When a Facebook friend slammed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton recently as a “godawful (sic) human being,” that triggered images of god-awful human beings like – you know–Adolf Eichmann, Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden. Turns out that the Facebooker wasn’t thinking of crimes against humanity but Clinton’s failure to be entirely forthcoming about her State Department e-mails. Since that didn’t seem to me to make the cut for “god-awful human being,” I thought again, as I often have, about why Clinton inspires such thoughtless vitriol. I think it’s because she’s a victim of her virtues.
I didn’t realize that until I watched her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Because I get the vapors at the mere prospect of walking into a room full of people I’ve never met, one sentence in her address jumped out at me. “The truth is,” she said, “through all these years of public service, the ‘service’ part has always come easier to me than the ‘public’ part.”
That was a telling admission for this reason. We all live double lives, a public one and a private one. Most people shuttle back and forth between them without giving it much thought. They put their “game faces” on every day, exit their private sanctuaries and do what they have to do. If there isn’t much difference between your public and your private self, making that daily trip doesn’t exact a psychic cost.
But some people are wired, I’m convinced, to be more at home in one of those worlds than in the other. And I don’t think the two personality types really get what it feels like to be their opposites. To at least hint at what it may be like to be Clinton’s type, I’m going to go all confessional on you.
When I was mulling over my career options, I thought the academic world would be a good place for the private, retiring, bookish person I was then (and still am). I could make a decent living doing what I was most comfortable with, living mostly inside my own head.
But I didn’t count on the teaching part of the job not being anything like that. It was about equal parts salesmanship and showmanship. Having no gift for either, I compensated by always being over prepared and making sure that I could be heard in the back of the room. So I didn’t live just a public and a private life, but an onstage life (sometimes literally) and a backstage life. Although I got pretty good at the onstage aspects of teaching, I never really inhabited the role. I always felt that I was acting, pretending to be somebody else, always nagged by the feeling that my onstage self was a fraud. So my career involved daily self-inflicted low-level violence to my sense of myself for over three decades.
That’s why, when I heard Clinton say that the “service” part of public service comes more easily to her than the “public” part, I thought I knew instantly what she meant. She’s a backstage person. That’s where she’s most herself. So people who carp at her for being secretive, inauthentic, wooden and emotionally armored up are right. That’s the way backstage people come across onstage.
Pollster Peter Hart recently profiled a voter whose take on Clinton is an example of the headwinds her personality generates. Hart’s subject was a longtime Republican who can’t stomach Trump and is voting for Clinton but only reluctantly. She doesn’t trust Clinton, she told Hart, because she’s “unapproachable.”
But this woman, along with everybody else, is wrong to think that Clinton’s buttoned up demeanor on the stump bespeaks some kind of character flaw. And everybody’s even more wrong to think that Clinton could just tug on her earlobe and blink three times real fast to become an expansively gregarious person with her heart affixed to her sleeve. Media heavyweights, like New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who’ve kept after her to be more vulnerable and less guarded, are obtuse in not understanding that they’re faulting her for not being another person. She can’t be another person. People are who they are. And she’s a backstager.
Realizing that kicked my respect for her up several notches. She could have made mountains of money as a high-powered plaintiffs attorney practicing beyond the pitiless glare of the stage lights. But her commitment to public service is so deep that she’s absorbed the psychic cost of acting against the grain year after year, knowing that she’s never going to be the inspirational figure that Presidents Clinton and Obama have been. That isn’t her gift. So she’s compensated by always being over prepared and making sure that she could be heard in the back of the room.
It speaks volumes about her native character that she chose a path of service that required her to act out of character so much of the time. Having some idea of the inner resources she’s had to call on to do that, I’m willing to cut her some slack for bobbing and weaving over the three State Department e-mails whose classified status was indicated only by an inconspicuous letter “C” down in the lower left-hand corner.