The Latest Version of Hillary Clinton

How many opportunities should she get to re-sell herself?


Going into the New Hampshire primary, Hillary Clinton implored voters to keep a level head and not get carried away with a passing crush. Unable to match Barack Obama's inspiring oratory, she sniped, "You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose." But after winning Tuesday, she was all gooey sentiment: "I felt like we all spoke from our hearts, and I'm so gratified you responded."

Head, heart—what does it matter, as long as she wins? If it took a show of tears to elicit sympathy from New Hampshirites, Sister Frigidaire (as she was known in her youth) was prepared to engineer a melting thaw. And it worked. The only thing sufficient to summon a wave of emotion, though, was the prospect of losing.

The Clintons often manufacture shows of feeling—remember when Bill, caught smiling after the death of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, feigned tears when he noticed a TV camera? Or when Hillary, after coming in third in Iowa, gave a victory speech sporting an eerily immovable smile? But they're always completely sincere in their self-pity or anger, both of which were on display after the Iowa debacle.

During last weekend's New Hampshire debate, Hillary Clinton fumed that she was not getting credit for all her accomplishments. "I want to make change, but I've already made change!" she exclaimed. "I'm running on 35 years of change."

Meanwhile, her husband scorned Obama's campaign as a "fairy tale," in which his countless horrible flaws were being covered up by the news media, or the vast right-wing conspiracy, or someone else who has resisted the appeal of the Clintons. When they fall short, someone else is always to blame.

Even that moment when her eyes welled up gave way to a flash of her rigid us vs. them mentality. "Some of us are right, and some of us are wrong," she insisted. "Some of us are ready, and some of us are not."

Like the tears, her victory speech suggested that Clinton is resolved to inhabit a new persona, at least as long as she needs to. Instead of her usual power suit, she wore a flowery brocade jacket that oozed femininity. She gushed about her "full heart," and how she had "found my own voice."

Sixty years old, with all that massive experience in the work of transforming the nation, and she's just now finding her voice? More likely, she's just found a new way to disguise her essential self.

This is not her first conspicuous change of convenience. When she and Bill were married, she declined to take his last name, only to suddenly adopt it for political reasons after he was voted out of the governor's office in 1980. She was Hillary Clinton ever after—until she got to the White House, when she suddenly insisted on going by Hillary Rodham Clinton. The "Rodham," however, is now history. Her campaign website makes a point of referring to her as Hillary Clinton or, more often, just Hillary.

Maybe this evolution is just one of the special complications that face women in politics. But it also suggests a willingness to use any false front that can be helpful. It betrays the calculating inauthenticity that makes so many people wary or hostile toward her.

Andrew Sullivan, writing in The Atlantic, says this quality is not just an artifact of Clinton's personality but a function of trying to succeed as a liberal in a conservative era: "Reagan spooked people on the left, especially those, like Clinton, who were interested primarily in winning power. She has internalized what most Democrats of her generation have internalized: They suspect that the majority is not with them, and so some quotient of discretion, fear, or plain deception is required if they are to advance their objectives. … She's hiding her true feelings. We know it, she knows we know it, and there is no way out of it."

But maybe she's getting better at it. New Hampshirites voted for a candidate who, confronting defeat, let herself look vulnerable and human, and thus more appealing. If she becomes president, they may come to realize what we have learned before: With Hillary Clinton, what you see isn't necessarily what you get.