As she has rolled out her new memoir, Hard Choices, Clinton has demonstrated the persistent strength of her fan base and her political brand. But the tour, which began in earnest Tuesday, has also shown Clinton’s persona as a candidate or potential candidate, latent for six years, to have accumulated some cobwebs.
First, there was her interview with Diane Sawyer, when Clinton defended her sizable earnings from paid speaking engagements by noting she and her husband, Bill Clinton, were “dead broke” when they left the White House.
Then, during a chat with Terry Gross on NPR, Clinton waffled for more than seven excruciating minutes on whether her opinion of same-sex marriage had evolved over time, or she had withheld her support publicly out of political caution. (It evolved, she ultimately clarified.)
But Clinton, a former secretary of state, finished the first week of her book tour on a high note Friday on friendly turf, just blocks from the State Department, at George Washington University in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of D.C. There, she acknowledged with levity her hiccups in those initial interviews.
Asked whether she indeed feels “more free to speak (her) mind these days,” Clinton said, “I think that’s true, from some of the reactions I’ve had the last few days.” The remark was met with laughter from a sold-out audience.
“Maybe it’s because I’m totally done with being really careful about what to say because somebody might think this instead of that,” Clinton continued. “It just gets too exhausting, and it just seems a whole lot easier to just put it out there and hope people get used to it.”
Questioning Clinton was Lissa Muscatine, a former Clinton speechwriter, and a collaborator with Clinton on her previous memoir Living History, who also co-owns the Washington bookstore Politics & Prose. The friendly discussion did not require Clinton to be abidingly careful, and nudged her into moments of flattering humor and self-deprecation.
“I just want to say, you’ve improved dramatically in your pronunciation of foreign names,” Muscatine deadpanned at one point, launching Clinton into a self-effacing story about her challenges with foreign languages.
“It is true, I have absolutely no ear for language,” Clinton said. She recalled telling a French professor at Wellesley College that she wanted to continue her studies. “And she goes, ‘Mademoiselle, your talents lie elsewhere.’”
There were stories, too, about pisco sours with the press in Lima, Peru, banter about camels with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia — and, of course, a joke about her proclivity for pantsuits.
Such humanizing anecdotes would be a vital ingredient should Clinton decide to run for president in 2016. But, for all intents and purposes, she already is.
At least that was the vibe among the capacity crowd at Lisner Auditorium, which claims to seat nearly 1,500 people, who exploded at even the slightest allusion to Clinton’s future, whatever that might be. There was sustained applause when Clinton said she intended to continue her work “through the Clinton Foundation and other ways."
Meanwhile, outside the auditorium, volunteers from the pro-Clinton PAC Ready for Hillary collected contact information from supporters and handed out stickers and posters. The Republican National Committee, on the counter-offensive, sent someone in a squirrel costume to wander the grounds, wearing a T-shirt that read, “Another Clinton in the White House is nuts.”
Clinton stayed focused on foreign policy in this prélude to a potential campaign, as she has for much of her book tour. Her memoir documents her tenure as secretary of state, with some detours into her personal life.
In the single notable departure Friday from the carefully crafted and vetted material in her memoir, Clinton stood with President Obama on the unfolding unrest in Iraq, which she blamed on Iraq President Nouri al-Maliki's “failure at the governance level combined with extraordinary success of Islamist groups in Syria.”
“It is important that Maliki be presented with a set of conditions if we are to provide any military support,” Clinton said. “We don’t want to fight their fight, because you’d be fighting for an ... authoritarian government.”
But that foreign policy question, along with others Clinton made as secretary of state, are part a 2016-compatible message Clinton has echoed throughout her book tour. “We cannot be strong abroad if we are not strong at home,” she told the crowd as she wrapped up her discussion.
Then she worked the front of the stage like a ropeline: shaking hands, smiling, and posing for selfies. As she neared stage left, someone handed her their infant, and she lifted it up for a photo -- innately, automatically, as if she'd never left the campaign trail at all.