Why Hillary Clinton could be one of our best presidents

Hillary Clinton talks to Phil Lader, co-founder of the Renaissance Weekend, outside of the Charleston Place Hotel in Charleston, S.C., in 2004.
Hillary Clinton talks to Phil Lader, co-founder of the Renaissance Weekend, outside of the Charleston Place Hotel in Charleston, S.C., in 2004.

A prized photo of mine, a keepsake of 38 adventurous years in Washington, has recently assumed unusual significance. It explains why close friends ask these days what I think of Hillary Clinton as person and as presidential candidate.

The photo dates from a New Year’s weekend party at Hilton Head in 1992-1993, shortly before Bill Clinton entered his first term as the 41st president. “Ed - You have the look of ‘Renaissance intensity.’ Hillary,” it is signed in gold ink. I am the only other identifiable figure, but my eyes are closed – presumably, I blinked as the camera flashed.

This joint pictorial appearance is a reminder that my wife Jane and I had the good fortune to be Clinton friends before they became world figures. We met as fellow attendants at an Italian-American conference in Florence, and the acquaintance ripened in Washington and at the annual Hilton Head “Renaissance” weekends of the ’90s.

As I venture a few speculations, please understand that the fog of presidential politics, and all the TV chatter, pose formidable obstacles to the understanding of public figures, unreliable guides to character and capacity. Anyone who ventures upon the public stage is driven to fitful concealment and self-caricature, and no one is immune.

I shall cite a recent distasteful example: Donald Trump has articulated his ignorant suspicions of the 1994 suicide of Vince Foster, an Arkansas friend and former Hillary law partner serving as White House counsel. Foster was mercilessly caricatured, perhaps as a supposed apologist for Hillary. Obviously suffering a vicious clinical depression, he shot himself at one of the overlooks on the GW Parkway. And what did the myth-makers of the loony right make of this personal tragedy? They concocted, and their mouthpieces amplified, the tale that Foster was murdered by Hillary Clinton, or her agents, in a “safe house” in Arlington and his body secretly transported to Fort Marcy. This is merely the most vicious of the defamatory stories.

‘Likable enough’

Hillary Clinton does occasionally tend to borrow political trouble. Instead of saying, when she moved into the White House, that her law practice records were the private concern of her clients, she managed to arouse suspicions that they revealed mischief and then “mislay” them in the White House East Wing. Instead of saying forthrightly that her use of a private email server (like other recent secretaries of state, including the iconic General Colin Powell) was an indiscretion, she has suffered a partisan House hearing to drag on – not that the committee is interested in facts. Ditto the absurd partisan ordeal intimating that she was somehow responsible for the death of an American diplomat in Benghazi, Libya. She was an inept organizer of her husband’s health-insurance initiative in the ’90s because, among other reasons, she is a policy wonk who relished the impenetrable and obfuscating detail furnished by a brainy but overrated adviser. And don’t forget the hostile insurance industry advertising.

Are such tendencies disabling? In fact, the polling “negatives” are about 10 percent her responsibility, 50 percent the work of ruthless partisan detractors and 40 percent the indifference of voters who don’t read newspapers and are strangers to facts. Unlike her husband, who combines a quicksilver intellect with a world-class “emotional intelligence,” she is one of the world’s super-serious people and sometimes conveys a know-it-all impression. But as Obama said in the 2008 campaign, she is “likable enough” and far from humorless or sanctimonious.

On the other side of the ledger are a superior intellect, a sense of public responsibility, a ready tongue capable of fully parsed sentences spoken without notes and an ardent commitment to public improvement. And she does know a lot.

Consider the evolution of her political persona – from youthful “Goldwater girl” to Wellesley leader, to the alliance with Bill Clinton, to her tireless work as a children’s legal advocate, to her effective work in the Senate and as secretary of state. And don’t forget those wonkish “coke-bottle” glasses she discarded when they became an impediment to Bill’s political rise. It is a continuing tale of personal and political growth.

The presidential debates – if Trump dares face her – will show her as thoughtful, plausible and well-briefed as he is ignorant, bigoted and brash. I think she would be a better president than candidate. Maybe one of the best.

Edwin M. Yoder of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.