Hillary vs. Donald: The Benefit of the Doubt

Hillary Clinton on the last night of the Democratic National Convention, Philadelphia, July 2016
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Hillary Clinton on the last night of the Democratic National Convention, Philadelphia, July 2016

Facing a mass audience, Hillary Clinton had often come across as if she’d been rehearsing in front of a mirror, trying on expressions of delight that registered as forced, less than wholehearted, the opposite of spontaneous. The “public” part of public service, she’d acknowledge, was the part that came hardest to her. But on the last night of the Democratic convention, as she stood by herself on a big stage, bathed in bright lights, ready to embrace a presidential nomination never before bestowed on a woman by a major American party, she no longer seemed to be playing a role. In that heady moment of fulfillment for herself and most women (and some men), she seemed, at last, to be inhabiting one.

All week long, talking heads and live updaters had been naming what was to follow “the most important speech of her life” or her “historic speech,” as if the words had only to be uttered to be remembered across the ages. But when she was done, a shower of balloons didn’t quite offset a discernible sense of letdown. The quick consensus of the commentariat rated it somewhere between uninspiring and OK for the job it had been designed to do: weakest, it was said, in its dutiful presentation of herself and her goals; strongest in its sharp, unsparing depiction of Donald Trump, who’d pulled ahead by meaningless fractions in some polls taken after the previous week’s gathering of a Republican Party the builder-showman had captured in a hostile takeover. “A man you can bait with a tweet,” Clinton said in one of her most telling sallies, “is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” And that, plainly, was what she was doing. She was baiting him.

Otherwise, her speech was strewn with reruns—stale talking points that had surfaced more than a year earlier in her speech launching her campaign on Roosevelt Island in New York, dusted off there from her first run in 2008: the bit about her grandfather working in a lace mill in Scranton, the old Clinton truism about America thriving when the middle class thrives.

Just three days later, on June 16, 2015, a chesty Donald Trump rode down the escalator in the marble lobby of his eponymous tower on Fifth Avenue to declare his candidacy. The race in the Republican Party was already crowded. The smart money was on two Floridians, the dynast Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, young enough and fresh enough, some reasoned, to be an effective foil to Clinton. Trump could be an amusing sideshow. He wasn’t given a chance by the Greek chorus of media know-it-alls slow to grapple with the idea that the serious…

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