WASHINGTON – So much for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s reputation as a hypercautious, pre-programmed, go-it-by-rote politician.
For better or worse, one week into Clinton’s tour to promote her new memoir, “Hard Choices,” it’s clear that the former secretary of state and front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination is suddenly mincing no words.
Discussing her and her husband’s financial position upon leaving the White House during a nationally televised interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, for example, she inexplicably and inaccurately pleaded poverty. On NPR, she pushed back hard on a tough line of questioning about gay marriage. And at a book talk at George Washington University on Friday, she both talked tough about Russian President Vladimir Putin and spoke gleefully about drinking pisco sours on a trip to Peru.
To hear Clinton tell it, she’s tired of caution.
“I am totally done with, you know, being really careful about what to say because somebody might think this instead of that,” the former New York senator said at that Friday book talk. “It just gets too exhausting and frustrating and it just seemed a whole lot easier to just put it out there and I hope people get used to it – whether you agree with it or not, you know exactly where I come from, what I think, what I feel.”
But that’s not the conventional wisdom that evolved in Washington after Clinton’s ABC interview.
“She sounds not quite ready for prime time,” Maggie Haberman, a senior political reporter for Politico, said on CNN.
“She was rusty,” Mark Halperin, co-author of “Game Change,” the epic book about the 2008 presidential election, said on the Charlie Rose Show on PBS. “To handle the wealth question the way she did did not show a lot of deftness, a lot of finesse.”
Asked by Sawyer about her wealth – which she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have accumulated via book royalties and paid speeches since they left the White House in 2001 – Clinton told the ABC interviewer: “We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt. We had no money when we got there, and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages, for houses, for Chelsea’s education. You know, it was not easy.”
Maybe it was not easy – but what Clinton said that night was not accurate.
“A few weeks before they left the White House, the Clintons were able to muster a cash down payment of $855,000 and secure a $1.995 million mortgage,” PolitiFact, the nonpartisan fact-checking website, said in response to Clinton’s claim. “This hardly fits the common meaning of ‘dead broke.’ We rate the claim Mostly False.”
And that was just part of the barrage of criticism heaped on Clinton for her comments to Sawyer.
“She insisted that they ‘struggled’ to pay for houses,” said Sean Spicer, communications director for the Republican National Committee. “Yes, houses. Plural.”
In the wake of it all, Clinton backtracked. In a forum with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, she said: “That may have not been the most artful way of saying that Bill and I had gone through a lot of different phases in our lives.”
Yet that was just the first dust-up of Clinton’s book tour, which is widely seen as a tune-up for a second presidential bid.
Then came Clinton’s unusual seven-minute exchange with NPR’s Terry Gross about gay marriage, in which the radio host tried repeatedly to pin down exactly how Clinton went from opposing same-sex nuptials to favoring them.
The exchange has drawn a fair amount of criticism both of Gross – whom some media critics have accused of belligerence – and of Clinton, who appeared to grow increasingly exasperated during the exchange, accusing Gross of “playing with my words.”
“I think you are trying to say that I used to be opposed and now I am in favor and I did it for political reasons,” Clinton said. “And that’s just flat wrong. So let me just state what I feel like I think you are implying and repudiate it. I have a strong record. I have a great commitment to this issue, and I am proud of what I’ve done and the progress we’re making.”
What’s more, Clinton defended her change of heart on the gay marriage issue by saying: “Too many people believe they have a direct line to the Divine, and they never want to change their mind about anything, they’re never open to new information, and they like to operate in an evidence-free zone. ... And I think it’s good if people continue to change.”
Faith-based voters, obviously, might not be too happy with those words, but adding up all of Clinton’s comments for the week, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus seemed almost giddy.
“She went out of the gate with one gaffe after the next,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
Then again, she also went out of the gate showing an openness that she was lacking on the campaign trail in 2008, when she ran a careful, highly scripted and much-criticized race for the Democratic presidential nomination that she eventually lost to a young, charismatic Barack Obama.
At George Washington University, for instance, she spoke in lacerating terms about Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying: “He is a determined, relentless pursuer of his vision of a Russia from the past.” And in discussing foreign reaction to last year’s government shutdown, she said: “It was no longer bewilderment. It was contempt. It was: How can you trust the Americans? They can’t even run a government anymore.”
What’s more, Clinton’s sense of humor – which is famous among those who know her, but that has until now been largely absent from her public persona – shone through as she told anecdotes from her diplomatic days.
For one thing, she noted that she was shocked to hear that Saud Al Faisal, the Saudi Arabian foreign minister, doesn’t like camels. “I said, ‘My goodness that’s like an Australian not liking kangaroos,’ ” Clinton recalled, prompting raucous laughter from the crowd of about 1,500.
And she even spoke of sharing pisco sours with the diplomatic press corps during a trip to Peru – until the Chinese ambassador arrived, forcing her to get serious again.
The trouble is, “apparently pisco sours make you very happy,” she observed.
Noting a quite obvious change in Clinton’s public demeanor, moderator Lissa Muscatine – a former Clinton aide – asked her if she suddenly felt “free to speak your mind,” Clinton said yes, adding that it fit in with her broader world view.
“I really believe that’s missing in our, both our government dialogue ... and certainly in our political dialogue,” she said. “There are so many big issues and I talk about some of them both internationally and nationally, and I don’t think we gain by either shouting matches or finger-pointing or biting one’s tongue. I think we really need to have a very open, straightforward conversation.”
Clinton said her new, more open approach “feels a little bit liberating, to be honest,” but she acknowledged that it takes a little getting used to.
“There are occasions when, I think, people gulp a little – including myself, to be fair,” she said.