US Elections 2016: Hillary Clinton, a profile

'I'm the last thing standing between America and the apocalypse.'

Mrs Hillary Clinton has thought a great deal about the isolation that public life can foster. But she believes the key to building connectedness lies in a leader's ability to knit together a sense of common destiny from the ground up. "It requires re
Mrs Hillary Clinton has thought a great deal about the isolation that public life can foster. But she believes the key to building connectedness lies in a leader's ability to knit together a sense of common destiny from the ground up. "It requires real storytelling," she says. "And I think as president, I can tell that story." It could portend a very different style of president.PHOTO: NYTIMES

As the campaign heats up in its last leg, the media sometimes gets caught in the crosshairs. In these pages, a profile of Hillary Clinton - and the interviewer - become the subject of controversy; while a white journalist from a working-class background calls out the liberal media elite for its stereotyped and inaccurate portrayals of Donald Trump's supporters. The Democrat's bet on governing, political isolation, selfies and building connections

There can be days in this presidential campaign, if not weeks or months or maybe the entire thing, where you find yourself completely lost in duelling or blurry realities. It's easy to get caught up in whatever is dominating a given moment. Everything gets so big and loud, and the candidates - famous to begin with - cease to even exist as human beings in front of you.

Early this month, I went to Toledo, Ohio, to meet Mrs Hillary Clinton, to sit down with her for a while and take the measure of her ordeal. It was five weeks before an unnervingly high-stakes Election Day. This is not only for the milestone that Mrs Clinton's election would achieve, and all the cultural Rorschach tests, gender dynamics and political scar tissue embedded within. It's because of Mr Donald Trump, an astonishing figure unlike any who has ever come close to assuming power in the United States.

Mrs Clinton had a rally scheduled in a run-down section of Toledo, the north-west Ohio city that ranked as the fourth-most economically distressed of the nation's 100 largest. It is home to many of the struggling white working-class men who have made Ohio such tough terrain for Clinton and surprisingly fertile for her billionaire opponent.

After the event at an old train station, I was escorted to an office where Mrs Clinton was finishing an interview for Good Luck America, a political news show on Snapchat.

I had not talked to the Democratic candidate in person for more than a year. She was warm and animated, but her eyes hung heavy, and she appeared somewhat worn down, no doubt still feeling some lingering after-effects of pneumonia. In the same way that presidents seem to age eight years for every four they spend in the White House, you can see the toll this campaign has taken - the surprising challenge of Senator Bernie Sanders, the e-mail story and FBI probe and Mr Trump's nothing- off-limits pelting.

She sat down next to me at a conference table, slumped back in a swivelling desk chair. Her contempt for Mr Trump was clear from the outset, far more intense than it appears even in speeches and debates. It went well beyond the competitive fervour with which one general election candidate tends to speak about another. "It does feel much different," she said. "If I were running against another Republican, we'd have our disagreements, don't get me wrong, and I would be trying to make my case vigorously. But I wouldn't go to bed at night with a knot in the pit of my stomach." She enunciated her T's ("knoT in the piT") as if she were spitting out the words.


If I were running against another Republican, we'd have our disagreements, don't get me wrong, and I would be trying to make my case vigorously. But I wouldn't go to bed at night with a knot in the pit of my stomach.

MRS HILLARY CLINTON, on Donald Trump's attacks and allegations.


When it comes to public service, I'm better at the service part than the public part.

MRS CLINTON, on her many years in politics - and the toll exacted.


At the end of the day, people are going to vote on Nov 8. And like it or not, issues will actually be part of governing.

MRS CLINTON, on winning over the voters with issues.

"I had the opportunity to meet a lot of presidents over the years," Mrs Clinton said. "I've had my disagreements with them. But I never doubted for a nanosecond that they got up every morning trying to figure out what was the best path forward for the country." At least, she added, "they were serious people".


That sense of high moral purpose is evident throughout the campaign. Whenever I visited the Clinton campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, the youthful energy and confidence of the staff was leavened by a detectably uneasy undercurrent. Either they are helping elect the first female president of the US, assuring her place in history, or they will be the people who lost to Mr Trump. I asked Mrs Clinton if Nov 8 scared her. "No, not really," she said slowly. I clarified that I was talking about the prospect of her losing. She knew what I was talking about. "I'm not going to lose," she said. She shot me a knowing grin.

This is the standard politician's answer when asked to contemplate defeat, but Mrs Clinton seemed to mean it. "I don't go there," she said. Mr Trump is such an unnerving figure, partly because in getting this far he has already defied so many predictions, largely on the strength of his ability to command the media fun house. This has been the enduring, defining characteristic of the race. His mania for being seen and heard and mentioned has proved exceptionally well suited, maybe co-dependent, to the current age.

Mr Trump coined a grand and nostalgic slogan, "Make America great again", the most recognisable campaign calling card since "Yes We Can". When I talked to Mrs Clinton, she told me how pleased she was with her own slogan, "Stronger together". She was especially proud of how it came out of a deliberative process: grinding out ideas and figuring out what it was she wanted to stand for. "It's clunky, but it works," I said, and she nodded. "It works," she said with a hint of defensiveness, "in part because I really believe it, OK? How do we get people to overcome these barriers?"

Mrs Clinton has worked closely with some of the most gifted orators and "explainers" of recent political memory - Mr Barack Obama, Mr Joe Biden and her husband Bill. All are deft at relaying big themes and small narratives alike. Mrs Clinton, for her part, is stubbornly cautious and on script, banking on the notion that real-life concerns of voters and tangible benefits of her proposals will win out over spectacle. "At the end of the day, people are going to vote on Nov 8," she told me. "And like it or not, issues will actually be part of governing."

Her approach doesn't make for the best TV, but her years in public life have made her wary of any exposure, especially when she does not control it. Scrutiny is dangerous, and disclosure is rarely rewarded. If Mr Trump views the media as a vehicle to express his id, Mrs Clinton is all superego. She has been happy to leave that field to him, even if it makes her boring, or even ignored.

Mr Trump, of course, both shares and feeds his audience's addiction to stimuli and entertainment. Early in the campaign, during the Republican primaries, he would pretty much say yes to anyone who wanted to put him on TV or in a magazine. He was indefatigable in reaching out to reporters, lobbying for coverage. He can be undeniably fun and, to a point, seductive.

Mrs Clinton is the anti-Trump. She is not a political novelty, nor is she all that entertaining as a media personality or in front of big groups. She and her campaign know this and are smart about not pretending otherwise. Mr Trump's big shadow and outrage machine have even allowed her to become slightly and perhaps blissfully lost; to fade, if not into obscurity, at least into a background that cuts the glare of the scrutiny to which she has been so averse. In a sense, she is daring voters to study her positions, listen to her answers and not look to her for entertainment or emotional impact. In 2016, that can seem almost risky.

"I've laid out all of these policies, and look, people kind of made fun of it, because 'Oh, there she goes with another policy'," Mrs Clinton told me. "I'm trying to run a campaign that presents an alternative case." It's telling that a candidate with the name recognition, resume and baggage of Hillary Clinton is nonetheless left to present her campaign as an "alternative case".

"My husband and I laugh sometimes about the Antiques Roadshow," Mrs Clinton told me, referring to the PBS show about antique appraisers that she watches devoutly. "Sometimes we feel like we are the antiques on a roadshow when it comes to politics."


Mrs Clinton recently told a rally in North Carolina that her many years in politics had taken a toll on her. "I've built up some defences," she said, in a line that was, for her, self- revelatory. "When it comes to public service, I'm better at the service part than the public part."

She has thought a great deal about the isolation that public life can foster. This can even be exacerbated by new technology tools - like smartphones - that can theoretically nurture connections but can also depersonalise encounters between citizens and public figures.

Outside her plane after a speech in Tampa, Florida, a few days earlier, Mrs Clinton stopped for a few minutes under a wing to chat and take pictures with the photographers in her press entourage. She talked about how the phenomenon of "selfies" has transformed her encounters with voters. She was always adept at drawing quick connections with people she met on rope lines. Even in the briefest of exchanges, they would tell her their stories. I had observed Clinton in many rope lines over the years, and I can attest that she's effective in those settings, though not at the level of her flesh-pressing demon of a husband.

"I got a lot out of these short meetings, holding somebody's hand, having somebody tell me about their problems, addiction, losing a job," Mrs Clinton told me in Toledo. "I thought of it like an ongoing educational experience." She misses that, she said, because now such encounters are driven by one all-encompassing goal: the selfie.

"It's a loss," Mrs Clinton said. She understands why people want selfies. "It makes my time at the event with them real. Put it on Facebook, and show it to everyone who follows them on Instagram, everyone they can reach." She prefers the handwritten notes she used to get a lot more of, everything from little scraps of paper to several-page stacks of loose-leaf. They all bore the script of individual Americans wanting to tell her about their lives.

"This sounds a little extreme to say, but it's like an evolutionary development, right?" she said. Your communities should begin small, in terms that precisely echoed those set out in her 1996 book, It Takes A Village. You form identities in your family, she said, and then in your neighbourhood and in wider communities. "It was all person to person, and you learnt to deal with people, for better or worse," she said. She contrasted this with modern social media cultures. People use the terms "friends" and "followers" to describe people they have never met, whose identities they think they know but may not even be real. "And you are having emotional and intellectual experiences," Mrs Clinton said, "that are unlike anything that's ever happened in the entirety of human history."

Like the culture it is playing out in, this presidential campaign has existed in a racing progression of flash images and snap judgments. Personal narratives get lost, while a candidate's can become warped through the vertigo. We might be as interconnected as ever but starved for connections, Mrs Clinton said. Mr Trump, perhaps tellingly, is not much for hearing voters' stories. He rarely does retail stops and hates shaking hands. He tweets at all hours and constantly watches himself on television. He is in so many ways the anti-Hillary.

At the end of our conversation in Toledo, I asked Mrs Clinton if she thought the resentment sowed and fissures exposed in the course of this campaign would make the US an even harder country to govern. "No, we face some hard choices," she began, and I smirked - Hard Choices was the title of her 2014 memoir on her years as secretary of state, and I figured she was clicking into huckster and sound-bite mode. But then she veered in a direction that surprised me.

"There are some difficult trends, which are not primarily political," she said. "They are more cultural, psychological, and we just have to deal with them." Earlier she had mentioned the 1985 book Amusing Ourselves To Death, by Neal Postman, about how television has oriented politics more and more towards entertainment. She also cited the historian Christopher Lasch, the author of The Culture Of Narcissism. The authors, she said, "were trying to come to grips, before the Internet, trying to understand what was happening in our society, that we are experiencing a level of alienation, disconnectedness".

She told me that her primary objective as president would be to encourage connectedness, to have actual conversations. Mrs Clinton has always preferred to build narratives from a granular level: start with details and allow a message to emerge more slowly. She has no patience for messianic rhetoric and hyperbolic slogans and grandiose speeches. It can make her an awkward fit in this campaign environment, harder to break through and determinedly not dazzling.

But Mrs Clinton said the key to building connectedness lies in a leader's ability to knit together a sense of common destiny from the ground up. "It requires real storytelling," she said. "And I think as president, I can tell that story. It's harder as a candidate." I had often heard the exact opposite. In Mr Obama's first term, his aides lamented that it was much easier to tell stories and drive a message in a campaign context than from the White House. As president, they said, you are constantly reacting to things and largely at the mercy of events - "governing in prose", as opposed to "campaigning in poetry", to adapt the old line from former New York governor Mario Cuomo.

Mrs Clinton envisions a model more suited to her skills and comforts. It also could portend a very different style of president - without the sweeping themes of Mr Barack Obama, the moral certainty of Mr George W. Bush or the explanatory clarity of Mr Bill Clinton.

Can Mrs Clinton do a better job inspiring people from the White House than she has from the campaign stage? Would it be easier or harder to do without Mr Trump around to embody everything she has ever opposed and scare the daylights out of her base? "Don't blow this" is what she hears most often these days, she said, or variations thereof. As it has turned out, Mrs Clinton, who began her campaign intent on breaking the last barrier - the glass ceiling - has found her most compelling rationale in her own role as a barrier, a bulwark against the impossible alternative.

As I was leaving our interview, she smiled, looked me in the eyes and left me with a casual reminder. "As I've told people," she said, "I'm the last thing standing between you and the apocalypse."


• Mark Leibovich is the chief national correspondent for the magazine and the author of This Town.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 23, 2016, with the headline ''I'm the last thing standing between America and the apocalypse.''. Print Edition | Subscribe