why Hillary Clinton appears untrustworthy

Philippe Boulet-Gercourt has a long article in the French magazine L’Obs (formerly Le Nouvel Observateur) entitled “The Ten Sins of Hillary.” He quotes me saying, “I see her as someone very sensitive to what is possible and what is not, you watch her thinking in real-time, seeking the right answer that takes all the constraints into account. … Her answers can be complex because she attempts to answer honestly. [She’s] a political junkie and, in a way, it is a mark of sincerity!” (I was interviewed in English, my words were translated into French, and here I translate back.)

I am open to objections to what I said. First, it could be that the center-left in the US imposes these constraints on itself unnecessarily, to its detriment. For instance, if you’re a “serious” politician, you never say that we should float bonds to pay for infrastructure. That is what economists would recommend, but you don’t say it because it’s supposed to be politically impossible to advocate borrowing and spending. By censoring yourself, you narrow the range of what actually is possible, and you come across as pervasively dishonest because it’s clear that you’re for things that you won’t defend. Arguably, HRC is Exhibit One of that phenomenon. Second, one could assemble a list of specific prevarications or evasions from her long career. Third, maybe people don’t trust her because of her gender.

But I still think that genuine efforts to be realistic can look dishonest, especially in contrast to passionate statements that pay no heed to constraints. In January 2003, I posted on this blog about my day’s work with a class of kids who were conducting an oral history project on the desegregation of Prince George’s County (MD) schools. They were all students of color, and they were exploring (with me) how their school had been de jure white until Brown v Board of Education, was then integrated for a time, and is now diverse but minus a substantial white population.

One interviewee [had been] the first African American student at the school. (He was still the only one when he graduated three years later). He said: “Initially I was actually hoping that it wouldn’t work. My parents had said that if there was a lot of violence, we would back up. … Instead of violence, there were three years of hostility.” His main motivation was to be “part of something bigger,” the Civil Rights Movement. He later became a successful chemical engineer. I found him enormously appealing—and easily understood what he meant in his understated way, but the kids took his reticence about his own emotions as evasiveness.

He wouldn’t say much about how he personally felt about integrating the school. Our next speaker was a current member of the County Council, a white man who was formerly a civil rights lawyer and who spoke very passionately about his commitment to integration. I was mildly suspicious of him; the kids loved him. Our reactions were different, probably not because of age or other demographics characteristic but just because assessments of character are subjective. But I do think it’s possible that I was right to trust the speaker who was guarded and private more than the guy who said exactly what his audience wanted to hear. The question is whether HRC faces the same problem.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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