Hillary Clinton can be a hard woman to love. Even in the greatest moment of her political career last night, as she finally claimed the Democratic nomination on behalf of American women, her delivery didn’t quite match the occasion.
The crowd was amped up. Electrified. But where a Donald Trump or a Bernie Sanders or a Bill Clinton would have used every rhetorical flourish and ounce of charisma to take the volume up another level, Clinton could only keep things ticking over, drawing energy from the audience rather than the other way around.
But her message was a powerful one, putting her achievement in the context of centuries of struggle for women. ‘Thanks to you, we’ve reached a milestone,’ she told the ecstatic crowd in Brooklyn, New York. ‘The first time in our nation’s history that a woman will be a major party’s nominee.’
The nomination is hers. Even before the result for California was announced, she had picked up solid wins in New Jersey, South Dakota and New Mexico leaving Sanders with no chance of overhauling her.
Yet there are still so many mystifying questions. How did a candidate widely considered so flawed – her unfavourability ratings are historically high, beaten only by Donald Trump – manage to do it? And then shrouded in so many controversies, from her involvement in the Libyan conflict to unresolved questions over her private email server during her time at the State Department.
The answers lie in her speech last night – both its message and its delivery. Together they sum up exactly how Hillary Clinton got here. Not like her husband who did it all with a sparkle in his eye and a wave for everyone in the room. And not like her predecessor as nominee, Barack Obama, who did the soaring vision thing, the audacity of hope and the reshaping of America’s view of itself.
She did it the hard way. She was knocked down and got back up again. And got knocked down and got back up again and again.
Think about her life in the 1980s and 1990s. As her husband moved up the political ladder she had to drop her maiden name and give up the job at a prestigious law firm. In the White House, when he handed her the task of reforming America’s battered health care system, she was vilified by opponents and Democrats alike.
Her husband’s affair with Monica Lewinsky left her publicly humiliated and demonised by feminists who could not forgive her for standing by her man. Yet she bounced back rapidly, quietly pursuing her own ambitions and planning the capture of a New York Senate seat in 2000.
Eight years later she was favourite for the Democratic nomination, only to face humiliation once again, accused of arrogance as her campaign collapsed in bitter infighting unable to counter Barack Obama’s insurgent run. From frontrunner to failure in a few months.In defeat, however, she made her peace with the victor, returning as Obama’s Secretary of State.
This is how she has won the nomination.
She may not be the most passionate of speakers. She may not work a room like her husband or attract 15,000 people to a rally like her rival for the nomination. For her opponents that makes her cold or aloof.
Yet there is something else in the way she has gone about her business during the past crazy year in American politics, where showmanship and bravado have dominated the airwaves. Yes it was unspectacular. But it was unfussy, too. The result of decades lived in public life, of grinding her way through hardships, humiliations and defeats, when simply keeping the show on the road was all she could manage.
With each setback she had to build new alliances, restore coalitions, smooth tensions. In that, her life and campaign reflect the lives of women around the world. We all know them, the mothers, daughters, sisters and grandmothers who realise that getting the job done, holding families together and keeping the world turning, does not come with applause or awards. And in politics, when success is weighed in bombast and flourish, such an approach might not even be noticed. Or be dismissed as cold and aloof.
Hillary Clinton is the first woman to win the nomination of a major American political party. And she has won it with the sort of approach that only a woman could have managed.
Sure, you can say she got here because of her husband, the big banks and a rigged electoral system. Or you can admit we underestimated one of the most astute political operators of our time.