Hillary Clinton performed a bit of alchemy last night after she became the first female candidate to lead the presidential ticket for a major U.S. political party. She used her history-making star turn to achieve something almost as unprecedented, at least for her: to connect emotionally with her audience by making them part of “us,” the historical precedent. “Thanks to you we’ve reached a milestone,” she said before extending her gratitude back centuries: “Tonight’s victory belongs to generations of women and men who have sacrificed and made tonight possible.”
The very act of making history confers upon the candidate a velocity, even a power and credibility, she didn’t have before last night. Clinton taking the stage at Brooklyn’s Navy Yard was widely anticipated as the the bookend to her concession speech on June 7, 2008, eight years to a day earlier. She didn’t disappoint. Then she wore black and evocatively spoke of almost making history with her “18 million cracks in the glass ceiling” allusion, a reference to the number of votes she’d received. Last night, she appeared a jubilant presence in white, the uniform of clerics and healers, a hue symbolic of the the “new beginning” and “next chapter of American greatness” referenced in her speech. In nice architectural symmetry, she literally stood under a glass ceiling. “Don’t worry, we’re not smashing this one,” she joked.
The palpable excitement on the night of June 8 signalled a sea change from the anti-climactic response to AP’s announcement that Clinton had cinched the ticket, making her the presumptive Democratic Party candidate. Clinton’s camp had downplayed the news, issuing a statement that any such proclamation was premature, and work still needed to be done in the six states voting on the 8th. Twitter cared so little about the news that it failed to unseat #thebachelorette as the top-trending hashtag.
In the lead-up to last night, the media coverage bristled with negativity. There was hectoring advice about what Clinton “needs to do,” here, here, here, and no shortage of Hillary-directed mansplaining by CNN’s Super Tuesday panelists. Over at Slate, they hashed out why “nobody’s pleased” by the landmark moment. And there was a lot of energy expended pondering the question, What will Bernie Sanders do?
Showing footage of an excited throng awaiting Clinton’s arrival in Brooklyn, CNN’s Anderson Cooper discounted the historical significance of the moment: “They’ve put thought into the optics of this,” he said, a statement true of every political rally. He went so far to suggest the Clinton camp had to work “to surround Clinton with enthusiastic fans,” as if stage managing was required.
By then, the Clinton campaign had begun shaping a new narrative focusing squarely, unabashedly and unapologetically on lessons to be learned from women. Earlier in the day it released “History Made,” a video that situates Clinton’s victory within other signal landmarks—the Seneca Falls convention of 1848, which passed a resolution in favour of women’s suffrage—and alongside trailblazers Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, Ann Richards, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. “We need to learn from the women of the world who blazed new paths,” Clinton says in the video voiceover. Then, just before she spoke last night, came a tweet from @HillaryClinton to young women everywhere: “To every little girl who dreams big: Yes, you can be anything you want—even president. Tonight is for you. – H”
The theme was continued onstage where “H” had pivoted into a full-on presidential race, revealing a glimpse at the imagery and strategy ahead, including, it appears, arms outstretched as if to embrace the nation. This was a new Hillary, a warm Hillary—or at least a Hillary warmed by hard-won success. Significantly, she entered the hall alone, greeting and hugging supporters, eschewing the family tableaux now standard in political photo ops. That’s the way the men do it. For the first female presidential candidate in the U.S., new iconography is required, seen when she alluded to the role of president as protector in terms that were more familial than military: “As your president I will always have your back.”
The speech was masterful in its simplicity, positive tone and nimble weaving of personal with political, if absent any rallying cry equal to Obama’s “Yes we can” or “Hope.” (“An America that is tolerant, inclusive and fair” doesn’t cry out for T-shirt treatment.) Clinton needed to check certain boxes, primarily a call for party unity. She referenced Bernie Sanders respectfully but clearly in the past tense, as if words could will him away (they didn’t; he’s hanging on until at least the convention in July). It is the prerogative of those who make history to rewrite it, and Clinton made an attempt to do so by reframing the divisive, toxic rancour between the campaigns as a positive: “the vigorous debate we’ve had about how to raise incomes, reduce inequality, increase upward mobility have been very good for the Democratic Party and America,” she said. (It’s a conciliatory gloss, if a disconnect given Tuesday’s report that the New York Times journalist following Clinton had received death threats from people claiming to be Sanders supporters.)
Clinton appeared to take the baton on some of Sanders’s progressive policies, referring to the need to help “young people struggling with student debt,” if not echoing Sanders’ plan for free tuition. She treaded into areas that have summoned Donald Trump’s most scathing criticism that she’s a Wall Street toady: “We all want a government that listens to people, not power brokers, which means getting unaccountable money out of politics,” Clinton said, calling for more equality so “Wall Street can never wreck Main Street again.”
She marshalled a plea for national unity—”we are stronger together”— to undercut Trump. If Trump is the divider, “trying to wall off Americans from one another,” she would be the unifier, proclaiming “bridges [are] better than walls,” the line that drew the biggest cheer of the night. Clinton sharpened the shiv, continuing the blistering attack she unleashed last week in a speech calling the Republican candidate “temperamentally unfit to be president and commander-in-chief,” someone who shouldn’t be let anywhere near the nuclear codes. “‘Let’s make America great again,'” she said, is “code for ‘Let’s take America backward.’ ”
But it was in paying homage to her late mother, Dorothy Rodham, who’d been by her side on stage eight years earlier, that Clinton finally morphed into the authentic, human candidate MIA during the campaign. Clinton’s regret that her mother was not there to see Hillary’s daughter, Chelsea, become a good mother or to share in the night’s historic victory was at once both palpable and relatable. Her mother was her “greatest influence,” Clinton said. She “taught me never to back down from a bully, which turns out was pretty good advice.” Her mother’s serendipitous birthdate, June 4, 1919, served to continue the feminist history lesson; it was coincident with Congress passing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote.
What wasn’t said, too, was telling. There was no mention of the alpha males in Clinton’s life: her husband, who’s routinely referenced in her speeches; or Barack Obama, who was name-checked 15 times in her 2008 concession speech. Bill Clinton did pop up on stage at speech’s end, with Chelsea and her husband, to provide the requisite family photo op. On stage, Bill hugged his wife, after clearly mouthing, “I’m so proud of you.” The sight of Bill Clinton playing dutiful beta spouse proved the capper to a night never before seen in American politics, just as a new battle of the sort never before witnessed in American politics begins.