Hillary Clinton has won praise and sympathy for acknowledging the obvious: that she is not a “natural politician,” like her husband or President Obama. “This is not easy for me,” she said in Miami last week, ostensibly explaining why a majority of Americans view her as dishonest and untrustworthy.
You can forgive the evasiveness of this answer. How might anyone running for office give a direct response to “Why do people dislike you.” (How would Ted Cruz honestly explain the hatred he engenders even among fellow travelers?) But in evading a question about her perceived untrustworthiness, Clinton may have revealed more than she intended about her concepts of honesty and trust — as matters of image, not character. Why do people view her as dishonest? Because, she implies, her discomfort on the campaign trail limits her ability to convey honesty.
Had she stepped out of the race, other capable, electable Democrats (governors and senators) better at running and equally adept at governing, would likely have stepped in.
You might regard Clinton’s suggestion that she is not adept at seeming honest as an acknowledgment that she’s a bad liar. Instinctively honest people, in public or private life, don’t have to feign honesty, relying on “natural” political skills.
But assume that Clinton is no more dishonest than the great majority of politicians. How many of them, after all, always tell us what they really think or account for controversial actions with unmitigated honesty? Besides, questioning Clinton’s probity during a campaign season dominated by the ravings of Donald Trump is like worrying about a hangnail during an Ebola epidemic.
What riles me is not her appearance of routine dishonesty but Clinton’s audacity in taking on an incredibly consequential job — running for president — for which she is unqualified. I don’t doubt her qualifications for the presidency (although I worry about her tenuous commitment to civil liberty, along with her hawkish foreign policy). But knowing that she is not a “natural politician,” meaning not a skilled campaigner, Clinton should not have run. Had she stepped out of the race, other capable, electable Democrats (governors and senators) better at running and equally adept at governing, would likely have stepped in. The questionably electable Bernie Sanders would not be the last man standing. (I expect to vote for Sanders or Clinton, but I’d vote for an actual donkey running against any of this year’s Republican candidates.)
Sometimes serving the public good means surrendering the desire to do so.
It takes overwhelming ambition and quite a lot of hubris to imagine yourself likely to be a good, if not great, president. I don’t mean this as a criticism of presidential aspirants; it’s just a statement of fact. People who run for office claim they’re motivated by a desire to serve, and for many that is at least partly true. But they are also motivated by a desire to wield power; that too is a fact not intended as criticism. In the best politicians, personal ambition is intertwined with a commitment to public service. (In the worst, personal ambition is all.)
This sets a trap for the most well-meaning politicians: the temptation to equate your interests with the interests of the public, to believe (along with General Bullmoose) that’s what “good for me is good for the U.S.A.” Does Hillary Clinton believe that she’ll be a great president who will serve the public good? Probably. But running for president is not an unselfish act — especially when other people on your team are naturally faster, more artful dodgers and more likely to reach the finish line. Sometimes serving the public good means surrendering the desire to do so.