What if Hillary Clinton were a man? What if she were a 68-year-old male rather than a 68-year-old female? Would we think differently of her? Her raised voice would be lower. She would be better at physically commanding the stage. Her indomitability might be seen as manly. If she were taller an
d bigger, might she have been able to get away with saying nothing about her email server — as Donald Trump has with his tax returns? As they say, I'm just askin'.
And I am asking because the dislike of Clinton is so palpable that it has become akin to a prejudice. I understand the criticisms and don't reject them out of hand. She has been slippery. She has fibbed. She has used a private email server, which was wrong and careless. She has been the marital partner of a man who has taken other partners. She did not leave him, as many women wanted her to do. To them, she became the personification of the female doormat.
Still, it does not all add up. I know her a bit, but I know others who know her quite well. In the corners of rooms dedicated to ugly gossip and whispered betrayals, what you hear from those who know her is not agreement with the general consensus but puzzlement: She's warm. She's bright. She's charming. She has a great sense of humor.
And yet, on the podium, these qualities are rarely in sight. Her voice escalates, the pitch rises, the emphasis is often misplaced. She is rhetorically wrong-footed. Her smile seems fake, the wave is to no one, the laugh sounds manufactured. She is defensive. She fights for privacy, yet she has chosen politics played on the most expansive of all scales. If she wins, she will be a renter in a house owned by all of us. She will remain under continuous observation.
I met Clinton during her husband's first campaign for the White House. It was 1992, New Hampshire, and both Clintons had stopped at a coffee shop to greet the folks and get something to eat. It was Bill Clinton's campaign, so he took question after question, exhausting much of the county before finally sitting down at the counter. Hillary joined him. So did I. There was one more question to go.
The waitress was a single mother. She wanted to go to college. Was there some sort of program that could help her? Bill started to answer. There was this and there was that, all of them designated with some government number, and there was yet another — and here he stopped to put some eggs in his mouth, and Hillary finished the sentence for him. They weren't a team. They were a machine. She was no ordinary political spouse, whatever that might mean or might have meant. This one was different. This was Hillary Clinton.
I would, to get right down to it, vote for Kim Kardashian over Donald Trump, so my support of Clinton comes easy. Still, I am vexed by her rampant unpopularity, especially among the young women who found Bernie Sanders so exciting. I had to recall the wisdom of Gloria Steinem, who knows, because she was once a young woman herself, that aging is tough on women. When they are young, they are cherished, adored. But as they age, they become less adored — by men, sometimes, but by employers, too. They have children, complicating their lives. Every day-care center is constructed out of glass ceilings.
Sanders, somewhere along the line, had a child out of wedlock. Imagine if Clinton had done the same. After Bill's sex scandal broke, I never thought Hillary would accept the suggestion of Representative Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and run for the Senate. I thought she'd seek privacy, a place to nurse her wounds. But she jumped into the race. She worked New York state hard, campaigning in every county. And she won.
She will win this time, too, but it will be harder than it ought to be. It will be hard because she can be tone-deaf as a politician, because lots of people find her to be shrill, and because she has an awesome ability to turn a political misdemeanor into a firestorm. But as Trump lazes through the campaign, relying on his unreliable instincts, she will work harder than he knows how.
As a woman, she's always had to.
Richard Cohen writes for the Washington Post Writers Group.