Last Wednesday's televised town hall with Hillary Clinton featured the candidate at her best — and her worst. Clinton and her campaign ought to study the lessons of both.
The candidate at her worst was obvious, and all the more painful for its predictability. When Clinton is pressed on big-dollar donations and hefty speaking fees from Wall Street, she reverts to a reflexive defensiveness that hurts her cause. This was on display at the Democratic debate in Des Moines in November, when she invoked the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to explain her flood of Wall Street money.
"I represented New York," Clinton said. "And I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked. Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy. And it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country."
If you thought that Clinton would have learned from that blundering answer, it wasn't on display Wednesday when CNN's Anderson Cooper asked Clinton about the $675,000 that Goldman Sachs paid her for three speeches.
Cooper: "You were paid $675,000 for three speeches. Was that a mistake? I mean, was that a bad error in judgment?
Clinton: "Look. I made speeches to lots of groups. I told them what I thought. I answered questions."
Cooper: "But did you have to be paid $675,000?"
Clinton: "Well, I don't know. That's what they offered, so ... . You know every secretary of state that I know has done that."
Cooper: "But ... they're not running for an office."
Clinton: "To be honest, I wasn't committed to running. I didn't know whether I would or not."
That's what they offered? For heaven's sake, Clinton was demanding those six-figure fees. Her every-secretary-of-state-does-it defense just makes her look like yet another former government official who used public service to rake in big bucks on the other side of the revolving door.
Her explanation that she took the checks because she "wasn't committed to running" — intimating that she might have behaved differently if she knew voters might hold it against her down the road — simply underscores the impression of greediness, opportunism and situational ethics.
And yet the evening also featured one of the most self-reflective moments I've seen on the campaign trail, not only from Clinton but from any politician. It came after a rabbi asked Clinton how she balanced "the ego ... a person must have to be the leader of the free world" with "the humility to recognize ... that you can't be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for."
Clinton's response was human, touching and thoughtful. She spoke organically, in an unforced manner, of her faith, the daily scripture lesson she receives by e-mail at 5 a.m. and her attempt to learn, after painful moments in the public eye, how to practice the "discipline of gratitude" under trying circumstances.
"I'm constantly trying to balance how do I assume the mantle of a position as essentially august as president of the United States [and] not lose track of who I am, what I believe in and what I want to do to serve," Clinton said. "I have that dialogue at least, you know, once a day in some setting or another. And I don't know that there is any ever absolute answer, like, 'OK, universe, here I am, watch me roar,' or 'Oh, my gosh, I can't do it, it's just overwhelming, I have to retreat.'"
Clinton's response was also, and I mean this in the best possible way, quintessentially female. She spoke of how her husband was "such a natural politician," and "how much more difficult it often is for me to talk about myself than to talk about what I want to do for other people." Imagine Donald Trump, the ultimate alpha-male candidate, engaged in that degree of self-reflection and self-questioning.
The exchange was reminiscent of what turned out to be Clinton's best moment in this state eight years ago, when she became misty-eyed in answering a voter's question about what drove her to keep going. This Clinton, thoughtful and even humble, is the candidate that her campaign needs to figure out how to present to voters. The other one, entitled and defensive, isn't helping her cause.
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