It was April 1992 and the 44-year-old lawyer/activist had stopped in Charlotte to campaign for her husband, a small-state Southern governor running for the Democratic presidential nomination on a promise to bring change to Washington.
She spoke that day to local Democratic candidates, toured an adult literacy center for the homeless at Double Oaks and agreed to let me interview her on the way to the airport.
“You know,” she told me, “there are millions of people … who know that the country is going in the wrong direction” under then-Republican President George H.W. Bush.
This would-be first lady also spoke with passion about her lifelong work on behalf of children, pointed out that women “were taking leading roles in so many areas of our lives,” and said that, no, she’d “never seriously entertained” being a candidate for anything herself – even though “people have talked to me about running for office since I was a little girl.”
The next day, the headline atop my Q&A read: “Meet Hillary Clinton.”
More than 24 years later, as Clinton prepares for her own presidential nomination, she and her campaign would be wise to slightly revise that headline by using this week’s Democratic convention in Philadelphia – especially her nationally televised acceptance speech – to re-introduce her to the American people.
With most polls saying a majority of voters have an unfavorable opinion of her, this could be a “Re-Meet Hillary Clinton” convention.
“When you’ve been in national politics for 24 years, all these (past controversies) build up around you,” said Gary Pearce, a retired Democratic political adviser who was helping N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt win a third term in 1992. “The convention is a chance to shake out all that stuff and let Clinton say to those watching, ‘Here’s what you may not know about me. Here’s the essence of me that’s been obscured.’ ”
Since 1992, Clinton has been in the spotlight so much as first lady, U.S. senator, secretary of state and two-time Democratic presidential candidate that Americans are on a first-name basis with Hillary.
But while they feel they know her, many don’t like or trust her. Critics point to decades of controversies enveloping her and former President Bill Clinton, who won in 1992 only after weathering reports that he’d had affairs with Gennifer Flowers and other women when he was governor of Arkansas.
Most recently, Hillary Clinton’s standing in the polls took a beating after FBI director James Comey described as “extremely careless” her use of a private email address and server as secretary of state.
One current political figure whose poll numbers are worse: Donald Trump, her Republican opponent.
In the RealClear Politics average of several recent polls, Clinton is viewed favorably by 38 percent and unfavorably by 56 percent. Trump’s average ratings are 34 percent favorable and 59 percent unfavorable.
But during this 2016 campaign, it’s Trump, the New York businessman, who has cast himself as the outsider calling for change. And at last week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, he and a parade of other GOP leaders portrayed Clinton as a lying crook – “Lock her up!” the delegates chanted – and as the ultimate Washington insider whose election essentially would mean a third term for President Barack Obama.
Now, it’s the Democrats’ turn – to unleash their own attacks on Trump, to try to project a unified party, and to promote Clinton.
Priorities in ’92
An all-star Democratic lineup set to include Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and even U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders will speak up for Clinton and try to repair any damage done by the GOP.
“She’s been a target for a long time and she and her campaign need to concentrate on the positive,” said N.C. Democratic Party Chair Patsy Keever, who is scheduled to represent North Carolina during the roll call vote of the states. “People need to know of all the good things she’s done over the years. … Like what she’d done for children. People relate to that.”
That’s partly how Clinton defined herself during the 1992 interview with the Observer, mentioning her efforts up to that point as a lawyer at the Children’s Defense Fund and as first lady of Arkansas.
“What I’m more interested in,” she said then, “is giving more of a priority to children’s needs than we have in this country, providing the kind of health care that pregnant women need, providing the immunizations that children need, making sure children are healthy when they start school, providing good, quality child care when children have to have that.”
Charlotte’s Linda Ashendorf, a Democratic volunteer back then who drove Clinton to the airport after her campaign stop, still remembers how unlike her public persona Clinton was that day. She was warm, not hard-edged, Ashendorf said, and she had a memorable, disarming giggle.
Ashendorf’s advice: “I just wish when she spoke, she didn’t try to be an orator. I wish she just spoke from the heart. When she does that, she is warm and pure.”
Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, also is scheduled to speak on the final night of the convention. Now 36, politically savvy and a mother herself, she likely will offer those tuning into the convention a glimpse of the softer, more personal side of the Hillary Clinton many consider just another politician.
A possible preview came last week in a fund-raising email the Democratic Party sent out under Chelsea Clinton’s name: “My mom is compassionate, kind, and hardworking – when I was growing up, it seemed like she could do anything. She’d spend all day in court litigating on behalf of children and families, then come home and ask me over dinner what I learned in school, what my favorite part of my day was, and what I hoped would happen tomorrow.”
In the 1992 Q&A, Hillary Clinton recounted how she and her husband sat down with Chelsea when she was 6 to explain the tough world of politics and how people could say mean things about her parents. And Hillary Clinton compared being involved in her first presidential campaign in 1992 with being a new mom in 1980.
“I don’t know that anyone is ever ready for what happens in a presidential campaign because it is unlike anything that anyone has ever experienced. It’s kind of like being a mother,” Clinton said then. “You know, you can be around a lot of babies and have a lot of experience with them. But until you’ve had your own, it’s not like anything you’ve been through before. I remember when Chelsea was a little baby, one night when she was having a hard time going to sleep and I was rocking her, I just looked down at her and said, ‘Now Chelsea, we’re going to work this out. You’ve never been a baby before and I’ve never been a mother before. But we’re going to figure this out together.’ ”
The best opportunity to re-introduce Hillary Clinton to America will come in primetime Thursday, when the candidate herself will take the stage for her acceptance speech.
Look for her to stress her record – for example, helping to rebuild New York after the 9-11 attacks (as senator from New York) and helping negotiate the nuclear deal with Iran (as secretary of state).
Pearce said Clinton should tackle the trust issue by defining herself as the opposite of an often-temperamental Trump, whose unscripted remarks have raised questions about his self-discipline and his understanding of the issues.
“She can say, ‘I’m a steady person that you can rely on during that crisis at 3 a.m. I’ve got the judgment and the experience on everything from education to health care,’ ” said Pearce, who writes a “Talking About Politics” blog. “She can also say, ‘I’ve been fighting the right battles my whole life and you can count on me.’ ”
Candidate of future
Just as polls in 1992 said people wanted change – Bill Clinton unseated Bush that year – polls in 2016 signal a similar angst among voters.
Trump, who has never held public office, is promising to shake up Washington and undo much of Obama’s legacy. He said he’s the candidate of change. But his slogan – “Make America Great Again” – is most appealing to voters who think there has been too much change in American society. They remember their version of a grand America past, before globalism, before affirmative action, before same-sex marriage.
Clinton’s past support for sweeping societal change could give her an opening in claiming she’s the candidate with an eye to the future, said Susan Roberts, a professor of political science at Davidson College.
“It’s the way you frame it: It’s change looking backwards with Trump (vs.) keep changing forward with Clinton,” Roberts said. “She can say Trump wants to turn back the clock, while she wants … to make the American Dream stronger by including more people.”
Democrats meeting in Philadelphia this week will deliver one change that’s so big it will qualify as a milestone in American history: Clinton will be the first woman ever nominated for president by a major political party.
Back in April 1992, during that interview on the way to the airport, Clinton seemed to anticipate the day of a Madame President when she talked about how women, even 24 years ago, were taking on roles that had long been reserved for men.
“When my mother was growing up and making her choices, they were more limited,” Clinton said. “We have to understand that any woman who makes a responsible choice – whether it be to be a full-time homemaker and mother or to be a full-time professional or to do what most of us do, which is to juggle those roles – is exercising choices that were formerly not available.”