‘I Get a Little Wonky’

In a nondescript classroom on the grounds of the Electrical Training Institute of IBEW Local 11, amid the stuff of a campaign-event holding room—bottles of water, tea, a Sharpie laid out next to a few placards and photos that need autographing for local supporters—Hillary Clinton sat down with NEWSWEEK's Jon Meacham for an interview that ranged from her childhood in suburban Park Ridge, Ill., to John Wesley, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King Jr. and, of course, Barack Obama. Edited excerpts:

Meacham: The line in your victory speech in New Hampshire that jumped out at me was "I listened to you, and in the process I found my own voice." What did you mean?
Well, the election in New Hampshire was the most intense political and public experience I've ever had. It is four days where I had to do everything I could to make my case to the voters of New Hampshire. I was 13, 15 points down; Barack had done an excellent job of organizing in Iowa. What I realized is that the reason I do this, why I get up every day, why I believe in our country and the importance of leadership, was not getting across the way that I wanted it to. I get so focused on what I want to do as president that I get a little wonky. I get a little out there, with details, with five-point plans for this and 10-point plans for that, and I think that what I'm proposing really is both achievable and important, but it's not what gets me up, so why should it get voters excited?

It sounds almost overly simplistic, but I had enough time in the Senate race for people to see me as a human being, they could see me in all of my dimensions, and they could draw their own conclusions. They could discover that I really mean what I say, that I come from a family and a faith tradition where I do think it's about what you do and not what you say, and they could put all that together. But in the presidential campaign, I think I sort of pocketed too much of that. I thought, well, I've been in the public eye for so long now, and as a senator I first defied expectations to get elected and immediately went to work with Republicans, I did a lot to try to solve the problems we faced, so, obviously, people will [infer] that I'm doing it because I really care about the outcomes. I don't think that was a smart assumption for me to make, or for my campaign to make, very honestly. And so what I decided to do in New Hampshire was really to go back almost to those earliest days when I was running in New York, where people didn't really know what to think, or what to expect, and where I went out every day and did everything I could to show myself, explain myself. I was on a listening tour in 1999 and 2000, and that listening tour enabled me not just to be elected senator but to be re-elected with 67 percent of the vote. So I went back to listening, and to really engaging the voters, and just laid it all out there for them to make their judgments.

There is something counterintuitive about listening to find one's voice, and raises the old question of leadership about to what extent is a leader a maker or a mirror of the country.
In this environment, you have a greater chance of success of being a maker if people who now have multiple sources of information believe that you understand them, you are connected with them, you are fighting for them, you are in politics not for yourself but for them.

So your voice now, as you describe it, is telling people not only what you want to do, but who you are, and you are going to be telling that story more.
Exactly … Look, I am not great at talking about myself. That is not my personality, it's not how I was raised, I am more reserved than that, I am not someone who will bare my soul at the drop of a hat. But what I have realized is that in our political environment, for a lot of good reasons, people need to know, people need to understand. One of the most emotional events we had in Iowa was where my best friend from sixth grade who is still very dear to me, where a woman from Long Island whom I helped with a sick child, where another person I had helped in Katrina who was a conservative Republican investment banker, all came to Iowa and said, "We want to talk about you—you're doing a lousy job of it yourself" … and so I said, "Fine, you go do it." That was a beginning, but I have to use my voice to tell people who I am, where I come from, why this is important and what I will do.

My sense of your theological world view, to oversimplify, is that it is more in line with Lincoln and Niebuhr than with, say, more feel-good kinds of evangelism. Life is tragic, and all that.
Yes. Life is tragic, human beings are flawed, you can't take anything or anyone for granted, it may not be there tomorrow, and you have to rely on yourself—and hopefully, if you are a good person, you will also take care of other people on the way and try to give them the opportunities to also withstand the vagaries and vicissitudes of life.

Do you agree with Niebuhr that "the sad duty of politics is to establish justice in a sinful world"?
I agree with him that that always has to be one of the missions. I believe that human nature being what it is, our Founders were not only political philosophers but great psychologists, and understood the limits of human power but also the reach of human ambition … But I also believe that human beings are capable of not only the most debasing and terrible actions but ennobling and enlightening ones as well.

How important is Wesley and your faith?
It is the core of who I am. In my family, we were Americans, we were Republicans and we were Methodists. It all kind of combined in me to motivate me in my faith life, in love of my country, in my work in politics. "Do all the good you can"—how do you do that?

A theologian once described Wesley's doctrine as "the push of duty and the pull of grace."
I feel that every day. I have been sustained over the course of my life by prayer, and by those who have prayed for me, by my understanding and commitment to my faith, and by those inexplicable moments of grace. Sometimes you are down as far as you can go, and you are there for a long time before it happens. And you try really hard to make it happen and it doesn't happen, and you have to be willing to let it go … What happened to me last Monday morning in Portsmouth [N.H.] was a moment of grace. It was so touching and so affecting to me. If I had sat down and thought of a thousand ways I can better let people know who I am, and what I care about, that would not have been on the list, but it was who I am and what I care about, and it was a connection that I find often when I am out doing this work. I have been so run through the gauntlets time and time again, I've had my motives questioned, my personality, my performance, everything derided and undermined.

The fact that you and Senator Obama are running is prompting a lot of soul-searching in the Democratic Party. A pastor in South Carolina told us, "I really hate that they had to run at the same time in the same election. It just makes what should be a wonderful situation very stressful for folk like me."
And I understand that. What a good problem to have. Two leading candidates for president, a woman and an African-American, who are being viewed, I hope, on our merits, our qualifications, our records, our plans, our vision. I don't think it's easy for either of us. And I really commend Senator Obama for the very graceful way that he has navigated this campaign. I wish it didn't have to be a choice. I think a lot of people who are torn between us feel that way. But it is a contest, and the contrasts have to be drawn and the questions have to be asked because, obviously, I wouldn't be in this race and working as hard as I am unless I thought I am uniquely qualified at this moment in our history to be the president we need starting in 2009 … I think it is informed by my deep experience over the last 35 years, my firsthand knowledge of what goes on inside a White House.

Senator, the Obama campaign has accused you and your husband of being racist in the "fairy tale" comment of the president's and your President Johnson remark.
I find it both baseless and divisive. I believe so strongly that both Bill and I have been champions for civil rights and human rights. I personally am offended by what they have tried to do in a very misleading way with what I've said about two of my personal icons, President Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And I hope that this will not become an issue in the campaign. I was personally moved and profoundly influenced by hearing Dr. King when I was a 14-year-old child. I was so admiring of the extraordinary work he did over so many years, risking his life, his family's life, being beaten and gassed and jailed, standing up for common human decency and the rights of every person to be given their full due under our laws. And if it had not been for him and the work he did, we would not have made the progress that we achieved. Many people played a role in that, and I think Dr. King would tell you, he lobbied, he campaigned, he was on the front lines, not just in the civil- rights marches but in political debates, and I think it is important that everyone recognize the profound and extraordinary historic contribution he made—which I certainly do. And on the other characterization, my husband can speak for himself, but that is certainly not what anyone who was there thought he said. He was specifically referring to the sequence of claims and actions around Senator Obama's Iraq record, which I think is fair game. I think it's appropriate for people to have information. We are getting into some very difficult days coming up in this campaign. I am going to continue to draw the contrasts that really began in earnest during the debate in New Hampshire, but I am going to hope that everybody takes a deep breath. I was shocked when Senator Obama's chief strategist practically accused me of being somehow responsible for Benazir Bhutto's assassination. There is just a lot that people say that you regret, and there are things that you say that get taken out of context and are used inappropriately, and I think we ought to stick to the facts as much as possible.

You said some of us are right and some of us are wrong, some of us are ready and some of us are not. Is Senator Obama right enough or experienced enough to be vice president?
[Laughs.] Well, I'm going to stay focused on where I am right now. I'm an admirer of his; I campaigned for him; I raised money for him. When Bill and I were invited to go down to New Orleans to see firsthand the tragedy of what happened in Katrina and Rita, I called Senator Obama and asked him to come with us. I am a very big admirer of his, and I think the sky is the limit for him—in the future. [Laughs.]

Join the Discussion