Hillary Clinton
Credit: Hillary for Iowa/Wikimedia Commons

To follow politics over the last 20+ years is to have been presented with an unflattering image of Hillary Clinton. Like any human being, she has her strengths and weaknesses. But the narrative that has developed about her as cold, distant and too ambitious permeates almost everything. It is no wonder that so many people find her to be unlikeable and untrustworthy.

Recently a couple of journalists have written articles that break through that caricature of Clinton. First was one by Ruby Cramer that explored her rhetorical and practical commitment to “love and kindness” going back to her days at Wellesley. Another one came from Rebecca Traister.

I spent several days with Hillary Clinton near the end of primary season — which, in campaign time, feels like a month, so much is packed into every hour — and I began to see why her campaign is so baffled by the disconnect. Far from feeling like I was with an awkward campaigner, I watched her do the work of retail politics — the handshaking and small-talking and remembering of names and details of local sites and issues — like an Olympic athlete. Far from seeing a remote or robotic figure, I observed a woman who had direct, thoughtful, often moving exchanges: with the Wheelers, with home health-care workers and union representatives and young parents.

It comes as no surprise that both of these accounts come from female journalists. As we watch a woman become the first presumptive nominee of a major political party, it is important to keep an eye on the kinds of stereotypes that we have developed about presidential campaigns over the years from watching how male candidates operate. All of that is why Ezra Klein deserves major kudos for a piece he published today. Not only is he viewing the subject through male eyes, his reputation as a journalist has been built on being a true wonk. Klein breaks out of his own image to provide an insightful look at Hillary Clinton.

At the beginning, Klein tells us that he embarked on a search to answer a question about Clinton.

This is an effort to answer a question I’ve been struggling with since at least 2008: Why is the Hillary Clinton described to me by her staff, her colleagues, and even her foes so different from the one I see on the campaign trail?

As he interviewed friends and associates of hers going back to her time in Arkansas, the answer he got was surprisingly consistent.

Every single person brought up, in some way or another, the exact same quality they feel leads Clinton to excel in governance and struggle in campaigns…

Hillary Clinton, they said over and over again, listens.

Klein goes on to point out that over the years campaigns have been designed to work well for men – who tend to be better at talking than listening. The recent Democratic primary pitted the ultimate male talker who excelled at big rallies against the ultimate female listener who performed much better in small groups. That is what the media noticed. But away from the spotlight, here’s how it went down:

Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination by forming a coalition. And part of how she forms coalitions is by listening to her potential partners — both to figure out what they need and to build her relationships with them. This is not a skill all politicians possess.

Listening is a big part of how Clinton will govern – where it is much better suited to the task at hand than it is in campaigns. Here is how she described that to Klein and his summary:

“A lot of governing is the slow, hard boring of hard boards,” she says. “I don’t think there’s anything sexy, exciting, or headline-grabbing about it. I think it is getting up every day, building the relationships, finding whatever sliver of common ground you can occupy, never, ever giving up in continuing to reach out even to people who are sworn political partisan adversaries.”…

Colleagues say Clinton uses the tension between her and Republicans to her advantage. Former adversaries feel awkward when they first meet her — they expect bad blood, bitter feelings, sniping. Instead, she’s friendly, charming, interested in them. She treats them like an old friend. She — here it is again — listens intently to what they say and tries to find common ground.

In other words, this is part of Clinton’s theory of change. Whether or not it is successful in breaking through the partisan obstruction that President Obama has faced remains to be seen. Skepticism would definitely be in order.

Of course, like any imperfect human being, Clinton’s greatest strength is also the source of her biggest challenge. Not only does it hamper her ability to give inspirational stump speeches, her laundry list of wonky proposals that are designed to address the issues raised by her coalition make it difficult to zero in on the big picture and provide an overwhelming vision for her candidacy. That has been a historical issue for Democrats – who have always had a more diverse coalition than Republicans. But as Klein puts it, “consensus is the enemy of inspiration.” When/if Clinton is elected president, we’ll be hearing a lot of criticism about that.

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