Hillary Clinton and the Reclamation of 'Grace'

The candidate is taking a complicated word and reassessing it for the age when a woman can be both a grandmother and a Commander-in-Chief.

Scott Audette / Reuters

“What does it take to be the first female anything?” asked Meryl Streep on Tuesday, after Hillary Clinton became the first woman to secure a major party’s nomination for the presidency of the United States. The question wasn’t rhetorical. “It takes grit,” the actor declared, exuberantly, “and it takes grace.”

If the observation sounded familiar, it was because it repeated a theme established by Michelle Obama on the opening night of the Democratic National Convention. The current First Lady, praising her predecessor in a speech that is already iconic, declared that Hillary “has the guts and the grace to keep coming back and putting those cracks in that highest and hardest glass ceiling until she finally breaks through, lifting all of us along with her.”

Grace. It suggests so much in its single, simple syllable: elegance, virtue, an easy oneness between a person and the world—and between, in Christian traditions, the human and the divine. “Grace” is connected, etymologically, to notions of gratitude (gracias, grazie), and to other slightly ineffable ideas that suggest the highest orders of human experience: charisma, praise, mercy, love. Lately, though, the word has come to assume, as a default, something much more quotidian: idealized, aestheticized qualities of womanhood, among them beauty, poise, and an elegance that is particularly feminine in form. (Have you ever met a guy named Grace? Or seen many men, save for Gene Kelly/Fred Astaire, about whom is it said that “they had style, they had grace”?) “Grace,” a lustrous prism of a term, has retained many of its historical dimensions; recent times, however, have sanded its edges. Merriam-Webster’s first definition of the word is “a way of moving that is smooth and attractive and that is not stiff or awkward”; its second is “a controlled, polite, and pleasant way of behaving.”

The Clinton campaign’s use of “grace” is both distinctly modern and distinctly ancient: It embraces the current, gendered sense of the word, but also bends that sense toward something more complex and inclusive. It rejects, subtly, the reading of the word that prioritizes feminine elegance—the kind NBC News employed when it described Melania Trump’s speech to the Republican National Convention as “gracefully delivered”—favoring instead the old sense of “grace” as a kind of spiritual equipoise. Here is the stuff of Grace Kelly; Harlow, Jean/picture of a beauty queen reassessed for a time when a woman can be, simultaneously, a grandmother and a Commander-in-Chief.

In that sense, “grace” is more than a word: It is a shibboleth. It reflects the times, or more precisely it reflects what one chooses to see in the times. Which is also to say that it is, despite its nods to the beautiful and the spiritual and the transcendent, inherently political. Half a century after President Kennedy declared that “I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty … an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft,” Michelle Obama introduced her husband, then the presidential nominee of Kennedy’s party, to the Democratic National Convention of 2008. Her speech nodded, first, to her father. “I can feel my dad looking down on us,” Obama said, “just as I’ve felt his presence in every grace-filled moment of my life.”

Later, the nominee’s wife declared that

I want a President with a record of public service, someone whose life’s work shows our children that we don’t chase fame and fortune for ourselves, we fight to give everyone a chance to succeed—(applause)—and we give back, even when we’re struggling ourselves, because we know that there is always someone worse off, and there but for the grace of God go I.

Two terms later, Michelle would repeat those ideas. On Monday, before moving on to her discussion of the Democratic Party’s new nominee, she talked again about her husband. “You know, it’s hard to believe that it has been eight years since I first came to this convention to talk with you about why I thought my husband should be President,” the First Lady said. “Remember how I told you about his character and conviction, his decency and his grace—the traits that we’ve seen every day that he’s served our country in the White House.”

Michelle was, on the one hand, applying the feminized notion of “grace” to her ESPN-watching, dad jeans-wearing husband, reflecting the age of increased gender fluidity that his two terms as president have overseen. But she was also, more immediately, calling to mind the most remarkable speech of Barack Obama’s presidency and possibly of his political career: the eulogy he delivered for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, in Charleston. The speech that eschewed politics—debates about gun safety, arguments about how Americans treat mental health—and soared, instead, to the realm of the spiritual. The speech that was, in the end, all about grace.

“This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace,” the president said, as applause erupted around him. “The grace of the families who lost loved ones. The grace that Reverend Pinckney would preach about in his sermons. The grace described in one of my favorite hymnals—the one we all know.”

And then: The president sang. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind, but now I see.

He continued:

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God—(applause)—as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.  

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. (Applause.) He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. (Applause.) We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other—but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

It’s hard to overstate the effect of those lines: a meditation on grace as a gift given by God, but also as one that humans, in their quotidian divinity, can bestow upon one another, if they choose to do so. Obama’s message was about grace, but it was also about forgiveness and gratitude and love, not to mention patience and empathy. It was about the unity that can be achieved when people recognize, in whatever interpretation of “divinity” they choose for themselves, the divinity of others.

It was also, in short, about democracy. Us. Our. As a nation.

The celebrations of “grace” applied to Clinton this week were certainly not so soaring. They were, in fact, the opposite: “Grit” and “guts,” pretty much by definition, do their roaming firmly on the ground. But that represents another kind of reclamation. Here was the country’s first woman presidential nominee, and perhaps the first woman president, described—which is also to say, given the machinations of these conventions, choosing to be described—as exhibiting, above all, grace. Here was one word summoning everything that Hillary Clinton is and has been: student, advocate, daughter, mother, grandmother, Christian, object of scandal, transcender of scandal, candidate, senator, cabinet member, wife, woman, survivor.

“Now is the time,” Elizabeth Taylor said, “for guts and guile”—and Clinton’s own gutteral interpretation of “grace” insists on its own timeliness. It compromises. It takes a pragmatic view of what it means to be “us” and “we” and “a nation.” It insists that a person who seeks to lead that nation should be, as much as possible, a microcosm of that nation: informed both by the feminine and the masculine, by the spiritual and the practical, by tradition and optimism, by a definition of “champion” that is as generous as it is competitive. The Clinton campaign recently ran an ad against Donald Trump. It featured the parents of a child with spina bifida discussing the way the GOP nominee’s mockery of a disabled reporter had made the girl feel. Her name, and the name of the ad that centered on her story? Grace.