Clinton Speaks but Says Little

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Ahead of Hillary Clinton’s new interview with Andrea Mitchell, which aired today at noon, there was much discussion of how infrequently the candidate had sat for interviews with the press.

Afterwards, one is left to wonder whether it really matters.

Over a half-hour, the Democrat parried questions, ducked issues, and kept tightly to her messages. She repeated the same justifications for her State Department email system, taking responsibility and expressing regret while continuing to insist she did nothing wrong. (Questioned on whether the episode undermined her judgment, she offered a classic non-apology apology: “I’m sorry this has been confusing to people and it has raised a lot of questions.”) She refused to take bait on the rise of Donald Trump, her rival Bernie Sanders, or her potential rival Joe Biden. She backed the Iran deal in the blandest language possible. Clinton seemed most at ease speaking about her landmark “Women’s rights are human rights” speech—an address she gave almost exactly 20 years ago.

Perhaps some blame should go to Mitchell, but even when she offered Clinton a chance to say something interesting, the candidate studiously avoided it.

Given a chance to defend her authenticity, Clinton delivered a canned response about the enthusiasm she was sensing from supporters on the trail. Mitchell even offered Clinton a chance to push back on ad hominem attacks against her confidant Huma Abedin; Clinton didn’t even mention Abedin’s name in her reply, referring to her obliquely along with, strangely enough, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

“He’s attacked so many people, including my close aide and myself and many other people,” she said. “I can take that, that’s par for the course. I do regret that he is going after so many people, from great basketball players to people who express different opinions from him.”

It’s very hard not to compare Clinton’s interview with Trump’s freewheeling press conference Thursday. The two, variously precarious frontrunners in each party show mirrored shortcoming. A truly talented retail politician manages to dodge questions and offer carefully prepared messages without appearing to do so. Clinton doesn’t have that touch, so that her deflections so clearly look like deflections and her answers seem inadequately spontaneous. Trump, on the other hand, shoots wildly from the hip, which has attracted him lots of support but remains a deeply risky approach. His press conference was wildly entertaining, as he answered any and all questions, twice returning to the microphone after saying he was leaving.

Clinton’s most interesting comment of the interview—and, ironically, her most revealing one—came when a somewhat frustrated Mitchell asked about why Clinton seemed so guarded in comparison.

“I ... believe the president of the United States does have to be careful about what he or she says,” Clinton said. “That’s because for more than 20 years I’ve seen the importance of the president of the United States having to send messages that will be received by all kinds of people. Loose talk, threats, insults—they have consequences.”

That’s Clinton at her best: steady, thoughtful, and self-aware. It’s one reason why she comfortably leads Trump in a head-to-head matchup. But it’s also a warning to Democrats who have nervously begun agitating for Clinton to show a looser side on the trail, or are feeling newly open to a Biden campaign. For better or worse, don’t expect Hillary to try to be anyone but Hillary.