It’s the enigma of Hillary Clinton.
Near the conclusion of a dinner speech composed mostly of political platitudes ploddingly proffered, she tells a story that brings tears to your eyes.
It’s about her mother, Dorothy Howell, who at 8 was abandoned by her divorced parents and sent to live with grandparents so absurdly strict that Howell struck out on her own as a young teenager.
In a childhood rendered uncertain by family dysfunction, she came to rely on the kindness of strangers: “A first-grade teacher who saw she had no food for lunch, and without embarrassing her, brought extra food to share. The woman whose house she cleaned and children she took care of, agreeing to let her go to high school if she could get her chores done.”
Much of her own work, Clinton said, has been motivated by a belief that sometimes a little help, a little caring, can make a huge difference.
It was a moment that felt real. Alas for Clinton, other parts of her Monday speech were so treacly that what they conveyed was not genuineness but artificiality.
An example: To hear Clinton tell it, she accepted Barack Obama’s generous offer to be his secretary of state — a political dream job, particularly for a defeated candidate hoping to stay relevant — out of simple love of country.
“I want to put that love of our country right at the center of my campaign and right at the center of my presidency,” she continued. (Stop the presses!)
Clinton is hardly alone in peddling patriotic cotton candy on the stump. Rare is the politician who will admit to being motivated by anything beyond altruistic impulse. Ambition? Power? A place in history?
And, oddly, she does tend to be viewed in white and black: As a saintly Joan of Arc by her ardent supporters, as a scheming charlatan by her determined detractors.
Neither perspective acknowledges human — or Clinton — complexity.
In the run-up to her last presidential campaign, a mutual acquaintance arranged for me to have an off-the-record meeting with her. The Clinton I saw that day was open, funny, shrewd, keenly intelligent, and very likable. That is, the kind of figure her Senate colleagues seemed to see and appreciate.
But that appealing private Clinton is distinctly different from the cautious, constrained, stick-to-the-script candidate you see on the campaign trail.
That’s doubly odd given her abilities. Along with Jeb Bush and John Kasich, Clinton is one of a half handful of hopefuls it’s easy to imagine as president. She has the qualifications; she’s better schooled in foreign policy than any of her rivals, and it’s hard think of anyone with a broader understanding of domestic policy.
With a little candor, some spontaneity, a dash of Joe Biden’s tell-it-like-it-is impulse, she could be a captivating candidate. Instead, she’s conducting a classic frontrunner’s campaign, rhetorically focused on the general election, even while intent on finessing any issues that might give her Democratic rivals an opening.
Her campaign isn’t about her political aspirations, she avers, but rather the hopes and dreams of everyday American families. But, so far at least, her basic message reduces to this: Your real choice is me or one of the Republicans.
Perhaps that’s all it will take. After all, this time around, there’s not a political pied piper like Obama to lure the faithful away with a more mesmerizing tune.
It’s Clinton or the long shots, which allows her to play the short odds.
That’s what nine out of 10 politicians would do.
And yet, given her potential, Clinton is selling herself short.
On Twitter: Scot Lehigh in New Hampshire
Crowd probably 125-150 pic.twitter.com/XTQdRQzmGM— Scot Lehigh (@GlobeScotLehigh) June 15, 2015
The kind of coverage only a front runner gets. pic.twitter.com/EvdVaTwA8U— Scot Lehigh (@GlobeScotLehigh) June 15, 2015
Rain falling on HRC's NH event. pic.twitter.com/evvR7U7sOm— Scot Lehigh (@GlobeScotLehigh) June 15, 2015
Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.
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• Michael A. Cohen: Clinton is more than content to run as a liberal populist
• Joan Vennochi: It’s all about Hillary Clinton, not the country
• John E. Sununu: Clinton’s candidacy could sink