By Roger Simon
At some point in a political campaign, a candidate is always advised to “just be yourself.”
It is almost always terrible advice. Though the candidate usually finds it appealing. No more phoniness! No more artifice! No more pretending to be something he or she is not!
Campaigns are about artifice, however, about presenting appealing images, about submerging the personal quirks of the candidate to what is needed for election.
Still, one faction of the campaign — and campaigns nearly always break down into factions — always ends up urging “let the candidate be the candidate,” largely because nothing else has worked.
No doubt Mitt Romney was told to be Mitt Romney, and no doubt the warm and personal side of Mitt was warm and personal. But that doesn’t mean it played that way on the national stage. Ask people what they remember of him today, and they will say putting the dog on the car roof, getting zoning permission for a car elevator in his La Jolla mansion and his 47 percent statement.
All of those were Mitt without artifice. All were Mitt being Mitt. And all were disasters.
Hillary Clinton is currently running vigorously for president under the guise of selling a 656-page doorstop of a book that Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times said presents “little news.” And this was one of the positive reviews.
No matter. The book itself is mere window-dressing so that Hillary can go out among the people at a variety of locations — including a Costco in suburban Virginia this past weekend — to reveal the “new, improved” Hillary Clinton, not the Hillary Clinton who hired an inexperienced, often quarrelsome staff in 2008 that spent more time fighting one another than Barack Obama.
But now Clinton gets a mulligan, a do-over, a second chance to make a first impression. Six long years have passed since her last presidential run, and she is a totally different person. She is more relaxed, more warm, more human, more connected to the American people.
Except she’s not.
Her current rollout has gotten steamrollered by the media. She has been eviscerated for saying she was “dead broke” when she left the White House and portrayed as testy and irritated when a reporter dared ask follow-up questions.
“Clinton seems to be repeating the central mistake of her 2008 presidential campaign,” wrote Ron Fournier of National Journal, “burying her personality and passion beneath redundant layers of caution, calculation and defensiveness.”
I respect Fournier, but I think the opposite may be true. Clinton’s personality and passion may be her problem and her layers of caution, calculation and defensiveness may be her best way of disguising that.
Take her exchange with NPR’s Terry Gross. Gross tried to bore in deeply with follow-up questions asking Clinton whether her views on gay marriage had shifted with the shifting politics of the times.
“I have to say, I think you are being very persistent, but you are playing with my words and playing with what is such an important issue,” Clinton said.
“I’m just trying to clarify so I can understand … ,” Gross said.
“No, I don’t think you are trying to clarify,” Clinton snapped back, according to POLITICO’s Maggie Haberman. “I think you’re trying to say I used to be opposed and now I’m in favor and I did it for political reasons, and that’s just flat wrong. So let me just state what I feel like you are implying and repudiate it.”
Which is Hillary being Hillary. You can say it shows admirable toughness, but when she ran last time, her campaign found out she had toughness to spare. “Ironically, our early research found the Hillary attributes that tested the highest were ‘tough, ready, strong,’” a top Hillary staffer told me in 2008. The highest attributes for Barack Obama, Hillary’s campaign found, were “empathetic, sympathetic, cares about me."
And which set of attributes won?
Last Friday, at George Washington University, Hillary faced a much kinder interview from a close friend and former employee, Lissa Muscatine. Muscatine came to the startling conclusion that the gaffes and heated exchanges during Hillary’s book tour meant one thing: “You seem like you’re having a really good time,” Muscatine said.
“Well, Lissa, I am having a good time,” Hillary responded.
“You’re really free to speak your mind these days,” Muscatine said.
“Maybe it’s because I am truly done with, you know, being really careful about what to say because somebody might think this instead of that,” Hillary said. “Whether you agree with it or not, you know exactly where I come from, what I think, what I feel. It feels a little bit liberating, to be honest.”
“And it’s great to watch,” Muscatine said.
Good drama is always great to watch. But I think Hillary Clinton feels about as free and easygoing as a tightly wound watch.
She claims she no longer has to be “really careful” about what she says.
I have difficulty believing that.
And, if it is true, I have difficulty believing it will get her to the presidency.