The following is a faux memo, although its contents are based upon my interviews with people close to Hillary Clinton, including some I've known since my years covering the Clintons in Arkansas. These sources spoke on condition of anonymity because attempts to make their case directly to the Democratic front-runner and her campaign team were icily received. Like my December 2013 memo titled "You're the Problem," this represents their point of view.
From: A few of us
Subject: We love you, but you're still the problem
The last time we wrote as a group, you were deciding whether to run for president. Conventional wisdom pegged you as a dead-certain candidate; we knew better. We knew you were worn from a lifetime of service, personal tension, and the getting-vaster Right Wing Conspiracy. We knew you truly wanted to devote the rest of your years to charity and Charlotte. We also knew you wanted to be president—and we're not embarrassed to say we thought you'd be a good one.
We had qualms. To review, we warned that an American public buffeted by socioeconomic change has lost faith in Washington, the U.S. political system, and virtually every social institution. We said that would be a particular problem for you in 2016, because you are viewed as a creature of Washington, a calculating politician, and an institution ("not just because of your age," we wrote, "The Clinton family itself is an institution, one freighted with baggage.")
Remember how mad this paragraph made you?
And so your biggest hurdle isn't your age, the president's record, your husband, or even Benghazi/Whitewater, etc. It's you, Hillary. You're the problem—that is, if you once again present yourself as an institution of Washington awaiting a political coronation. To win, you must be the anti-Hillary. You need to blast the public's caricature of you to smithereens and replace it with what we know as the Real Hillary.
We're your friends. We love you enough to tell you the truth. Your political advisers and hangers-on mocked our advice to be hyper-accessible, honest, authentic, vulnerable, flexible, small, competent, and populist. Take a minute to reread the 2013 memo. We were very specific, particularly in the closing few paragraphs.
You didn't listen, Hillary. Now look what you've done.
You launched your historic campaign in the worst possible way: walled off from the media and the public—cautious, rigid, and institutional. You may disagree. Your hired guns may have convinced you, for example, that the scripted conversation with selected voters are authentic. They're not. What would be authentic? The Hillary we've long cherished in private: warm, open, and honest—unafraid of making mistakes and owning up to them. We haven't seen that Hillary. More important, the voting public hasn't seen that Hillary. Does she still exist?
Which brings us to the matter of trust. Hillary, this makes us want to cry. We can't figure out why you would compromise the most important commodity of leadership over such banalities. Why take money from foreign nations while serving as secretary of State? Why take money from foreign leaders who hate women? Why not comply with White House rules—fair and ethical guidelines designed to protect the reputation of your family's (wonderful) charitable foundation? You know this has always bothered us: Why would you and Bill blur so many lines between foundation money, your personal finances, and your government work? That's not how you operated in Arkansas.
And the emails! Why did you need a private server? Why would you violate clear federal and White House rules on email storage, security, and transparency? Who deletes their email, scrubs their server, and ducks subpoenas?
We love you, Hillary, but even we suspect there are foundation-related emails on that server. They may be embarrassing, but we'd like to think they're not nearly as politically damaging as stonewalling.
Your CNN interview made us cringe: "Everything I did was permitted." No it wasn't, Hillary. You are either being misled by your team or you're lying. We can't bring ourselves to suspect the latter—and urge you again to hire more honest advisers.
"People should and do trust me." No and no. You've told us yourself: Trust has to be earned, not assumed. And polls show that most Americans think you're dishonest. We've always trusted you, but we can understand why others don't. You've made some poor choices and, rather than fix them, you blamed the GOP and the media. You wouldn't let Chelsea say the dog ate her homework, so why do you think this is a good idea?
We can't make it any plainer: You're the problem, Hillary.
You're also the solution. You can turn this around. You've got some time to restore trust.
Start by handing over the server to the State Department inspector general for review. Let him certify that you had nothing to hide. (Frankly, there are too many holes in your version of events.)
Second, return some of the foreign money donated to the foundation. Not all of it, perhaps, but at least the most egregious stuff—money from bad actors and from people who did business with your State Department.
Of course, that won't stop attacks from Republicans or the carping of cynics in the media like Fournier (What is it with that guy? We made his career!). But it's the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.
Voters today, particularly young Americans, have higher expectations for honesty and authenticity than they did in the 1990s. They also have more information at their disposal. It's not like the good old days when James, Paul, and George could spin a handful of journalists to make a story go away. There are no more gatekeepers, Hillary. There are now 300 million investigative journalists, and you're giving them too much room for doubt.
Trust matters. Don't believe your folks on the morning conference call who tell you it doesn't. They're only worried about winning, because it makes them rich. Winning makes you president, so you need to take the right road to victory.
Staying the course might get you elected (Republicans are fully capable of nominating somebody who makes you the least-worst alternative), but it will leave you a diminished leader: No trust, no mandate, no ability to unite the country or represent more than the most hardened partisans. We're happy to see you adapting populist polices and rhetoric, but even your progressive friends are wondering, "Is she being honest?"
Choose a better course, Hillary. Whenever we hear you gripe about the Clintons being held to a higher standard, do you know what we say to ourselves? "Hell, yes, it's a higher standard, because you should travel a higher road. You're a Clinton!" We expected better. The country needs better. Stop being the problem. Be the Hillary we once knew.
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.