The Real Hillary Clinton

Getty Images

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
Font Size:

All of presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s longtime friends share the same question, the same mystery, whenever we read about the number of people in America who “hate” her or who label her using various horrible expressions. It is this: How can they be so far off in understanding who she is, what she is all about and most important, her true personality and character traits?

I first met Hillary Rodham, as she was then known, in 1969 when I was a third-year senior at Yale Law School and she was a first-year freshman. We stood in line to register for classes — she was standing right behind me — and I recognized her as the Wellesley College student who had given a commencement speech to the class of 1969 that had impressed me greatly when I read the full text in a national news magazine. When I asked her if she was the Hillary Rodham who had given that great speech, she smiled and said yes, and we struck up a conversation. I asked her if she needed any advice about what classes to take, what teachers she should try to take classes with, and how to approach studying for classes and reading cases during her first semester at a law school with a pretty challenging academic environment.

She thanked me, but said, no, that wasn’t necessary. But she did want to know where the nearest legal services clinic was.

“What?” I asked, somewhat shocked. “You won’t have time in your first semester at Yale Law to volunteer to help those can’t afford an attorney with various legal problems.” She smiled again, thanked me for the warning, and persisted in asking me where the nearest legal services clinic was. I told her I would find out and let her know.

As I walked away, I thought to myself: This person is going to go far some day.

For the rest of the school year, I got to know her as a friend, someone with a winning and compelling personality: friendly, genuine, funny, down-to-earth, fun to be with, smart, a great laugh, and always concerned about you and others more than herself.

The last thing some of her friends over the years could ever have imagined would be that people would think or say the opposite about her — and she has so many friends who go way way back like me. (I even met someone recently who went to kindergarten with her and is still a loyal friend today.)

The false negative characterizations about her, such as “inauthentic” or “dishonest,” have been repeated so many times by partisan, right-wing Republicans and hostile media pundits that it appears these words have stuck as a false perception of her, which many Americans who do not know her believe.

That is why I was so glad to read an analysis of Hillary by Ezra Klein in Vox, which appeared with the appropriate title “Understanding Hillary: Why the Clinton America sees isn’t the Clinton colleagues know.” This piece is as good as anything I have read that tries to explain the huge gap between who Hillary truly is as a person, mom, wife, friend, grandmother (!) and political leader vs. the false negative perception held by many Americans.

I hope millions of Americans will get to know her, perhaps for the first time over the course of this presidential campaign, as she really is — not the false portrayals conveyed by certain especially hateful columnists from the mainstream media as well as far-right publications. Even straightforward reporters too often uncritically channel these critics whose hate of “the Clintons” consumes and blinds them.

I have confidence when Hillary Clinton is seen and heard unfiltered, the gap between perception and reality will close quickly.

Remember, this is exactly what happened when Hillary first ran for the U.S. Senate seat from New York in 2000.

Her negative perceptions were very high; she was labeled as a “carpetbagger from Illinois” who had the “chutzpah” to parachute into New York state to try to inherit the historic senate seat once held by the beloved late Sen. Robert Kennedy.

She began her campaign with a “listening tour,” mostly in the dark-red Republican, rural areas and small towns of Upstate New York. People who met her were often quoted as surprised that she was actually so “nice” and open to listening and learning from others. Even when I campaigned for her on Manhattan’s liberal Upper East Side and in Long Island synagogues, I was repeatedly met with the same comment by people who had met her for the first time: “I was shocked when I actually met her — she is warm and friendly, funny, listens, honest, cares about what you say and feel. She is for real.”

Hillary went on to come from behind to win by a significant margin in that November election. Then, six years later, she was reelected by a landslide margin, carrying almost all of the Upstate “red” counties by unprecedented margins for a Democrat. In other words, the more people came to know her and hear her unfiltered, the more they liked her and saw her as authentic and likable — as those of us who have known her for many years have known her to be.

In short, my friend Hillary is the real deal. Serious, but doesn’t take herself too seriously. She has a true commitment to public service for the public good. She is a caring and loyal friend.

I have no doubt she will make a great president because she can bring us together and build consensus to allow Democrats and Republicans to once again find common ground and solve problems, rather than continuing the partisan paralysis that has gripped Washington in recent years. Her record as a U.S. senator proved exactly that: She worked well with Republicans to unite rather than divide, focusing on facts and solutions rather than rhetoric.

If you doubt me, it is because you don’t know her and are still the victim of the media’s reporting of an unreal cardboard character.

Stay tuned, though, and try to keep an open mind. You will see that her many, many friends over many, many decades are right about what kind of person she is and the great, unifying president she will make.

Lanny Davis is co-founder of the Washington law firm Davis Goldberg Galper PLLC, and Trident DMG, a strategic media firm specializing in crisis management. He served as special counsel to President Clinton from 1996 to 1998 and has been a friend of Hillary Clinton since they were students at Yale Law School together in 1969-70.