Hillary Clinton, on Wednesday, delivered a concession speech that was, above all, an endorsement of the United States and its democracy. She told the supporters who had gathered to hear her speak that Americans must cherish the Constitution—even if they don’t agree with every outcome of its guidance. We must, collectively, she said, respect the rule of law. We must find ways to appreciate each other, and to be, in our messy way, a country. It was a speech designed both to jump-start the healing process for a weary, wounded nation, and to rebuke the anti-democratic rhetoric that has been part of the most contentious presidential campaign in recent memory. It was simple, and it was powerful.
Not, however, according to CNN. The first assessment Wolf Blitzer offered about Clinton’s concession statement, after the network’s camera cut back to its waiting roundtable of pundits, was that it was a “very, very emotional speech.” Blitzer added, of Clinton: “You saw her holding back, choking back those tears.” And then he added: “She is well known as being very, very emotional in these kinds of moments.”
It was a curious point to make, and not only because Clinton is traditionally accused of being overly stilted in her public appearances; “very, very emotional” also managed to brush aside much of the most substantive content of Clinton’s speech—all the urgent points about the benefits of liberal democracy and the peaceful transfer of power—in favor of its performance. In context, however, Blitzer’s initial assessment of Clinton’s speech made some sense. Before the speech had begun—as the pundits were chatting and otherwise filling the air—Blitzer had wondered specifically whether Clinton would tear up as she delivered her public concession of the presidency she has spent so many years of her life seeking. He was, in his post-speech focus on Clinton’s emotions, simply answering his own question.
The anchor then turned to his panelist, the CNN regular Gloria Borger. “Gloria,” Blitzer said, “you saw Hillary, Hillary Clinton, deliver a very emotional, powerful speech. Clearly, it’s not something she wanted to say.”
Borger acknowledged that. And then she talked about the apology that the speech—via its line “I’m sorry that we did not win this election”—offered. Clinton, Borger said, “came out at the top of the speech and said, ‘I’m sorry. Period.’” Borger added: “That’s what women do. They apologize right away, and say, ‘I’m sorry.’”
These were striking frames. Here was the first woman to approach the American presidency, doing the crucial work of democratic reconciliation: avowing the urgency of the rule of law, discussing her continued love for the American experiment, urging her supporters to keep hoping and fighting and believing that the American future will be better than the American past. Clinton’s voice, as she delivered the final messages of her hard-fought campaign, wavered, yes, once. She included lines like “I feel pride and gratitude for this wonderful campaign that we built together” and “this is painful and it will be for a long time.” Mostly, though, she focused on the idea that “our campaign was never about one person.” She spoke of the needs of the country—and she did so forcefully. And calmly. And with conviction. Not a tear in sight.
It was in fact Tim Kaine, her running mate, who misted up and seemed to choke back tears as he addressed the crowd before Clinton made her entrance.
And yet, according to CNN, what came through most powerfully as she conceded the presidency to Donald Trump is that Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former senator and Secretary of State, the woman who by an extremely narrow margin lost her bid to become Commander in Chief, is ultimately “somebody who emotes”—somebody who, today, “said what she was feeling, and as we suspected beforehand, not just about herself, but about all the people that she clearly thinks that she let down.”
This was all, as it happened, a fitting bookend to Clinton’s second bid for the presidency. The politician, it barely bears repeating, has had a long and complicated relationship with the American media—one that has been additionally complicated by media members’ expectations of what it means not just to be a public figure, but to be a public figure who is also a woman. “Emotion,” or “emoting,” as CNN had it, is part of that.
In 2008, when Clinton was battling Barack Obama for that cycle’s Democratic presidential nomination, Clinton made a campaign stop at a coffee shop in New Hampshire. A woman there asked her a seemingly innocuous question: “How did you get out the door every day? I mean, as a woman, I know how hard it is to get out of the house and get ready. Who does your hair?” Clinton gave her response—“this is very personal for me, not just political”—and, as she spoke, misted up, very slightly. The media who witnessed the event, both in person and through other means, wrote up the incident like so: “Hillary Tears Up On The Campaign Trail,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “Clinton Shows Emotion in Final Hours,” the Boston Globe announced. “An Emotional Clinton vows to Fight On” (Reuters). “Emotional Clinton says, This is personal” (AP). “A Chink in the Steely Façade of Hillary Clinton,” the Washington Post called the event. The Huffington Post was decidedly elegant about it: “Clinton Emotional,” it said.
Many of these assessments were favorable. (Maureen Dowd took it upon herself to wonder, “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to the White House?”) But they were also, in the aggregate, yet more evidence of the double bind in which Clinton found herself, repeatedly, as she fought for the presidency: Pundits expected her to be a woman, but not too much. To be feminine, but not too much. And when she gave no obvious evidence of stereotypical femininity … they would find it anyway.
Which brings us back to November of 2016—and to, today, everyone from USA Today to TMZ to AOL to Vocativ to the Huffington Post to New York magazine to Time magazine describing Clinton’s speech, in the headlines they’ve selected to tell its story, as “emotional.” And to CNN’s David Gergen announcing that, in the concession, “She opened up. She opened herself up ... and you could see the pain. It was so apparent, the pain she’s going through, and you could just imagine how many tears have flowed since last night.”
Gergen seemed to want her, on some level, to be hurt. To cry. To be emotional. Not because he is cruel, but because she is a woman, and that—as his colleague had declared of feminine apology-making—is what women do. Back in 2008, Newsweek wrote of Clinton’s New Hampshire coffee shop exchange as “Hillary Clinton’s emotional moment.” Eight years later, despite the progress many Americans have congratulated themselves on having made, that easy assessment lives on. Right after Clinton’s speech and its analysis, CNN switched shows; John King took over as anchor. The topic, however, remained the same: “More of her emotional statement,” King promised, “in a bit.”