The unicorn of American politics, the “real Hillary Clinton”—the Hillary Clinton I’ve known for nearly 30 years—that Hillary Clinton likes to wear low-heeled shoes to a butt-kicking.
“A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons,” she said of her Republican rival, Donald Trump, while accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, the first woman in U.S. history to head a major-party ticket.
It was a sound bite for the ages, searing and on point.
“Do you really think Donald Trump has the temperament to be commander in chief?” she continued. “Donald Trump can’t even handle the rough and tumble of a presidential campaign. He loses his cool at the slightest provocation. Imagine, if you dare, imagine him in the Oval Office facing a crisis.”
There was a time when I couldn’t imagine Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office. I covered the Clintons in Arkansas, where I started my career, and at the White House, after Bill Clinton’s election brought me to the nation’s capital, and through the many scandals that hardened her shell and hardened people’s attitudes against her. But here she is—on the brink.
Watching her speech—a good one, not great, but her best—I kept thinking of a moment a quarter century ago, a small moment, but one not unlike this. It was the moment I stopped betting against her:
Summoned to a Capitol rotunda news conference by Tom McRae, an earnest Democrat challenging then-Governor Bill Clinton for re-election, I heard the click, clack, click of the first lady's low-heeled shoes approach from a hidden marble hallway.
"Tom!" the first lady of Arkansas shouted. "I think we oughta get the record straight!"
Waving a sheaf of papers, Hillary Clinton undercut McRae's criticism of the Clinton administration by pointing to his past praise of the governor. It was a brutal sandbagging.
“Many of the reports you issued not only praise the governor on his environmental record," she said, "but his education and his economic record!" McRae's primary campaign was toast. Bill Clinton was one step closer to the White House.
The national equivalence of that scene played out Thursday night, when she strode across the convention stage (yes, in heels) and reeled off the case against Trump. Like she did with McRae, Clinton threw Trump’s words back at him: Ban Muslims; a Mexican judge is biased; Mexican immigrants are rapists; women are pigs and bleed out of their whatever; John McCain and his fellow POWs are losers; and Vladimir Putin is a great leader.
She said people didn’t take Trump seriously. “At first, I admit, I couldn’t believe he meant it, either. It was just hard to fathom that somebody who wants to lead our nation could say those things, could be like that, but here’s the sad truth: There is no other Donald Trump,” Clinton continued, adding that Trump doesn’t “get” a central fact about American exceptionalism: “America is great because America is good. So enough with the bigotry and the bombast. Donald Trump is not offering … change, he’s offering empty promises.”
In other ways, the speech was an x-ray of Clinton’s soul that gave the public a rare, if distorted, glimpse beneath her shell. The woman I know is:
Madly, if not traditionally, in love with her husband.
An adoring mother and grandmother.
Funny, warm, and charming.
Tough. Brutally, tough.
“He’s taking the Republican party a long way from morning in America to midnight in America,” Clinton said of Trump.
Click, clack, click.
“He wants us to fear the future and fear each other. Well, you know, a great Democratic president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt came up with the perfect rebuke to Donald more than 80 years ago in a much more perilous time: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Click, clack, click.
“He’s forgetting every one last of us,” she said, referring to the most memorable line of Trump’s acceptance address. “Americans don’t say ‘I alone can fix it.’ We say, “We’ll fix it together.”
Click, clack, click.
“He spoke 70-odd minutes,” she said of Trump’s convention speech, “and I do mean odd.”
Some of you might wonder why I haven’t mentioned trust—the stonewalling, deception, and lies that virtually destroyed her credibility. I waited this long to go there because that’s not the Hillary Clinton I knew 30 years ago. She was open and accessible to the journalists who covered her husband, known for her smarts and integrity.
And so I smiled when she got to the most authentic part of her speech, that time when she parsed the meaning of public service. “The service part has always come easier to me than the public part,” she said. “I get it that some people just don’t know what to make of me.”