The Relatable Hillary: What Her Emails Really Reveal

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Hillary Clinton. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

What if the big secret contained in Hillary Clinton’s emails is that she’s not the monster her critics have portrayed her as for decades?

It’s possible of course that Clinton’s email-server drama will be her undoing, the final proof of her reputation as secretive, self-serving, and duplicitous, a permanent dent in the public’s estimation of her from which she will not be able to recover. This is a concern close to the hearts of many Democrats, some anxious enough to voice their concerns that she and her team are handling the email problem, in the words of former Pennsylvania governor and Clinton buddy Ed Rendell, “atrociously.” 

But the other possibility is that the slow reveal of Clinton’s State Department correspondence might well do what generations of Clinton press teams have been unable to do: effectively chip away at long-held perceptions of Hillary as inscrutable, unrelatable, and unlikable.

As the “tranches” of Clinton’s State emails begin to accumulate, thanks in part to Clinton’s careless, unwise decision to conduct her State correspondence over a private server and in part to the unrelenting determination of Representative Trey Gowdy — Clinton’s very own Inspector Javert! — the revelations have been uniformly anticlimactic. The exchanges, most reports agree, are quotidian, mundane. “The banality of some of the e-mails is striking given her stature as one of the world’s most prominent figures,” wrote Peter Baker in July.

Of course, no number of dull emails will ever fully reverse the convictions of her critics that she must have destroyed the really damning stuff. But if the ordinariness continues to build, it might begin to overwhelm the imagined villainy and result in more than just the fizzled hopes of haters. Because relatability is not a neutral outcome when it comes Hillary Rodham Clinton. The “Hillary: She’s Just Like Us” vibe is, in this case, anything but banal.

“One nagging question … hovers above Hillary Clinton,” wrote Mike Barnicle in August in the Daily Beast. “It’s been there for nearly three decades. It’s always there, won’t go away and seems as if it’s never really fully answered and it is this: Who is she? Really, who is she?”

Ironically, there is possibly no modern politician more known — more exposed and debated and parsed — than Hillary Clinton. Her life story, her family, her husband’s infidelities, how many nights they spend together, her undergraduate correspondence with friends and adult correspondence from campaign advisers: This is stuff that has been detailed at length over decades.

But because she presents combinations of traits that are not easily categorized in women (is she competitive or cooperative? tough or kind?) and because her extraordinary position and wary disposition have kept her in a bubble that has meant, for instance, that she’s not driven a car in 20 years, it’s been easy to assume that Clinton has nothing in common with most of the Americans she hopes will elect her president.

Times journalist Mark Leibovich wrote in March about the candidate’s Sisyphean battle to become “relatable.” She is, Leibovich wrote of her public profile, “too rich, too famous, too calculated” to ever read as comprehensible to voters. “Whether or not it’s her fault,” Leibovich suggested, “it is her problem.”

Three months later, one of the first email dumps turned up an exchange between Clinton and her top aide Huma Abedin, as they struggled to set up a fax machine. It’s the kind of nothing-burger event that, if related via a People magazine profile — “Huma and I couldn’t figure out the fax machine!” — would feel ridiculously forced, an awkward bid for connection to readers who have been stymied by their own office equipment, or by bosses or parents they’ve helped with technology. But here it was, not presented ham-handedly by Hillary on some fake PR platter, but drawn out in the emails:

“Can you hang up the fax line, they will call again and try fax” is the subject line from Abedin to Clinton.

“I thought it was supposed to be off hook to work?”

 “Yes but hang up one more time. So they can reestablish the line.”

 “I did.”

 “Just pick up phone and hang it up. And leave it hung up.”

 “I’ve done it twice now.”

It’s an exchange that doesn’t leave you feeling manipulated by the personality press, but rather leaves you viscerally recalling an instance in which you have been one of the people in a similar situation. Just like that — boom — you have related to Hillary Clinton. She has become familiar to you.

This sense of recognition has remained a seemingly insurmountable hurdle for years. Yet here it is, rolled out against her will, in a context intended to make her seem more malevolent and closed-off and entitled-to-special-treatment than ever before. And yes, maybe that narrative will win. But if it doesn’t, and she emerges relatively unscathed, she will be left with acres of examples that challenge the perceptions of her as cold, conniving, humorless, and unsympathetic. And we will be left with a Portrait of the Candidate as a human being.

Her server is loaded with “Are you still up?” messages sent between her and her long-laboring colleagues that nod toward punishing late-night, early-morning hours. Yet alongside them is evidence of Clinton’s gratitude and respect, her encouragement to employees to enjoy vacations, get sleep, spend time with families.

“I hope you had a wonderful holiday season and thank you for all of your help this past year. You’ve been a life saver,” Clinton writes to aide Monica Hanley in early 2010. In the same email she asks about what time Parks and Recreation and The Good Wife air (pause: Hillary likes The Good Wife), requests skim milk for her tea (psst, Hillary, full fat is better for you), and adds “pls remind me to bring more tea cups from home.”

In other emails, there are more traces of her complicated relationship with communicative technology — trying to get the right cell number for Elena Kagan, asking for help setting up her iPad, accidentally forwarding emails with private addresses left on them. In one message, Chelsea kvetches to her mom about the shortcomings of the State Department’s website: “i can’t see video of your talks of q&a sessions – only the text! i think there should be links to the news’ versions if there is not state-created footage.”

Hillary worries about public perceptions of her, checking on the status of magazine stories, wondering why David Brooks “took a shot at me in his column today.” When told that a man has robbed a bank wearing a Hillary mask, she first jokes, “Should I be flattered? Even a little bit?” and then worries, “Do you think the guy chose that mask or just picked up the nearest one?”

We learn that Hillary is a casual (though not criminal) abuser of exclamation points, whether sending her contact information to Susan Rice under the heading “Here it is!” or responding to a cloture vote on health care with “Finally!!!” She remembers to keep promises, asking an aide to schedule an interview “w Carol Evans for her magazine (Parenting? Working Mother? I can’t remember the name). I run into her in Chappaqua all the time and have promised her I’d do it.”

The emails complicate insinuations that Clinton was not all that loyal to Obama. In one, she responds warmly to kind comments made about her by Michelle Obama, noting, “That’s so nice”; in another she writes to David Axelrod, “It’s an honor to serve the president w you.”

She also shows off some of the girlfriend chops we’ve long heard about but rarely had occasion to see. She writes to her longtime associate Capricia Marshall, “I hope this email finds you vacationing somewhere w your two guys,” and conveys glad tidings to a male colleague’s wife, urging him to “take her away for a night or weekend … anywhere sans kids.” “Have a great time!” she writes to Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills, “and let me know what you think of Punta Cana.”

There are some hilarious exchanges with the all-thumbs BlackBerry-wielder and Maryland senator Barbara Mikulski, who writes to Clinton after the passage of the health-care bill in the House: “The. Nuns pushed it over the finish line----as usual in the fcore front of. Social. Justice and a daring willingness. To break with the. Boys----  if you need a tonic. Go to the. Nuns exhibit @ the. Smithsonian…Gives the 250 year history of. Nuns in. Usa. And their role in shaping. Our country and producing 1000s of women leaders with names like. Pelosi. Mikulski. Ferrar0. Sebilius.”

Clinton responds, “Let’s hear it for the nuns … Now, let’s wrap this up in the Senate and go drink something unhealthy!”

This is some of the best accidental PR Hillary Clinton has ever had, showing us — rather than awkwardly telling us — that, to borrow a well-worn electoral metric, she’s someone we might very much like to drink unhealthily with (preferably in Punta Cana). No, that beer-sharing quality shouldn’t be a measure of political viability, but Hillary — who’s rarely managed more than “likable enough” — knows better than anyone that it is.

This is not to suggest smooth sailing ahead for Clinton. The correspondence is rife with redactions, fertile blanks in which nefarious scenarios hatch and thrive. Even the non-redacted ones contain mysteries. The gefilte fish thing has been solved (there was an actual foreign-policy crisis involving carp!), and emails about meet-ups with “Santa” — perhaps a Clinton fat-cat flying around the globe on a private vehicle, distributing freebies and currying favor with impressionable boys and girls? — turn out to indicate appointments with her Chappaqua hairdresser Santa Nikkels. However, I remain personally transfixed by why Clinton’s childhood friend Betsy Ebeling might have passed along to Hillary a profile of Keith Richards under the heading “for your mom…” Dorothy Rodham: Who knew?

But barring the possibility that more serious breaches are turned up, these emails may do the work a thousand soft magazine profiles never could have: letting us in on the fact that after all these years, we do know Hillary Clinton. And she’s not half bad.