Hillary Clinton was elected president for the first time in 1968. At the time she was a student, her surname wasn’t yet Clinton but Rodham, and she presided only over her university’s student body.
Yet she was already showing the qualities that would later pave her way into the halls of power: a combative spirit, determination and strong leadership skills.
Four years at Wellesley College, a small elite women’s liberal-arts school near Boston, carved a left-wing liberal civil rights activist out of a young Republican, who had actively campaigned for the arch-conservative U.S. presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. It was a time of unrest and riots. In the fight for racial justice, tensions between white and black communities had exploded; protests against the Vietnam War had escalated. American was divided, confused and a new generation was loudly demanding their views be heard.
In the same year Ms. Clinton was elected student body president, she spoke at her class graduation ceremony. This was the first time in the college’s history that a student was allowed to speak at the event. Ms. Clinton used the podium to criticize moderate Republican Senator, Edward Brooke, the first African American popularly elected to the United States Senate. Mr. Brooke had preceded her as the guest speaker with just a few half-baked words.
The speech marked the start of her political career long before she had decided to become a politician. “We feel that for too long our leaders have viewed politics as the art of the possible,” she told the gathered crowd, “and the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.”
Ms. Clinton turned 69-years-old this week. Two-thirds of Americans think the Democratic candidate will be elected the first woman president of the United States of America in a few days. She will most likely write history, once again. At the same time, she must prove she has mastered the art of doing what she once dreamed of as a young idealist – “making what appears to be impossible possible.” What this means above all is to reconcile a divided nation in the wake of an election campaign that was not only grueling but filled with hate.
“I’m reaching out to all Americans. Democrats, Republicans, and independents, because we need everybody to help make our country what it should be.”
Ms. Clinton knows what an enormous task awaits her and is already positioning herself as a unifying force. Following a tirade of insults from her Republican rival Donald Trump during the third televised debate, Ms. Clinton appealed to viewers. “I’m reaching out to all Americans,” she said. “Democrats, Republicans, and independents, because we need everybody to help make our country what it should be.”
Hillary Clinton has spent half her life in politics. Never content to simply stand at her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s side, she has long proven her ability as a politician in her roles as First Lady, a New York senator and as Secretary of State. Her former boss, President Barack Obama, said of her, “I can say with confidence there has never been a man or a woman more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as President of the United States of America.”
But if Ms. Clinton moves into the White House for the second time in her life, there will be no grace period or honeymoon. The presidential hopeful’s experience is at the same time a curse and decades of trench warfare against the Republicans have left their mark. Ms. Clinton would be taking office with the burden of being one of the most unpopular politicians in the country. Only Mr. Trump has worse ratings.
The image of Clinton gnawing at the collective American consciousness is that she is dishonest and devious and thinks she is subject to special rules. The Republicans will do everything in their power to perpetuate these ideas. No scandal will be forgotten. Not the private email server she used as head of the State Department, not the security forces’ failure in the 2012 terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, not the business practices of the Clinton family foundation, not her husband’s affairs with women.
The congressional investigation of the Benghazi affair alone took more time than the Watergate affair. But it ultimately found no wrongdoing on the part of Ms. Clinton in the attack that killed four Americans in Libya. It has so far been a similar story with the FBI investigation into the Democrat’s email practices. Still, from the Republicans’ point of view, the investigations have been worth it for the damage they have caused to Ms. Clinton’s reputation.
As Ms. Clinton’s conservative adversaries have long been anticipating a loss for Mr. Trump, preparations are underway for a permanent battle with a Clinton administration. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the United States House Committee on Oversight in the House of Representatives, has just announced new investigations into Ms. Clinton’s email controversy. “Even before we get to day one, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up,” he told the Washington Post in joyful anticipation.
This material comes from the hacked email account of Ms. Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. Wikileaks, an organization that releases secret and classified information, has been serving up tidbits of new information daily. The Republicans appear unfazed that in the unanimous assessment of the American secret services, Wikileaks is aiding the Kremlin’s data spies in doing so. The witch hunt against Ms. Clinton justifies the means. Yet what is revealed on Mr. Podesta’s mailbox, besides shopping lists and recipes for risotto, is largely innocuous. Petty jealousies amongst the political aides and the isolated gossipy attacks against the Clintons’ daughter, Chelsea, might be good soap opera fodder, but don’t count as a national crisis.
Anyone can read what they want into the documents. Ms. Clinton’s aides recognized early on what a liability her private email server and the Clinton Foundation would become. And Ms. Clinton’s critics see proof of her corruption in that she appears suspect even to her closest advisors. On the contrary, those who deem her competent, see her staff’s foresight as evidence of their professionalism, willingness to face criticism and ability to arm themselves for every eventuality.
In August 2015, for example, policy advisor Neera Tanden criticized Ms. Clinton for not publicly communicating any “genuine feelings of remorse and regret” in order to put the email controversy to bed. This, she is quoted as saying, could “become a character problem.” In later emails, Ms. Tanden and Mr. Podesta found fault with Ms. Clinton’s instincts in crisis management. Mr. Podesta predicted the email situation could worsen. “We’ve taken on a lot of water that won’t be easy to pump out of the boat.” Time proved him right. Nothing has been more damaging to Ms. Clinton these past months than the email scandal.
But the most interesting insight to come out of the Wikileaks material is something else entirely. Ms. Clinton and her advisors had a hard time coming up with a motive for her candidacy. That Ms. Clinton wants power is certain. But for what purpose? She will have to formulate a vision for America, after the election at the latest. That is the only chance this political veteran will have of beating Republican opposition.
Moritz Koch is Handelsblatt’s Washington correspondent. To contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org