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US elections 2016

'A lot of hogwash in the critique of Hillary'

The art of political storytelling is something US presidential aspirants often struggle with. Enter Burns Strider who was senior advisor and "faith guru" to Hillary Clinton in 2008. DW caught up with him in Virginia.

The first time Burns Strider and Hillary Clinton crossed paths was on a remote, worn-out street outside Beijing, 20 years ago. The motorcade of the former first lady, who is now setting herself up to become the first female president of the United States, was en route to the convention center where Clinton would go on to give her famed "Human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights" speech. Burns and a buddy were looking to hitchhike back to the city after they had spent two weeks on the Great Wall. The motorcade didn't stop.

"I remember telling my friend - I'd like to meet that woman one of these days," Strider says now, laughing, during an extended interview with DW in his office in Arlington, Virginia.

In 2008, Strider was a senior adviser to Clinton's failed shot at the Democratic nomination for president. Arguably Strider's biggest talent, and certainly one that catapulted him to the ranks of a close Clinton confidante, is his ability to enchant voters by telling a story.

DW: Tell me a story about Hillary Clinton.

Burns Strider: One day she was giving a talk. It was a really packed day. She didn't know this event had been put on her schedule. She wasn't happy at all. I was the one who put it on the schedule. As the motorcade comes into this tiny town, the whole town is like a parade. Then we get to this packed high school gymnasium. She gives a great talk. She is in a better mood when it is over. But then [former White House political director] Minyon Moore calls me and says, 'There is a reporter here, and she needs about 15 minutes with Senator Clinton.' I tell Hillary. She looks at me for a second, and she says, 'Why doesn't she walk with me to the SUV?' The first thing this reporter asks Hillary is, 'What is your most important achievement?' Hillary turns quickly, looks at her and says: 'My daughter, Chelsea.' She turns and keeps going. I thought, 'That is the coolest answer.'

You have spent a lot of your time in politics preaching the importance of storytelling. Where does that come from?

I came to DC from the Mississippi Delta 20 years ago. The one thing that I noticed very quickly was that in meetings, to get a point across I would tell a story. Lots of other people would just provide facts and numbers. It always seemed like I'd get my point across better. It's often said that Southerners need to tell a story as much as they need oxygen.

But how does that apply to the often hard-fought game of politics?

It is really easy to walk up to someone's front door, knock on it and espouse why they should vote for someone using statistics. Once you are finished, they say thank you and close the door. But if you knock on that door and you drop a little story, something personal - chances are they are going to invite you in for some iced tea.

So it is about making the connection on a personal level. A lot of people argue that Hillary Clinton struggles with exactly that connection.

Maybe a paradox is that the person I know is a really funny and nice storyteller, just sitting somewhere having coffee. Some of this is one of those very built-up assumptions over time that people just go with. It is easier to stick with what you have already heard. Some of it is to encourage her to tell her stories. She really likes to talk about solutions. She really likes to talk about policy. I was policy director for the House Democratic caucus once and I don't like talking about policy. But she loves it.

woman gesticulating Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Now, if I could only remember that punchline...

So what you are saying is, sometimes it can be hard to follow her?

It is fascinating from the perspective of the listeners, who will literally tell you, 'Boy, she is really smart. She knows how to fix things. But I just couldn't connect with her.'

It can be frustrating.

If Hillary Clinton is such a great storyteller, how about some proof?

We were on a plane one night traveling back home. She starts talking about when Bill was governor of Arkansas. They lived in the governor's mansion in Little Rock. Chelsea was young and went to a local public school. Chelsea had an assignment for Monday that they learned about on Sunday. It was to bring an exotic fruit to school. They went to the supermarket, found a coconut and brought it back home. They started trying to cut it open. They couldn't. They used hammers. 'And, at some point,' she says, 'Bill was out in the parking lot, slamming it against the concrete.' She was laughing, we were all laughing. I still enjoy the image of President Clinton trying to bust open a coconut on the concrete driveway.

So do you think the whole notion of her being unrelatable is unfair? After all, being 'relatable' is the kind of feeling you try to create by telling a story.

Is Miss Merkel relatable?

People certainly have different opinions on that...

Is that an issue?

Again, it depends on who you ask. I guess the question is: Do you want a commander-in-chief or a storyteller-in-chief?

There is a lot of hogwash in the critique of Hillary. There is a crowd mentality to certain issues. All of a sudden it is just part of who a person is. Sometimes trying to change the media's perception is like trying to nail jelly to a tree. It just ain't gonna happen.

Is political storytelling different than the kind of storytelling an author or us journalists do?

A story has to be authentic and something that is real. And if you are a candidate, it should be about you.

How about a story about Bill Clinton?

Eight years ago, he and I are traveling through South Carolina, and we are near the last stop. We are in a motorcade. President Clinton looks at me and says, ‘I think I want a Diet Coke. Do you want a Diet Coke?' Immediately, the Secret Service agents are talking into their sleeves. Satellites are linking up, all kinds of things are going on. About three miles down the road, we pull off into a gravel parking lot with a general store around. We are way out in rural South Carolina. The guy at the gas pump has this Fu Manchu mustache. He wears one of those mechanic overalls with the oval patch with his name on it, and a cap. He has been working. He is greasy. He just watches us go into the store. We get a Diet Coke. President Clinton says, ‘Let's get a moon pie.' We leave, and we are walking back to the motorcade. The guy is still pumping gas. Then he starts walking toward us. He is just unnerving enough that the Secret Service steps a little closer. The boy walks up, sticks out his hand, and still with a very expressionless face, he says, ‘I want to thank you for a damn good eight years.'

man pointing, woman laughing copyright: Reuters/A.Latif

Master and apprentice?

A presidential candidate can't knock on every door, though. How do you prepare grassroots activists to go out and do the work? Not all of them have ridden in President Clinton's motorcade...

I am still pretty amazed they are letting me into their motorcade after all this time. I

work with local and regional surrogates

- like state senators that are for Hillary or somebody who's first cousin went to law school with Big Dawg [Bill Clinton]. I may go into a town and spend a day with 25 folks. But that is 25 people that by the end of the day are going to share their support of Secretary Clinton much better.

But when you preach the importance of storytelling, doesn't a Donald Trump defy that logic? He doesn't tell a story.

A subset of evangelicalism essentially follows the prosperity gospel. You'll find it a lot in televangelism. The essence of it is where the preacher will say, 'Look at me. Look at all the blessings God has given me. If you want to be blessed, follow me, and God will see that you are faithful - so send your check.' It is all about God recognizing their faithfulness and making them rich, too. Trump says, 'I am a winner. I have always been a winner. If you follow me, you will be a winner, too.' He has offered no policy. He has really offered no bio - except that he is rich. We already knew that.

Who was the best storyteller in contemporary US political history?

It is kind of hard to leave President Clinton out of that category. One is certainly Franklin Roosevelt. He captured the attention of the nation with what he called fireside chats. He did it over the radio. There wasn't TV available. Practically every American gathered around their radio with their family and would listen to him.

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