1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Who is Hillary?

Jefferson Chase
October 31, 2016

Although she's spent 30 years in the public eye, many voters still feel they don't know the real Hillary Clinton. Her biographers say that's because the Democrat is a complex - and sometimes contradictory - personality.

Hillary Clinton
Image: Reuters/J. Young

Hillary Clinton may be considered non-transparent, even duplicitous, by a slight majority of Americans, but there's an extraordinary amount of consensus among her serious biographers about what she's really like.

Hard-working, driven, dogged, bipartisan, analytical, moderate, methodical, conservative and occasionally arrogant are the adjectives used repeatedly when you ask people who have written about Clinton to describe her. Karen Blumenthal, author of Clinton biography aimed at young people, goes as far as to call her the "nerdy student kind," which is both a strength and a weakness."

"She doesn't have that inspirational charismatic approach of her husband or Barack Obama," Blumenthal says. "She's the sort of person you'd want next door … But we Americans find that kind of boring. In essence she's kind of boring."

Pleased to meet: Hillary Clinton

Richard Kreitner, a writer at the venerable left-wing magazine "The Nation," has a similar take on the woman who attracts record negative public opinion ratings for a modern Democratic presidential candidate yet was voted America's most admired woman more than 20 times.

"Americans like people who work hard and are dogged," he says. "They may admire her without wanting her to be president."

Detractors may attack her as a liberal, but she actually started out as a Republican. And that's still reflected in her personality.

"She's someone who's very driven, very methodical and very much more conservative in methodology and lifestyle choices than many of her critics would understand," British Clinton biographer James D. Boys.

Those might be considered good qualities in a different political environment. But Clinton's centrist ability and willingness to compromise has negative as well as positive aspects.

Senatorin Hillary Clinton
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. C. Mitchell

Convictions and political expedience

All three of the Clinton analysts agree that there are issues to which she is committed, including child protection, women's rights, universal health care, social equity and a rational, if slightly hawkish foreign policy. But for Kreitner, the former first lady, New York senator and US secretary of state is also a "master politician," who will be malleable if it's in the interests of her career.

"She goes wherever the wind blows," Kreitner argues. "So she'll vote for the war in Iraq if that seems like the political expedient thing to do. Hillary Clinton can be used for good or ill based on whoever has the power at the moment."

Blumenthal points out that Clinton drew praise from both Democrats and Republicans for her work in the Senate, where her bipartisanship proved effective. The reverse side of the coin is that Clinton's agenda is often unclear.

"It's hard to know what she really wants because she listens to the polls and prevailing opinion and sometimes moves to the left or the right in response," Blumenthal says.

And that ambiguity is reinforced by what Boys singles out as her most dominant characteristic: her desire for privacy.

Public figure, private woman

Bill und Hillary Clinton
Clinton first became a household name as first ladyImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Naltchayan

Unlike her husband, Barack Obama or even her Republican rival Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton has never seemed entirely at ease on the public stage. In keeping with her somewhat austere, buttoned-down middle-class upbringing, she's intensely protective of her family, as was amply shown when she defended her husband amidst his infidelity scandals in the 1990s.

But that trait contributes to the notion that she has things to hide. The Clintons have faced  repeated allegations about shady business dealings, and Hillary herself has often gotten herself into hot water, perhaps most damagingly when it emerged that she had run a private email server while secretary of state.

"The emails are part of a wider narrative of what she sees as privacy and what her critics say is secrecy," Boys says. "It must be said that the Clinton maxim is: It's better to get caught than to ask permission."

Blumenthal thinks that the desire for privacy occasionally clouds her judgement.

"She's incredibly bright, but she does some of the dumbest things," Blumenthal says. "I'd put the emails into that category. That runs completely contrary to every kind of transparency. I think it was about trying to keep some part of her life out of the public eye." 

But Kreitner also identifies a measure of "arrogance" that comes from having enjoyed power for so long.

"The email scandal is demonstrative of her way of doing things, believing that the rules don't apply to the Clintons," Kreitner says.

The personality problem

Hillary Clinton with supporters in West Palm Beach
Clinton has problems with her public personaImage: Reuters/C. Barria

Whatever mistakes Clinton has made and whatever scandals she's embroiled herself in, if the race for president were about experienced political leadership, it would have been over as soon as she secured the Democratic nomination, and the Republicans handed the reins to Trump. While many Americans may not feel they know - or can trust - Clinton, they certainly have a good idea what they’ll get if she moves back into the White House.

So, given the often outrageous flaws of her main competitor, why has she failed to put this election - so to speak - to bed? Boys attributes that to the challenges of finding a viable persona as a woman in the male-dominated world of politics.

"It all comes down to personality," Boys says. "What she lacks are Obama's soft skills that make him so likeable. She's not someone that the American people have ever or will ever likely warm to. She believes that if she shows a softer, more human side, it will be perceived as a weakness."

Instead of projecting herself in public, Clinton often serves as an object for projections by the public. Citing author Katha Pollitt, Kreitner calls Clinton a "Rorschach test of our desires and fears."

But all of Clinton's biographers believe that, despite her shortcomings, she'd be equal to the challenges of the most powerful office on the planet.

"If people would give her a chance, I think she might be very good at this job," Blumenthal says. "I think that side of her that's less inspirational or charismatic could make her a more successful president."