Eight years ago, her slogans depicted a candidate who'd be "ready to lead" and "ready on day one." Her ads promised a president who'd have the experience for the “3 a.m. phone call" and the strength for the “toughest job in the world.” Her top strategist crafted a campaign message in the style of Margaret Thatcher, a figure known, as he put it, for “smart, tough leadership,” not “good humor or warmth.”
In 2008, over and over again, Hillary Clinton reassured voters of one key attribute: her toughness.
So in most retellings of the election, what happened the day before the New Hampshire primary, at a small cafe in Portsmouth, came as a kind of watershed moment — a rare show of emotion that some saw as "humanizing," and others as "rehearsed."
In Clinton’s own retelling, the day she welled up with tears in public is one she casts now as almost inherent to the campaign process. If she was fixated in her first presidential bid on strength, Clinton is far more willing in her second to embrace and acknowledge what she describes as the “emotional, personal,” often demanding moments that “pierce the political screen" of a campaign and candidate.
“It’s very hard out there. This is something that just demands your mental, emotional, physical stamina all the time,” Clinton told Another Round, a BuzzFeed podcast, in a wide-ranging interview that touched on the rigor of the campaign trail, the scrutiny of public life, and the event eight years ago in New Hampshire, the day before the primary, when a woman asked simply, “How do you do it?”
“I did not know that was how I was going to feel at the time,” Clinton said of her tearful answer in the café. “It was a combination for me of feeling like somebody’s asked me a really personal question, and… it’s very hard out there. This is something that just demands your mental, emotional, physical stamina all the time.”
“When it was over, I just felt drained,” Clinton said, when asked if she regretted the moment afterward. “I didn’t feel anything other than that. I didn’t realize it was going to be such a big deal to be honest, and then it became this big deal.”
In the interview, Clinton recalled encounters with voters that have brought her to tears, in public and in private, over the course of this campaign. Last month, at the New Hampshire Democratic Party convention, she met Keith F. Thompson, a 52-year-old whose mother has Alzheimer’s. He took a part-time job to care for her, and regularly brings her to work. Last week, in Manchester, she met Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old son, Dylan, died in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“I didn’t know she was going to be there,” Clinton said of Hockley. “I didn’t know anything at all until she just came up to me before I went out to the event, and I could just feel myself getting very emotional about it. Those moments happen.”
“Something real pierces the political screen,” Clinton said of those encounters.
“It’s a moment that induces this kind of emotional, personal reaction.”
These “real” moments exist, Clinton said, within the "totally different" standard to which women are held in politics — an expectation that they be "both strong and vulnerable at the same time," Clinton said. “That’s not easy to do."
“And so you just have to be who you are, to the best of your ability, but it is somewhat frustrating," Clinton continued. “Women in any profession, media, business, you name it, and we talk about this — we all feel like, if you do it, you’re criticized, and if you don’t do it, you’re criticized,” she said.
Clinton suggested that women in public life are often understood collectively rather than individuals with different strengths and weaknesses. “Eventually people either get your or they don’t," she said. “And you know when I ran for the Senate back in '99, I was very much facing the same kinds of questions. What about this, what about that, etc. etc.,” she said of her U.S. Senate campaign in New York.
At the time, Clinton embarked on an infamous listening tour, even staying overnight in voters’ homes across the state amid criticism that she was a "carpetbagger" for moving from Arkansas, to the White House, to Chappaqua, New York. “I just got up every day and worked as hard as I could,” she said. “Even in this last presidential campaign as you point out, it’s such a marathon, and it’s so hard."
When she became secretary of state, Clinton said, she noticed a change.
"It was a different kind of platform, and because I wasn’t in politics, people were really nice about me," she said. "They said all kinds of nice things.”
That ended soon after Clinton began running for president again, she said. But she also described the scrutiny of public life as an inevitable function of the national stage — a place she's occupied now without reprieve for nearly 25 years.
“Even though my husband was governor of Arkansas for all those years, I drove myself around, I went to work every day, I took my daughter to school or to ballet. I had a really just kind of run-of-the-mill, ordinary life,” Clinton said. "It wasn’t until he became president that I really encountered that overwhelming sense of the bubble, the scrutiny... I don’t know that you ever get used to it, but you do sort of learn how to manage it so that you can get up every day and go about your life.”
Even if she said better understands how to navigate the reality of that scrutiny, Clinton expressed a deeper, more fundamental frustration with the ways in which women are perceived. "It still does still pose this conundrum," she said. "How is a woman supposed to behave? Well, how about the way she is? And then people should figure out her as opposed to her having to figure out everybody else.”