I went to an informal dinner for Hillary Clinton at a mutual friend’s New York apartment in the fall of 2013, all women on a Sunday night. When I arrived she was already there, parked on a sofa in scuffed boots and a pair of roomy old slacks and wearing her glasses. Surrounded by a group of brilliant, accomplished women, she was knocking back a drink and laughing. She was relaxed, engaged, exuberantly comfortable. It was a striking scene. A sudden vignette, I realized, of what a Hillary Oval Office after hours might actually feel like—Val-Kill on steroids. The brainiac girls out of hiding—no longer just influential but actually powerful. It was exhilarating.
Yes, you can go on and on about all the old baggage people complain about. You can say, as people do, that she’s too calculating, too rehearsed, too shopworn. That she’s risk-averse from all the years of dodging bullets and managing flaps. You can say that she’s over-cunning about her files and her email. That she’s a member of the establishment, a friend of Wall Street, past her sell-by date in a new digital age. You can say all of that. But what you cannot deny is the decades and decades of working with single-minded purpose for the advancement of women and families.
Oddly, it’s this passion of Hillary’s that people seem scarcely to know about, even though it’s totally authentic—the under-reported time and energy she has spent, behind the scenes as much as with her public voice, helping, connecting, and influencing on behalf of women in places few people in power care about. Using your access to the Saudi regime to lobby on behalf of a mother whose eight-year-old daughter is being forced into a marriage to a fifty-year-old man to settle a debt may not lead the news or boost your poll numbers. But passion shows who you are.
We didn’t see that Hillary in the announcement yesterday. She launched her campaign not with an oration before a cheering crowd but with a video that could have passed for a TV commercial for an insurance company or a hospital chain. A polished, pro-middle-class, crisply bobbed Hillary delivered a policy-free message after a montage of worthily striving Americans of every ethnicity and demographic. The message was simple: Folks, this isn’t about me. It’s about you. One pictured a frantic cutting-room scene of last-minute nips and tucks to the video ordered up by one of the hordes of Clinton campaign consultants. The result seemed geared less to rouse up her supporters and potential supporters than to calm them down for the long slog ahead. (If nothing else, she deftly forced the pundits and commentators to wait around indoors all afternoon on the first balmy Spring day of the year.) She launched her campaign not the old twentieth-century way.
The rap you are going to hear endlessly now is that America doesn’t look back. “Hillary’s a throwback candidate!” “Her moment has come and gone!” “And anyway, what does she really stand for?”
To the first charge: being a grandmother doesn’t make her retro. An aging America, powered increasingly by accomplished women who have raised families, won some economic independence, and now have the time and energy to give back—that’s not yesterday. It’s today, and it’s the wave of the future.
To the second: It’s the women, stupid. Hillary has been consistent since before she followed that charismatic hick to Arkansas, back when she was that Wellesley girl whose friends all thought she would be the first woman president. (Her friends from back then roll their eyes at the tired old accusations that “she only married Bill because she thought he’d be president.” That guy? Please!) Or when she stood in her pink suit and pearls at a podium in Beijing twenty years ago this fall and named the litany of abuse against half the human race: “It is a violation of human rights when babies are denied food, or drowned or suffocated or their spines broken, simply because they are born girls. It is a violation of human rights when women and girls are sold into the slavery of prostitution.”
When I meet obscure women activists from far-flung places, I’m astonished at how many of them she has inspired and helped over the years. And then there are icons who cite her as a source of strength: Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent years under house arrest in Burma, and Yemeni Nobel laureate Tawakkol Karman, who fought for democracy in the Arab Spring—two embattled leaders fortified by pictures of Hillary they hung on their walls.
On a visit to Congo (DRC) as secretary of state in 2009, what went nastily viral was her frazzled answer to a student’s question about her husband’s views at a town hall forum in Kinshasa: “You want me to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not the Secretary of State, I am. You ask my opinion. I will tell you my opinion; I’m not going to channel my husband.” Less well publicized was how after meeting with traumatized rape victims in Goma, she challenged President Joseph Kabila on the continuing rampage of sexual violence: “there should be no impunity for the sexual and gender-based violence committed by so many,” she reprimanded him, “and that there must be arrests, prosecutions and punishments.”
So on all of this, the former first lady, senator, secretary of state and now presidential candidate is the real deal.
The fearful gender crimes happening with the rise of monstrous groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al-Shabaab mean that she is needed more than ever. So does the grim prospect of a Supreme Court irredeemably hostile to the reproductive rights of women and the equal rights of LGTB people. Whatever else she stands for, Hillary stands for women.
And when I remember the night I had a glimpse of what a Hillary Oval Office might feel like—the prospect of a first woman president of the United States suddenly feels anything but old. It feels electrifyingly new.