When I walk into the Chappaqua dining room in which Hillary Clinton is spending her days working on her new book, I am greeted by a vision from the past. Wearing no makeup and giant Coke-bottle glasses, dressed in a gray mock-turtleneck and black zip sweatshirt, Hillary looks less Clinton and more Rodham than I have ever seen her outside of college photographs. It’s the glasses, probably, that work to make her face look rounder, or maybe just the bareness of her skin. She looks not like the woman who’s familiar from television, from newspapers, from America of the past 25 years, but like the 69-year-old version of the young woman who came to the national stage with a wackadoodle Wellesley commencement speech in 1969. With no more races to run and no more voters to woo with fancy hair, Clinton appears now as she might have if she’d aged in nature and not in the crucible of American politics. Still, this is not Hillary of the woods. She is reemerging, giving speeches and interviews. It’s clear that she is making an active choice to remain a public figure.
It’s the day after Donald Trump has fired FBI director James Comey, the man who many — including Clinton — believe is responsible for the fact that she is spending this Wednesday in May working at a dining-room table in Chappaqua and not in the Oval Office. Clinton checks with her communications director, Nick Merrill, about what’s happened in the past hour — she’s been exercising — and listens to the barrage of updates, nodding like a person whose job requires her to be up-to-date on what’s happening, even though it does not.
“I am less surprised than I am worried,” she says of the Comey firing. “Not that he shouldn’t have been disciplined. And certainly the Trump campaign relished everything that was done to me in July and then particularly in October.” But “having said that, I think what’s going on now is an effort to derail and bury the Russia inquiry, and I think that’s terrible for our country.”
It will be days before newspapers report that Trump asked Comey to move away from the Russia investigation prior to firing him, but the implications are already clear. History, says Clinton, “will judge whoever’s in Congress now as to how they respond to what was an attack on our country. It wasn’t the kind of horrible, physical attack we saw on 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, but it was an attack by an aggressive adversary who had been probing for many years to figure out how to undermine our democracy, influence our politics, even our elections.” Her hope, in the wake of Comey’s dismissal, is that “this abrupt and distressing action will raise enough questions in the minds of Republicans for them to conclude that it is worthy of careful attention, because left unchecked … this will not just bite Democrats, or me; this will undermine our electoral system.”
Talking about Comey, even the day after his firing, is a risky thing for Clinton to do. The last time she did it was in a conversation a week earlier with CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour at a Manhattan lunchtime gala for Women for Women International. Amanpour had asked Clinton about why she thought she had lost the election. “I take absolute personal responsibility,” Clinton replied. “I was the candidate, I was the person who was on the ballot. I am very aware of the challenges, the problems, the shortfalls that we had.” But she had also talked about other factors she believes contributed, citing FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver’s research on the impact of Comey’s October 28 letter. “If the election had been on October 27,” she said, “I’d be your president.”
After the exchange, Clinton and her aides had appeared upbeat. The crowd had been enthusiastic and there was a sense that Clinton had done something that she has long found difficult in public: She had been herself — brassy, frank, funny, and pissed. But on cable news and social media, another reaction was taking shape. The New York Times’ Glenn Thrush, who has reported on Clinton for years, tweeted “mea culpa-not so much,” suggesting that the former candidate “blames everyone but self.” Obama-campaign strategist turned pundit David Axelrod gave an interview claiming that while Clinton “said the words ‘I’m responsible’ … everything else suggested that she really doesn’t feel that way.” Joe Scarborough called her comments “pathetic”; David Gregory suggested she was not “taking real responsibility for the fact that she was not what the country wanted.” And in theDaily News, Gersh Kuntzman delivered a column that began, “Hey, Hillary Clinton, shut the f— up and go away already.”
Later, Amanpour would tell me how surprised she was by the negative reaction. “The idea that she shouldn’t mention the Comey letter when the entire nation and the most respected statisticians are considering its impact is so strange,” she said. “If she were a man, would she be allowed to mention it? As a woman, I am offended by the double standards applied here. Everyone shrieks that Hillary was a bad candidate, but was Trump a good candidate?”
In the natural biorhythms of popular response to Hillary Clinton, which have been trackable for more than two decades, this is the period during which even her detractors would usually be starting to feel rugged admiration for her. Clinton has typically been most loathed when she is running for office, and most beloved after she has lost but is soldiering on, especially if the loss was sufficiently humiliating. But it’s been six months since the cataclysm of November 8, and feelings about her remain fiercely divided. Social media is awash with Hillary fans who imagine alternative universes in which she’s the president, and Etsy booms with crafts made from the words of her concession speech; yet many of her critics — even those who voted for her — are determined that Clinton bear the mantle of worst politician who ever lived, their evidence being that she lost to … the worst politician who ever lived.
The unusually prolonged pummeling is partly because Clinton’s Election Day loss was not just hers but the nation’s; her defeat this time left us not with an Obama presidency but with an out-of-control administration led by a man so inept — and so reviled — that even (some) Republicans are voicing concerns. The nation is grasping for a way to understand how we got here, and blaming Clinton wholly and neatly takes the heat off everyone else who contributed: from the critics who derided her supporters as empty-headed shills to those supporters who were cowed into secret Facebook groups; from the journalists who treated Trump as a ratings-pumping sideshow and Clinton as the suspiciously presumptive president to all of us who permitted cheerful stories about America’s progress on gender and race to blot out the real and lingering inequities in this country.