Before this year, he was never much of a Hillary Clinton person. But he's never disliked her. He's never found her "cold" or "calculating," never seen her as "inauthentic" or "unapproachable." He didn't buy into all that — the "caricatures," he said.
Still, for Keith F. Thompson, meeting Clinton for the first time in the flesh — seeing her, talking with her, even starting to tear up with her — came as something of a revelation.
“I knew the caricatures — I knew that was from some angry person in their mom’s basement," said Thompson, a 52-year-old delegate from New Hampshire.
"I knew that," he said. “But the contrast is huge.”
Thompson did not plan for the encounter. On the morning of the New Hampshire Democratic convention, as he made the drive to Manchester, he was not expecting that upon arriving, a friend would rush to his side and whisper, “Come with me,” or that soon after, he would find himself deep in the Verizon Wireless Arena, under the dim lights of a makeshift hold-room, waiting with a small group of Democrats to meet Clinton.
Thompson, a self-described “New Hampshire person” — namely, a “New Hampshire person who expects to meet each candidate twice and have dinner or something” — was already committed to her campaign at the time of the convention. But before that Saturday, he hadn’t met Clinton or even seen her speak. In 2008, his candidate was John Edwards. (He loved the “two Americas” bit.) When that collapsed, he “stayed out of the Clinton-Obama thing.” (“It was getting messy.”) This summer, when it came time to pick a candidate, after some going “back and forth,” Thompson landed on Clinton.
That morning, there was a long wait in the hold-room. Thompson figured she’d be rushed — that “maybe all we would get is a quick hi and group photo.” If he did get to talk to her, he’d have to make it quick: He decided to thank her for focusing on gun violence prevention.
Shortly after Clinton walked in, his plan fell apart.
Instead of speeding through the meet-and-greet, she moved slowly and methodically from one person to the next. And when she reached his side of the room, instead of mentioning gun violence, Thompson clasped her hands and thanked her for something far more personal and painful. And instead of the “guarded” politician he anticipated, Clinton listened intently, she reached out and touched his arm, she welled up with tears.
In her campaign, Clinton has said the country must do more to help people like Thompson. He works part-time at a library and volunteers in politics — but Thompson also lives with and cares for his mother, who happened that day to be turning 84.
“I’m taking care of my mom,” Thompson told Clinton. “She has Alzheimer’s. I’m one of those people. I’m working part-time now, and… Thank you for speaking up for that.”
“How old is your mom?” she asked.
“Today’s her 84th birthday.”
“She took care of five children on her own. She took care of her dad and my grandmother. And now it’s my turn to take care of her. Day care for an elderly person is very expensive, and my part-time salary might be in the negative, just for the few hours I work.”
“… so I take her to work with me,” he told her.
It was at that point that Clinton, head back, got tears in her eyes. “Oh my gosh,” she said. Thompson started to cry, too. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to,” he said.
“No, no, I’m so glad you did. Oh my gosh. Thank you, thank you.” She grabbed his shoulder. “Your story is so incredibly moving, and it’s also a story for so many people. That’s what I keep finding everywhere I go… stories about what’s happening in their lives.”
When he and Clinton parted ways, Thompson watched her move down the line — and do the same thing again. Next to him was a person whom Clinton had already met. “She followed up with her about her daughter, who has a seizure disorder, and she remembered,” he said. “I was just astonished. That blew me away.”
The whole experience left Thompson stunned. “Holy cow,” he said. “I get it. Women of her generation have to be guarded at times. And sometimes she defaults to that. That’s understandable. I just hope that more people get to see her the way she was with me.”
In an effort to share the story, Thompson took to Facebook:
"I'm not usually the one who asserts himself, but when Secretary Clinton came to shake my hand, I held it for a moment and thanked her for speaking out about support for caregivers... I told her of the challenge of taking care of Mom, keeping her safe, and working part time to be able to be with her. Then I told her that, in order to keep Mom safe, I take her to work with me. Her compassion and sympathy was amazing, and she welled up with tears. That, of course, got me going. She wasn't just listening. As I explained the challenges of caring for Mom, Secretary Clinton was actually finishing my thoughts. She was right there with me."
Thompson’s post, widely shared by friends, and eventually by the campaign, teases at a question Clinton has been getting now for more than 20 years — most recently last month, on the set of CBS News’s Face the Nation, near the end of an interview.
Across the table, host John Dickerson leaned in and asked his guest for three words that describe “the real Hillary Clinton.”
Since the ’90s, this so-called “real Hillary” has made regular cameo appearances in news stories and biographies, and in Clinton’s own campaign literature and strategy. She is most often invoked as hidden or unknowable, separate from the figure who walks through public life. Friends wish you could meet the “real Hillary.” Aides wish you could appreciate the "real Hillary.” In 1992, her husband’s pollsters strategized ways to show off the “real Hillary.” In 2000, her Senate campaign drew up biographical pamphlets headlined, “Hillary: The Real Story.” And in 2008, advisers commissioned video testimonials from friends and family for a series called, “The Hillary I Know.”
That Sunday, when the question arose again on the set of Face the Nation, Clinton sat up, threw her arms in the air, and exclaimed, “I mean, look. I am a real person!”
At this point, Clinton may be resigned to the routine. In the interview with Dickerson, she cited the regular tabloid series, “Stars: They’re Just Like Us,” which shows photos of celebrities living doing regular things like regular people: getting groceries, pumping gas, carrying luggage. “I've been in the public eye for so long that I think it's like the feature you see in some magazines sometimes,” Clinton said. “‘Real people actually go shopping!’”
The aides on her second presidential campaign — now six months in — have looked for ways to show voters that Clinton, as Thompson discovered, is indeed a real person.
In the last month, Clinton has sat for at least 16 interviews with news and entertainment outlets. But campaign aides have also pursued a more organic, digitally based strategy in videos and on social media, seizing on moments like the one she had with Thompson in New Hampshire. On the road, even at large events, voters stand to share deeply personal stories and problems: a son, dead of a drug overdose; a nephew, unable to get psychiatric help; or a caretaker, working part-time and taking his mother along with him, because Medicaid and Medicare don’t provide day-to-day support outside a nursing home.
More often than not, though, the exchanges happen far from a stage or podium, unseen to reporters and aides in headquarters.
The moment from the convention might not have surfaced were it not for a circuitous chain of events across multiple platforms. It started with Thompson’s “public” status update on Facebook. That night, one of Clinton’s most devout volunteers, Kim Frederick, happened to read about the post on the page of a mutual friend. (Frederick doesn’t know Thompson, she said.) Frederick then shared a link to Thompson's Facebook post on Twitter, tagging several reporters. From there, Thompson’s story began traveling across both platforms, and the next day, campaign aides reposted Thompson’s status update on Clinton’s Facebook account. ("A moving moment backstage," the caption read.) That night, they cut and published a video of the exchange on YouTube. In recent speeches, including one at the convention, Clinton also referenced the encounter.
Stories like Thompson’s are of course more likely to be shared by and with people who already back Clinton. But even for supporters, the moments can be newly revealing.
Days later, Thompson was still posting about it on Facebook. “I cannot stress enough how empathetic and REAL Hillary Clinton was,” he wrote last week. “With real people, she is real. Real people are her strength… None of us would be comfortable with Jimmy Fallon or a network reporter."
"We are more ourselves with other real people, and so is she.”