If there was any doubt that Hillary Clinton’s stock is higher than ever — and that losing in 2008 was probably the best thing to happen to her — it’s the hilarious, inescapable “Texts from Hillary” phenomenon.
It started with a pair of photos, taken last fall, of Clinton on an airplane from Malta to Tripoli, wearing enormous sunglasses and frowning at her mobile device. Over the past six days, the web has been filled with extrapolation — imagined messages Clinton might have received, along with her dismissive replies.
Barack Obama: Hey Hil Whatchu doing?
Clinton: Running the world.
Sarah Palin: I’m not a regular mom. I’m a cool mom. Right, Hillary?
Clinton: Stop talking.
Worried woman: It’s 3 a.m. and I think something’s happening.
Clinton: On it.
Like most Internet sensations, the “Texts from Hillary” took a winding path from artifact to thing. When the photo first appeared last fall, a blogger from Reuters suggested that it made Clinton look bad: stuck on a plane, overloaded with work, falling asleep in her chair. “Quick quiz,” he wrote. “You realize your job may sort of suck if you . . . are trying to read your PDA with your sunglasses on.”
But when the photo turned up, inexplicably, on his Facebook feed last week, Adam Smith saw it differently. Smith, 29, who works for a campaign-finance nonprofit in Washington, D.C., reposted the shot on Twitter with a comment along the lines of, “Have you seen how fierce Hillary is in this picture?”
Last Wednesday at a bar, Smith showed the photo to his friend Stacy Lambe, 26, who works for a D.C. communications firm. “I said, ‘Have you seen this Hillary picture? I think we could make a meme out of it’ ” Smith told me by phone. “And he said, ‘Texts from Hillary.’ And I said, ‘Done.’ ” They went home and started a Tumblr blog, and before long, people were sending suggestions of their own.
Nearly every contribution falls along the same theme: Hillary’s not beleaguered, she’s in charge. This is the story the photo tells. The frown makes her seem impatient. The sunglasses make her look aloof, but also glamorous. Gone are the man’s-world accessories, the pantsuit and masculine haircut. Secretary Clinton is a woman, comfortably feminine, with long blonde hair, a chunky necklace, a giant broach.
And, crucially, she’s texting. In an age of impersonal communications, there’s no medium more distant or nonchalant. Texting requires no utterance, no grammar, no coherent thought, and barely any physical effort. (The other day, a friend texted me: “k.” I knew what she meant.) To send a text is to say, “I’m sending you this message with my thumbs. That’s all you get of me.”
In other words, Clinton is above the fray, for perhaps the first time in her political life — a time that happens to coincide with headlines about her record-high approval ratings and her triumph in meaningless prospective polls for the 2016 race. “Part of the reason this took off,” Smith acknowledges, “is because this discussion was already happening.”
And because, like anyone who gets a text, Clinton doesn’t have to respond. At the moment, we’re bombarded with would-be presidents in salesmanship mode, all of them looking desperate (and male). A presidential campaign is petty by definition. Clinton can look superior, simply by looking annoyed.
There was a time, not long ago, when Clinton was the one who seemed to be trying too hard, trying to compete with Barack Obama’s effortless charisma. The fact that failed might well have been a gift: She didn’t have to be president at one of the hardest times in history. She chose a job in someone else’s administration, which gave her cover; the foreign policy critiques that have hounded Obama haven’t seemed to stick to Clinton. But she commands her own corner, so her triumphs are her own. (“In praise of Hillary Clinton,” read a 2010 headline in the National Review Online. Man bites dog, indeed.)
All of this will change, as Smith points out, if Clinton actually runs in 2016. She will have to sell herself again. But she will start from a different foundation. Her 2008 message — that she’s the one to trust with the 3 a.m. phone call — turns out to have stuck. Maybe the incoming call will be a text, instead.