It was perhaps the most memorable line of perhaps the most memorable moment of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president. The night she won New Hampshire, in an upset that seemed as much a surprise to her as to everyone else, the candidate strode out before a sea of supporters in the cavernous gym of Manchester’s Southern New Hampshire University. After being silenced for several minutes by roaring applause, she began her victory speech. Her words thundered over the supporters gathered around her: “Over the last week, I listened to you,” Clinton boomed, “and, in the process, I found my own voice.”
Well, as Clinton herself is fond of saying on the stump, as if her speech were a yearbook and her audience were, collectively, that kid from homeroom she only sorta knows: What a long, strange trip it’s been. Since that unusually warm January day in New Hampshire, we’ve seen Clinton’s momentum go from “speed” to “stall.” And, along the way, that powerful voice of New Hampshire’s primary night—metaphorical, even metaphysical—has shed its transcendent quality to become, in pundits’ minds, the embodiment of the Clinton campaign’s frenetic brand of fragility. “Her public voice in the month since winning New Hampshire was all over the range: from thoughtful and classy to biting and harsh, all in a day’s work,” Jamie Stiehm wrote in the Huffington Post. And of course, as it careened it ceased to be a source of empowerment; Clinton’s voice itself is now a liability.
“After saying she found her ‘voice’ in New Hampshire, she has turned into Sybil,” Maureen Dowd declared in yesterday’s column.
We’ve had Experienced Hillary, Soft Hillary, Hard Hillary, Misty Hillary, Sarcastic Hillary, Joined-at-the-Hip-to-Bill Hillary, Her-Own-Person-Who-Just-Happens-to-Be-Married-to-a-Former-President Hillary, It’s-My-Turn Hillary, Cuddly Hillary, Let’s-Get-Down-in-the-Dirt-and-Fight-Like-Dogs Hillary.
Dowd’s litany is, as so many Dowdian litanies tend to be, unfair—she would do well to point out that we’ve also had Liberal Barack, Post-Partisan Barack, African-American Barack, Post-Racial Barack, etc. (and that those varying labels aren’t just ascribed by pundits; they’re assigned by the Obama campaign itself). It’s part of the game for politicians to present varying facets of themselves to voters, both actual and potential, at a given moment in the campaign; indeed, what divides shape-shifting from flip-flopping in politics is little more than savvy. Everyone shifts; the “flip-floppers” are merely the ones who get called on it.
In Clinton’s case, though, the “schizophrenic” label sticks. (It would stick to anyone whose personality has multiple dimensions—which is to say, it would stick to anyone.) And it does so, in part, through pundits’ somewhat odd fixation on Clinton’s voice.
Take the candidate’s (um, attempted) mockery of Obama this weekend, the rather unfortunate speech now shorthanded as Clinton’s “celestial choirs” takedown. (“Let’s just get everybody together. Let’s get unified. The sky will open. The lights will come down. Celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect.”) Clinton’s Sarcastic Turn wasn’t derided merely as “unattractive”; pundits also went out of their way to single out her voice as the specific agent of all the ugliness. It was “terrifyingly shrill,” New York magazine wrote. As Joe Scarborough put it during an appearance on Hardball, “there is a shrillness in Hillary that comes out on TV whenever she gets excited about something .Every time her voice goes up, she gets very shrill, very un-Clinton-like, if you’re talking about Bill Clinton.”
Tucker Carlson agreed. “It raises the question,” he declared, “Could you actually live in this country for eight years having to listen to her voice?”
Carlson doesn’t bother to explain what about Clinton’s timbre, exactly, makes him shiver. But it likely has at least something to do with what Stanley Fish observed in a recent New York Times column:
If she answers questions aggressively, she is shrill. If she moderates her tone, she’s just play-acting. If she cries, she’s faking. If she doesn’t, she’s too masculine. If she dresses conservatively, she’s dowdy. If she doesn’t, she’s inappropriately provocative.
In other words, the female Maybe-44 is caught in a web of Catch-22s—and she becomes more and more entangled as her campaign grows, it seems, increasingly desperate in its moods and methods.