Hillary Clinton announced her first run for the presidency by e-mail and then by video, seated on a couch in the sunroom of her home and surrounded by overstuffed floral pillows. “While I can’t visit everyone’s living room,” she said, “I can try.” As an American teenager might say: awkward. Clinton’s second presidential announcement came on Twitter, then in another video that departed from the 2008 version in that it barely featured her. It went over a lot better.
On Saturday, Clinton re-launched her campaign with a speech, a move that underscores both the importance of speeches in American political life and one of Clinton’s greatest vulnerabilities. Great speeches require something Clinton has refused to give: exposure, access, the illusion of intimacy. Standing up in front of a crowd makes you feel a little bit naked. But it’s a chance for a politician to offer us a sense of who they are, what they believe, whether they can perform under pressure — and, on a fundamental level, whether we like them or not. That’s why speeches have the potential to put our leaders in the history books or write them out entirely.
Clinton has been in public life for over three-and-a-half decades and has yet to deliver stirring remarks — or even a memorable turn of phrase, really. Given her prominence and the multiple hats she’s worn in political life, it is rather remarkable that she is relatively unaccomplished in the realm of speechmaking. It is a political weakness. Whether and how much it will matter on the campaign trail in 2016 remains to be seen.
In the days before Saturday’s speech, her aides said it would be a personal one, but she offered instead a litany of policy details. Jeb Bush on Monday did the opposite. Though he’s not a skilled podium speaker, he launched his campaign with a speech that displayed some charisma, liveliness, and, yes, heart. After weeks of talking about joy, he showed some.
Clinton’s vulnerability has always been personality. She’s cold, brittle, and unpersuasive, and she’s never been able to overcome these traits in a public performance. She’s tried: In the 1990s, she debuted a new, softened image, donning headbands and wearing pink sweaters, all while axing staffers in the White House travel office and dishing out precise, lawyerly answers at press conferences.
There’s no authenticity with Clinton, no rousing rhetoric, because she hasn’t successfully hidden who she is or embodied the person she’s pretended to be. That means she doesn’t have a compelling personal story to tell or any particularly compelling ideas to offer.
Hillary Clinton isn’t a very good speaker. She doesn’t have a compelling personal story to tell or any particularly compelling ideas to offer.
Rhetorical skill alone has become something of an essential skill for the modern politician. It has put several of them on the map as serious presidential contenders, from Ronald Reagan to Mario Cuomo to Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren.Consider the defining campaign speeches. At the 1992 Democratic convention, Bill Clinton memorably invoked his belief in “a place called Hope,” while George H. W. Bush delivered a weak and disjointed address littered with phrases like “serious business” and “You bet.” There were Obama’s 2008 remarks on race and John F. Kennedy’s on religious freedom.
Speechwriters say Clinton’s problems are as much technical as they are substantive. “She’s clearly not a great speaker,” says Robert Lehrman, author of The Political Speechwriter’s Companion and the first chief speechwriter to vice president Al Gore. Lehrman says that voice coaches — most presidential candidates employ them at one time or another — would point to Clinton’s lack of “vocal variety.” “That means she needs to vary pitch, rate, and volume,” he says. “Which in English means, how fast and slow, loud and soft, and high and low you go.”
The problems are about substance and style, too. Ask former Obama aides about Clinton’s problems, and her potential, and they point to one moment: Her win in New Hampshire during the 2008 primary, when “she was speaking passionately about why she was in the race,” says former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau.
Clinton herself seemed to understand as much. After a disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, she mounted a come-from-behind victory over Obama in the New Hampshire primary. At the time, she had been in public life three decades: She had served as first lady of Arkansas, first lady of the United States, and a senator from New York. But having defeated a young upstart who had risen to prominence largely on his rhetorical talents, she thanked her supporters and took a step forward: “Over the last week, I listened to you and, in the process, I found my own voice.”
Three days earlier, Clinton had teared up on the trail when a supporter asked her, simply, how she keeps going. It was — or at least appeared to be — an authentic moment, and it may be why she won the state. “You can’t really plan for an authentic moment, you sort of have to throw caution to the wind,” says Favreau. That’s a challenge for Clinton: Writing about the Whitewater scandal in the mid-1990s, the historian Gary Wills quoted a prosecutor friend of his who said, of Clinton, “This is so big-firm.” Wills went on to say, “Big law firms, like criminal defense lawyers, surrender nothing. If you want something from them you must dig for it.”
So it has been with Clinton, who talked about getting to know the public this way during her 2000 Senate campaign. “‘Who are you?’ and all of that. I don’t know if that is the right question,” she told reporters. “Even people you think you know extremely well, do you know their entire personality? Do they, at every point you’re with them, reveal totally who they are? Of course not. We now expect people in the public arena to somehow do that. I don’t understand the need behind that.”
It’s a stark contrast to Elizabeth Warren, the first-term senator who rose to the upper ranks of her party largely by her talent with crowds. On the campaign trail last year, the Washington Post noted that “One secret of Warren’s success has been her mastery of an old political art: the stump speech.” Unlike other Democrats, the Post said, Warren didn’t offer a “mumbly attack” speech, but used “rhetorical tricks to sweep her audience into a celebration of what she says Democrats get right.”
That is, Warren got personal: she told voters how her own story shaped her beliefs. Her stump speech rallied Democrats around things they, together, believe in. But she also told the audience, “This is personal for me.”
“When I was 12, my big brothers were all off in the military. My mother was 50 years old, a stay-at-home mom. My daddy had a heart attack, and it turned our little family upside down. The bills piled up,” she said. Her mother, she recalled, walked to Sears and got a minimum-wage job that “saved our home-and saved our family.”
Warren, and Obama before her, had the advantage of being able to introduce themselves to the country. Clinton doesn’t.
Warren, and Obama before her, had the advantage of being able to introduce themselves to the country. Clinton doesn’t. “In order to make a great, groundbreaking speech it helps if one has something important, or new, to say,” says Kerwin Swint, a professor of politics at Kennesaw State University. “She doesn’t.” Swint says that, given Clinton’s voluminous public statements over the past three decades, “It’s hard to imagine her making a major policy address that would contain anything she hasn’t already laid bare. It would also be hard to see her making a major ‘personal’ address where she lays bare her soul.”That’s tough to do if you’re a calculating operator focused on the accretion of power.
Whether Clinton has to learn and improve in order to prevail is another question entirely. “Maybe she’s more like [Bob] Dole,” says Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard. “She may just not need it for the nomination.” Whatever the case, Kristol says, “I wouldn’t count on beating her because she can’t give a good speech.”
— Eliana Johnson is Washington editor of National Review.