default position. You cannot help it. You cannot break the habit. And for this, voters cannot forgive you.
I will vote for Barack Obama on February 5 in California. But I will think of you too, Hillary, and I will wish you well in your continuing career as a Senator from New York. There are many of us who struggle with this new era, which demands exposure to all of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, all the time.
Best wishes and be proud of all you have done,
Update: Clinton won New Hampshire! Congratulations, Senator Clinton. This will certainly be an interesting month ahead.