How to Destroy the Robot and Unleash the Real Hillary Clinton
10 pieces of advice for the Democratic frontrunner -- and a caveat (if indeed she actually is a robot).
Okay, Hillary. I was going to write this week about autonomous killer robots, but then you (finally!) announced that you’re running for president, so I decided instead to write about you.
Some might say that this is not, in fact, a switch in topics. After all, Richard Nixon reportedly viewed you as “a subversive robot,” and even on the left, plenty of commentators worry about your tendency to “come across as robotic.” On YouTube, a mashup of your campaign kickoff video and Kraftwerk’s “The Robots” appeared within hours of your presidential campaign announcement.
I can see why a presidential candidate might prefer not to remind voters of a Predator drone. I want you to win, Hillary. But first you need to overcome your robot problem.
How? I asked a number of prominent female foreign-policy experts and a smattering of other thoughtful people what advice they would give you as you embark on your second presidential campaign. Here’s what I heard:
1) Don’t be afraid to say what you really think. You’re 67. You’ve earned the right to have strong opinions. And, as one former Obama administration senior official put it, “Don’t be afraid to pick sides. Sometimes you have to say you like coffee over tea, musicals over plays, or classical over pop. Don’t try to please everyone all the time.” Another former official weighed in similarly: “Don’t overthink every move.” The campaign should neither be “forced by Republican pressure or too scripted.”
2) When you screw up, admit it. Here, I’ll help you. Stand in front of a mirror, and repeat 10 times: “In hindsight, using my own email server was really dumb. I learned my lesson. From now on, it’s going to be nothing but slow, clunky government email systems for me.”
See? Not so hard. “Don’t be defensive and whiny about criticism,” says an academic who studies American political culture. Americans are generous about forgiving those who come clean — but voters will savage those they view as liars or hypocrites.
3) Keep it real. Don’t overpromise, and remember that people can handle more bad news than you think. Don’t apologize for voicing hard truths. If the Iran deal is the best we can realistically do without going to war, say so. If you think we’re putting too much energy into counterterrorism and not enough energy into climate change, say so. “It’s time for a more grown-up conversation about national security,” says one former State Department and White House official. Americans understand that there are few simple problems or simple solutions. Don’t talk down to them.
4) Don’t let your campaign staff destroy your campaign. Your inner circle has historically been prone to a mixture of sycophancy and self-destructive infighting. Neither will help you. “Think carefully about the team: [It] should be a good mix of old and new,” urges a veteran of several recent Democratic presidential campaigns. “Recall that the old  team didn’t win, and the Clinton team of the 1990s might be too much of a throwback to capture the imagination of a new generation.”
Bring in some new blood — and make it clear that you will be equally intolerant of sycophancy and narcissistic nastiness. “This is going to be another long campaign and it’s going to get ugly,” says a former Democratic official. “Surround yourself with thoughtful people (particularly women) who will help you run the marathon instead of 1,000 exhausting sprints.”
5) Open up, and let us get to know you. We want to know what makes you tick (assuming it’s not a lithium ion battery). “You’re not an easy person to know,” says the former Democratic official, “which is understandable given what you’ve been through over the last few decades. But Americans want to know who you are, what you like, what you don’t.”
Don’t be afraid to admit that it’s been tough at times. Most of us can relate. Instead of clamming up, talk about it. “It’s just seems so weird not to acknowledge your emotions about things that must be incredibly upsetting to most people,” says one of my sources. Don’t overshare, Hillary, but let us see that you feel pain and shame and anger just like the rest of us. We don’t need the gory details, but it’s OK to tell us that it hurt when you found out that Bill had been having affairs. It’s OK to tell us that when members of the media poked fun at Chelsea’s adolescent awkwardness, you wanted to tear them limb from limb. It’s OK to tell us that you felt bad when you lost in the 2008 primaries.
6) Don’t pretend to be what you’re not. You’re rich, you’re famous, and you reportedly haven’t driven a car in two decades. “You need to cut out the ‘I’m just an ordinary grandma’ stuff,” urged another of my interviewees. Hillary, no one believes you’re just an ordinary grandma — but that’s alright, because most people don’t want their grandma to be president, either. Be upfront about how different your life has been from the lives of most Americans. You don’t need to apologize for who you are; you just need to admit it.
7) Don’t be afraid of your foreign-policy record. “It’s already clear that Republicans are going to come after you on foreign policy, but don’t run from your record,” says one former White House staffer. Be honest about where you agree with Obama and where you disagree, and be clear: “No one doubts whether [you’re] tough enough,” says a former high-ranking State Department official. The “question is what [you’re] for.” Be honest, clear, and disciplined, urges Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First. “Go all in on smart power. But when hard power is necessary, make sure we all know who we’re going to war with and where, and what winning looks like.”
8) Don’t be afraid of the press. Reporters aren’t robots, either: they want you to smile at them and chat with them and know their names and background. Talk to them. A lot. Be nice to them, but let them know it when they’re acting like jerks. Be honest and unguarded. Soon they’ll be eating out of your hand. If all else fails, remember: Voters are just as suspicious of the media as they are of political candidates. If you have to, says Tara Sonenshine, former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, go “above the heads of media and directly to citizens. That’s smart power.”
9) Be afraid of Bill. “Think carefully about Bill’s role,” says a former Clinton and Obama campaign staffer. “The foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation are not a great story. [You] have to figure out how he can speak to domestic issues (his strength) and stay away from anything that smacks of foreign influence.” Maintain some good-humored distance. Practice saying, “He’s my husband and we’re been through a lot together. I love him, but sometimes he drives me nuts, and we often disagree.”
10) Be yourself. Hillary, this is the advice I heard most frequently:
- “[She should] be herself, which is why her video is so great; she’s most natural talking about children/families/people.
- “She should be herself, warts and all. She is most captivating when she lets loose, laughs at herself, and shows that she is human.”
- “Show us your real self. You’re funny and sharp and self-deprecating, but you don’t suffer fools and you don’t take any crap from anyone. Let voters see that.”
- “BE YOURSELF! Folks who have seen you in action (including hard-core Obama supporters) were impressed with your judgment, intellect, gut instincts, and drive.”
But wait. What if your real self is a robot? Hillary, that’s okay too. Personally, I have nothing against robots. They excel at many jobs we humans find difficult: they can perform extraordinarily complex spinal surgery; they never forget to use their turn signals while driving, and they’re not so bad at vacuuming, either. Robots can venture into piles of unstable rubble to rescue earthquake victims, monitor an enemy’s movements for weeks on end, and safely defuse IEDs. As military experts put it, drones and other robots are perfect for jobs characterized by the Four D’s: “Dirty, Dangerous, Difficult, and Dull.”
And face it: Being president of the United States is the quintessential Four D job. Presidents must be able to juggle a thousand disparate issues and tasks for years on end; they must dispassionately weight costs and benefits without being unduly swayed by sentiment; they must frequently make compromises with morally loathsome people and organization; they must be immune to both criticism and fatigue.
The presidency, in other words, is the perfect job for a robot.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call