Not long after I became press secretary for U.S. Sen. Russell Long in 1985, one of his old friends, former U.S. Rep. Joe D. Waggonner, gave me some advice. “Russell is 66,” the retired Shreveport-area congressman reminded me. “Don’t try to change him. He is what he is. Work with what you got.”
That was wise counsel. Waggonner knew that a cocky, 26-year-old former political writer might think he knew more about press relations than a man who had served in the Senate since 1948. Indeed, I sometimes thought I could teach the old dog new tricks. What I quickly learned was that Waggonner was right. I might nibble around the edges, but it was no use trying to turn Long into something he was not. His personality was set. During 36 years in Congress, he had managed nicely without the benefit of my sterling counsel.
My conversation with Waggonner came to mind this week as Hillary Clinton’s troubles with Donald Trump continued making news. If you believe the polls, the race between the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees is a toss-up. Some Clinton supporters – and others simply terrified of a Trump presidency – are offering advice for turning around her campaign.
There is no question she could perform better. For evidence, look no further than her continuing struggles with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who won’t win the nomination, but continues to highlight her personal and political shortcomings.
Then, there’s the criticism that Clinton simply isn’t “authentic” enough. In December 2014, I was among those who critiqued her as “wooden in manner and instinctively cautious and guarded. I’m not sure who she inspires, but it’s not me.” I’m not the first or last to note this obvious fact.
Others criticize Clinton because she is not lighthearted. “Can you tell me what Hillary Clinton does for fun?” New York Times columnist David Brooks asked recently. “We know what Obama does for fun – golf, basketball, etc. We know, unfortunately, what Trump does for fun.
“But when people talk about Clinton, they tend to talk of her exclusively in professional terms,” Brooks added. In other words, she is one dimensional, “industrious, calculated, goal-oriented, distrustful.”
Others are brutally specific. In Mother Jones magazine, writer Kevin Drum criticized the quality of Clinton’s voice, an attack Trump has also leveled. Drum quoted a friend, with whom he agreed: “Listen, I like Hillary a lot but she has got to stop this shouting bull—-. It comes across as insincere and phony.” Drum added: “The shouting is part of it but the other part (in victory speeches and ordinary stump speeches) is that she never has anything remotely interesting to say.”
Even some Clinton staffers have worried to reporters about their candidate’s personality challenges. The New York Times reported in April 2015 that Clinton had hired a former aide to First Lady Michelle Obama to oversee an image rehab. As reporter Amy Chozick noted, “Mrs. Clinton must try to show voters a self-effacing, warm and funny side that her friends say reflects who she really is. In short, she must counteract an impression that she is just ‘likeable enough,’ as Obama famously quipped in 2008.
You get the idea: The received wisdom among pundits and political experts is that Clinton needs an extreme personality makeover.
Perhaps, but there are profound problems with such advice.
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