IT’S A SHAME that Time magazine already cashed in its great cover headline from 1993, speculating on the rise of Hillary Clinton, then “the most powerful first lady in history,” as a someday-viable presidential contender. The New York Times, mining exactly the same speculative editorial ground, used exactly the same headline in June 2006. What was wishful thinking 23 years ago, woefully premature 10 years ago and short-circuited at the ballot box eight years ago is alive and well today, a very going concern.
“ASCENT OF A WOMAN” indeed.
When Clinton took the stage last Thursday at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, finally gaining the Democratic nomination she was after in the bitterly fought contest with Barack Obama in 2008, it was an obvious validation of her tenacity, but also a testament to a candidate ready for the office she’s pursued, and a nation ready to embrace what it means.
The name “Clinton” is no longer the default identifier of husband Bill. Clinton stands poised to move the needle on the gauge of American possibility, a gauge that’s been stuck in its assumption that only men were fit for the presidency of the United States. For 161 million women and girls in this country, accustomed to male control of the debates over everything from reproductive rights to paid family leave to equal pay for equal work, the playing field’s maybe never been closer to level than it is right now.
America is once again at a moment of reckoning. Powerful forces are threatening to pull us apart. Bonds of trust and respect are fraying. And just as with our founders, there are no guarantees. It truly is up to us. We have to decide whether we all will work together so we all can rise together. Our country's motto is “e pluribus unum”: out of many, we are one. Will we stay true to that motto?
Well, we heard Donald Trump's answer last week at his convention. He wants to divide us - from the rest of the world, and from each other.
He's betting that the perils of today's world will blind us to its unlimited promise. He's taken the Republican Party a long way... from "Morning in America" to "Midnight in America." He wants us to fear the future and fear each other.
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Now we are clear-eyed about what our country is up against. But we are not afraid. We will rise to the challenge, just as we always have. We will not build a wall. Instead, we will build an economy where everyone who wants a good paying job can get one.
And we’ll build a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants who are already contributing to our economy! We will not ban a religion. We will work with all Americans and our allies to fight terrorism. There’s a lot of work to do. Too many people haven’t had a pay raise since the crash.
There’s too much inequality. Too little social mobility. Too much paralysis in Washington. Too many threats at home and abroad. But just look at the strengths we bring to meet these challenges. We have the most dynamic and diverse people in the world. We have the most tolerant and generous young people we’ve ever had. We have the most powerful military. The most innovative entrepreneurs. The most enduring values. Freedom and equality, justice and opportunity. We should be so proud that these words are associated with us. That when people hear them – they hear… America.
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America needs every one of us to lend our energy, our talents, our ambition to making our nation better and stronger. I believe that with all my heart. That’s why “Stronger Together” is not just a lesson from our history. It’s not just a slogan for our campaign. It’s a guiding principle for the country we’ve always been and the future we’re going to build.
A country where the economy works for everyone, not just those at the top. Where you can get a good job and send your kids to a good school, no matter what zip code you live in. A country where all our children can dream, and those dreams are within reach. Where families are strong… communities are safe… And yes, love trumps hate. That’s the country we’re fighting for. That’s the future we’re working toward… And so it is with humility. . . determination . . . and boundless confidence in America’s promise… that I accept your nomination for President of the United States!
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HILLARY CLINTON’S speaking voice has its ... issues. It’s not so much a matter of Clinton being “shrill” (the word used too often, and too automatically, by news-show hosts and commentators [almost always male]). But her voice has an edge, an acid, a bite to it that tends to rise in audible volume as she approaches the end of important sentences.
Don’t get it twisted: This is by no means a gender-specific thing. It’s emphasis by decibel elevation, raising your voice; in the right context it’s a powerful device wielded by men and women alike. But in the necessarily repetitious echo chamber of the campaign trail, where talking points that work well in one city are likely to be trotted out again, it’s lazy and predictable and potentially irksome. Trump, the reigning king of talking points, proves this every day.
There's a similar automaticity in Clinton’s style of address; it’s apparent when you read the transcript of Thursday’s speech, almost certainly vetted by the candidate herself. Note the exclamation points! sprinkled strategically throughout her address.
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Clinton, voice and all, was tempered and well-modulated on Thursday. What could have been a meretricious, head-bobbing, high-fiving, fist-pumping celebration of herself as First! Woman! Nominee! was an intelligent, thoughtful reach for a way to begin a new and unprecedented conversation with a nation ready, howling for change.
For the first time, she looked like the change agent she hopes to become.
She maintained eye contact with the crowd and the camera. You can make the case that when you’re in a room full of people, those people should be your primary audience — not the potential millions behind the red light behind the camera at the far end of the hall, but the literal hundreds or thousands of people right in front of you. Balancing the two can be tricky.
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The speech was certainly better than workmanlike, though not quite stratospheric -- which is to be expected when you're in uncharted territory. What's still to be seen is how Clinton handles the tone of the speeches to come, if she can control the temptation to characterize the next 94 days as a mere chronological formality, the outcome already a fait accompli. Because it's anything but, regardless of what the punditburo says.
Okay, maybe they're totally right this time. Maybe the conservative seer and presumptive general Newt Gingrich, waxing maximalist as usual, was right on Wednesday, damning Clinton with faint praise but burying Trump with no praise at all. “Trump is helping her to win by proving he is more unacceptable than she is.” Gingrich said. “He cannot win the presidency operating the way he is now. She can’t be bad enough to elect him if he’s determined to make this many mistakes.”
Maybe it is bad enough to take the outcome for granted.
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BUT CLINTON can’t afford to run like that. From now to the end, she needs to double down on what’s taken her this far, and realize (as she almost certainly does) that going on the campaign trail with President Obama means working with a speaker with a proven ability to reach everyone in a crowd. She doesn’t want to get blown off the stage by the man she’s trying to replace.
It’s a tall order: Bring just enough rhetorical energy but not too much. Just enough stylistic gravitas but not too much. Just enough policy prescriptions but not so many she sounds like a policy wonk. For now and going forward, this contest will be about Hillary Clinton striking that balance, finding what is likely to be her presidential voice. Making the history she’s just made makes this necessary.
The particulars of this campaign, and the willful chaos of her opponent have combined to give her the advantage of time she needs to perfect that voice. Her convention speech was a solid beginning, and something to build on. If what they say is true, and nothing prepares you for the presidency like the presidency, then nothing can really prepare you for speaking presidentially until ... presidential is what you are.
Image credits: Clinton: Convention pool.