Apparently, Hillary Clinton is trying to prove her “likability” to Iowans or as she put it on Tuesday, “to kind of round out who I am as a person.” This latest strategic shift in the surprisingly herky-jerky Clinton campaign is further proof of an increasingly jittery “juggernaut” as the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses approach. Moreover, this strategy is doomed to fail. If Hillary Clinton is nominated, Democratic voters will be banking on her electability or governing ability not her likability.
In political terms, in the public sphere, “likability” is not the same as niceness or goodness. My guess is that if we could look into the future, scan the heavens, and get a gander at the situation at the Pearly Gates when both Clintons meet their maker, Hillary Clinton would outscore Bill Clinton as a nicer and better person. Over the decades, Hillary Clinton has cultivated a coterie of devoted friends and aides who testify to her niceness; her lifelong devotion to Methodism and perennial search for the virtuous path testifies to her goodness – or at least her ability to outscore Bill Clinton in this realm.
Bill Clinton, by contrast, like so many successful politicians, is extraordinarily selfish, self-involved, temperamental, ruthless, and amoral. He is not particularly nice or good, but he plays a pleasant person convincingly on TV. Bill, however, unlike his wife, is blessed with a magical charisma that – as Dan Rather might have said in one of his mangled frontier metaphors — could charm the skin right off of a rattlesnake. Clinton is like another great politician of his era, Ronald Reagan. Reagan was known for his affability but he was remarkably aloof. Even Reagan’s devoted wife Nancy said that emotionally he was like a “brick wall” (although Reagan lacked Clinton’s temper, sloppiness, and self-indulgence).
Hillary Clinton has never been that effective in mass producing charm or feel-good moments. In high school, she was known as “Sister Frigidaire.” At Yale Law School, observers trusted Hillary to have done the homework and be the closer at her moot court trial, while her partner and boyfriend Bill was the schmoozer. She was “tough as nails”; he was “Mr. Softee.” Similarly, in the Arkansas governor’s mansion and in the White House, she impressed people with her IQ, he seduced people with his EQ, his emotional intelligence.
During Hillary Clinton’s first few years on the national stage, she proved particularly inept when it came to practicing the black arts of mass seduction. It was not just that her husband’s extraordinary abilities in this realm dwarfed hers. In 1992 and 1993, Hillary Clinton was frequently brittle, heavy-handed, doing far more to perpetuate the stereotype of the humorless feminist than mimicking her husband, the glad-handing good ole’ boy Southern politician. It is remarkable how intensely so many people hate her – even loyal Democrats, even though so much time has passed. It is possible that no politician has alienated so many so thoroughly since Richard Nixon’s heyday.
To her credit, Hillary Clinton has learned – and matured. Having just turned sixty, she is far more settled, sobered and softer than she was as an edgy, anxious forty-five-year-old. Moreover, fifteen years in the maelstrom of national politics and amid the glare of the celebrity culture have taught her how to project that ease onto the national stage. Her tremendous fame helps, generating excitement and brouhaha befitting royalty wherever she goes. Happy to be running her own political career rather than serving her husband’s, she has been more self-assured, resolved, and charming as New York’s Senator than she ever was as First Lady. She appears less remote, impassive, unnaturally-perfect and ruthless. She laughs more frequently and more freely – but still risks falling into the forced cackle that Jon Stewart has mocked (back when the writers weren’t striking and we could enjoy politics a whole lot more by seeing it through his eyes – and through Stephen Colbert’s).
Still, for all her progress, Hillary is surrounded and upstaged by three particular maestros of mass magnetism. Bill Clinton has proven that even at a funeral for Coretta Scott King, he can play the bubbly Bubba while she remains the forbidding schoolmarm. Her rival Barack Obama is also compulsively cuddly, appearing to be every Democrat’s cute younger brother while she seems to be the stiff older sister. And the ever-sunny John Edwards is the smiley-est, seemingly happiest politician since Jimmy Carter’s ultimately deceptive 1976 smile-fest. (Sad but true: gender issues clearly play a role here in shaping public perceptions of both men and women about both men and women on the public stage).
With Democrats like that around, Hillary better do what she has done throughout her career – wow people with her brains, her work ethic, her skills. Meanwhile, she should hope that if she is the Democratic nominee, the Republicans go more with a Bob Dole or Richard Nixon type than with a Ronald Reagan replacement. In fact, Hillary Clinton has much to learn from Richard Nixon, a politician she and her peers so detested. Nixon understood that, at the end of the day, Americans know it is far more important to respect the president than to like him – or her. Hillary Clinton and her people better hope that this remains true, even amid today’s celebrity-sotted culture.