A Brief History of the Two-Decade Effort to Reveal the 'Real Hillary Clinton'

"Voters need to meet the real Hillary Clinton," a 1992 memo drafted for the Bill Clinton electoral effort read, marking perhaps the first time that particular effort was being undertaken. It has barely stopped since.

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"Voters need to meet the real Hillary Clinton," read a 1992 memo drafted for the Bill Clinton electoral effort, marking perhaps the first time that particular effort was being undertaken. It has barely stopped since.

The conservative Washington Free Beacon dug up documents from a close Clinton ally, Diane Blair, that were stored with the University of Arkansas Library. It's an odd assortment of documents, mostly focused on brief journal notes from Blair's interaction with the First Lady (most of the files are from after Clinton's inauguration). The Free Beacon echoes the renaissance of attention being paid to Bill Clinton and his travails — championed by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — by pointing out that Hillary at one point referred to Monica Lewinsky as a "narcissistic loony toon." (Which, honestly? Pretty tame, given Monica's relationship with Clinton's husband.)

Among the papers, though, is that 1992 memo, created by Celinda Lake, a prominent Democratic pollster now with the firm of Lake Research Partners. It's almost certainly one of the first articulations of Hillary's political strengths and weaknesses, framed within the era and her husband's campaign, but also revealing a theme that will apparently never end: Voters just don't know the real Hillary.

First, voters need to meet the real Hillary Clinton. They have a distorted, limited, and overly political impression of her. They need to see and hear a broader, more diverse, and more personal portrayal of her character.

Among the concerns Lake expresses in the memo (which can be seen in full at the bottom of this article) were that voters worried about a "co-presidency" between Hillary and Bill Clinton — with memories of Nancy Reagan's strong role in her husband's presidency still fresh in mind. Some women felt as thought Hillary had disparaged stay-at-home mothers; others apparently felt that she came off as too stiff or elitist. "She needs to project a softer side," Lake writes, "some humor, some informality. Voters need to see her relating to people."

Once she was First Lady, the effort to define the real Hillary Clinton continued. In 1994, Midwest Today profiled Clinton, declaring that its portrait was "the Real Hillary Clinton." It also became fodder for opponents, suggesting that the manicured White House portrait of the president's wife hid the truth about her role. Barbara Olson, wife of future George W. Bush solicitor general Ted Olson, wrote a book titled Hell to Pay, which promised readers that it would "reveal the real Hillary Rodham Clinton."

In the aftermath of Clinton's failed 2008 bid for the presidency, The Atlantic gathered a number of her campaign's memos. Among other ideas — such as then-pollster Mark Penn's suggestion that Barack Obama's multicultural background should be "saved for 2050" — heavy focus is put on telling Clinton's "story."

That was the real Hillary Clinton that Penn wanted America to see, as tailored for the audience of 2008. That was the peak of Google interest in the "real Hillary Clinton" over time, as can be seen in the graph below. While she was secretary of state, interest in knowing the real her declined, only to ramp up again once she left that position in 2013.

Those wondering if Clinton will run in 2016 might also look at an October 2006 memo from Penn in which he advocates that Clinton spend the next few months from that point explaining that she hadn't yet made up her mind about running, while doing the legwork needed to set up a candidacy. In a follow up, Penn argues against the idea that Clinton needs to be humanized.

He was wrong. Polling showed Clinton neck-and-neck with Obama in New Hampshire, a state Clinton won after the now-famous crying incident. Shortly afterward, then-campaign chair (and now Virginia governor) Terry McAuliffe proclaimed: "Our back was against the wall, but people got to see the real Hillary Clinton. The humanizing moment she had was a big deal. People know that she’ll deliver for them."

This week, a new book about Clinton — HRC, by two Politico reporters — is being published. Clinton collaborated with them on the project, and, later this year, will release her own overview of her recent work. The real Hillary Clinton has evolved as surely as concerns about the "real Hillary Clinton" have evolved. But describing the real HIllary Clinton will apparently never end.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.