Her husband, Bill Clinton, had his saxophone and easy grin. President Obama had his grandiose, over-the-top, Greek-columned campaign, buoyed by ecstatic supporters. Even Donald Trump, her wacky and gaffe-prone opponent, has a certain plucky joie de vivre. But alas, for Hillary Clinton, the first female major-party nominee for president of the United States, it seems impossible to shake a persistent crabby vibe.
Take a recent Tuesday in July, on which Clinton should have been in a heck of a giddy mood, or at least elated and relieved. That morning, FBI director James Comey gave the nation a blistering account of Clinton’s “extremely careless” handling of national-security secrets, indicating that the former secretary of state had almost certainly broken the law in some way, shape, or form — and then recommended that she be let off the hook, consequence-free.
When you think about it, bubbles and rainbows should have been shooting out of Clinton’s pantsuit lapels. Yet later that day, free as a bird, standing on a North Carolina stage with President Obama at her side, fresh off a ride on Air Force One, Clinton seemed in dire need of a very tiny, very sad trombone. “It means so much to me personally to have the president’s support in this campaign,” she said in a plodding tone as a nonchalant Obama slouched behind her on a chair. “After all” — and here began the slow creep of a knowing, forced smile — “he knows a thing or two about winning elections, take it from me!”
Ah, yes, the 2008 election, which Hillary thought she had in the bag. The election in which Obama told Clinton she was “likeable enough,” when he really meant that she wasn’t likeable at all. Behind the podium that Tuesday, Hillary took a sardonic turn: “In some places, you know, the person who loses an election gets exiled or executed, not asked to be secretary of state.” Obama chuckled. A titter of awkward laughter swept the crowd. Next, as an illustration, Clinton called a mournful mariachi band to the stage, each member dressed up like a former presidential hopeful, and had them abruptly guillotined.
Fine, fine. I’m kidding about that last part. But seriously: Who says these things? Who can fail to see the lurking subtle hint of despair? One thing is clear: There is no joy to be found in Clintonville — at least not this time around the campaign trail.
This is odd and rather incredible, given that Hillary Rodham Clinton is running against Donald Trump, who seems at times to be doing his very best to help her. It’s a scenario that baffles some of the most weathered politicos: Donald Trump, that tornado of ego and hubris and unspecified drive, is also a master creator of unnecessary brouhahas — he has a “knack for creating controversy out of thin air,” as the New York Times recently put it. And his kerfuffles almost always manage, conveniently, to take the spotlight off Clinton’s continual ethical woes.
In the same week when Clinton seemed to skate away from the FBI, Trump cheerfully embarked on a well-timed and epic gaffe spree. He repeatedly and enthusiastically praised Saddam Hussein’s killing ability. He vigorously defended a “Star of David” image his campaign had apparently copied from an anti-Semitic message board, rather than simply letting the story die. At a meeting with GOP senators — ostensibly, it was for “unity” — he labeled Mark Kirk a loser and threatened Jeff Flake. He declared that he would protect Article XII of the Constitution, which does not exist. Oh, and he mischievously implied to the New York Times that if he were elected, he might not even take the job: “I’ll let you know how I feel about it after it happens.”
Trump has told reporters that it’s “sort of boring” to rip into Clinton and that when he does it, he’s “doing it because I feel I have to do it.” He’d simply rather talk about other things. Trump has taken so much heat off Clinton, in fact, that serious people have given more than a sliver of thought to the conspiracy theory that he’s simply a thunderous pro-Hillary plant.
Despite all of this, amazingly, Clinton still can’t seem to loosen up and have a little fun. On the Fourth of July, for instance, there were few proverbial sparklers or festive balloons or freedom-minded fun times in the ponderous pageant produced by Hillaryworld. Rather, there were lectures.
“Here’s to 240 years of progress,” Clinton’s campaign tweeted on that otherwise jolly day. “Don’t let anyone tell you that great things can’t happen in America. Barriers can come down. Justice and equality can win. Our history has moved in that direction slowly at times but unmistakably, thanks to generations of Americans who refused to give up or back down.” Americans, she chastised in another tweet, should not be “small” but should try to live up to the better ideals of their country. Happy Independence Day! Where’s that sad trombone?
Drudgery and duty are dual trademarks of the Clinton campaign, driven by the assumption that it’s Clinton’s time, and a woman’s time, for the presidency. She is owed this, you see, but she’s certainly not going to enjoy the ride if she can help it. There are many sighs — one, amusingly, that she recently read verbatim as “sigh,” off her own teleprompter — and there are barrels of oppression to drain. It all makes for a long, dour march. In a recent Vogue profile, Clinton greets the reporter with a “cartoon happy” sarcastic voice, startling him in the hall: “Well hello, Jonathan. Isn’t this fun?” Yikes, lady. It does not seem fun at all.
Later, a world-weary Clinton tells Vogue that the United States might not be “ready” for its first female president. “You know, I really don’t know,” she sighs. “I think it’s gotten better. But I think there still is a very deep set of concerns that people have. . . . You get little hints that maybe they’re not as comfortable with a woman being in an executive position.” This sad-sack approach becomes all the more hilarious when you remember that people like the director of the FBI appear to be perfectly comfortable with it, so much so that they recommended not enforcing the law.
At her rally with Obama, Clinton managed to take a gloomy turn when listing the president’s accomplishments. “I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for saving our economy!” she hollered, showing an uncanny ability to turn a supposed achievement into a tale of woe.
The once-robust Bill Clinton, unconditionally beloved by many Democrats, seems hollow and tired on this particular campaign trail. Hillary, meanwhile, has lapsed into now-infamous intermittent hacking fits, coughing, as writer Tucker Carlson recently put it, “like a Romantic poet” beset by consumption. Even the storied Clinton wealth is rendered dreary under the larger shadow of the campaign. It is cloudy and hidden and forever unspoken, amassed as it was from verboten 1 percent haunts like Goldman Sachs.
“I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama,” Clinton admitted during a Democratic debate in March. “I have to do the best that I can.” This certainly deserves two cheers for honesty and self-reflection. It would also explain, however, incidents like the one at a Minnesota coffee shop in March, when Clinton snapped at a young woman peppering her about candidate diversity: “Why don’t you go run for something, then!” Recovering quickly, as if remembering the omnipresent cameras, she promptly stepped back and merrily cackled.
“I’ve been called a lot of things, but quitter is not one of them,” Clinton declared in June. To be fair, running for president is an exhausting enterprise, with people asking how you’re going to balance the budget and bring back manufacturing and cure their arthritis at every turn — or wondering, as in one recent case for Hillary Clinton, how the federal government is planning to stop “revenge porn.”
The question came during a campaign town hall for “YouTube creators” — what a country! — and Clinton looked bone-tired. Exhausted. There had been many events like this; there would be many ahead. Deep down, perhaps she even knew that there was no way she could personally end revenge porn. But never mind: Clinton pieced together an answer, perhaps out of whole cloth, and soldiered forward. There was no joy in Clintonville, but the show, as always, must go on.
– Heather Wilhelm is a senior contributor to The Federalist and a weekly columnist for RealClearPolitics.