In the middle of Wednesday’s Democratic debate in Miami, one of the moderators told Hillary Clinton that few Americans trust her. Clinton was already painfully aware: “I am not a natural politician,” she responded, “in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama.” Within hours, Clinton’s remark was thoroughly dissected, as her words always are, and labeled “remarkably raw,” “revealing,” and a “breakout moment.” If anyone doubted her, she proved her point a few days later when apologizing for making an embarrassingly bad statement about the Reagans helping to start a conversation about AIDS.
It wasn’t the first time she’d said this exact line, however. She went on Morning Joe two weeks ago and said, “Look, I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, I am not a natural politician, like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama.” At a town hall before the New Hampshire primary, she admitted it again: “This is hard for me … I met my husband, who was such a natural, knew exactly what he wanted to do.”
Like Doritos Locos Tacos, Hillary Clinton wants you to love her even if you are a bit skeptical of the packaging — and despite her having some artificial ingredients.
This sentiment wasn’t a revelation. Critics have been waiting for years to see if Clinton’s political career would prove the theory that 10,000 hours of practice can make you an expert in anything. More than a decade ago, Elizabeth Kolbert said, “I don’t think that Hillary is a natural politician, like Bill, which is to say, someone who intuitively understands where people are coming from and what it will take to move them.” Before the 2008 presidential race, Ruth Marcus wrote that if “Obama is the Clintonian figure in the race, Hillary Clinton may be Al Gore, more disciplined policy wonk than natural politician.” Last year, Jason Zengerle talked to Pat Buchanan, who said Clinton “is the furthest thing from a natural: ’She’s like Pete Rose, who has to grind out every hit.'”
This is Hillary Clinton we’re talking about, however, so if you go back far enough, you’ll find a time when people confidently held the opposite opinion of her. In 1994, one of her classmates at Yale told The New Yorker, “That year showed her to be a natural politician. She had a natural charismatic quality — people loved to be around her.” Political columnist Marianne Means wrote a year earlier that Clinton was “a natural politicians who is getting the closest thing to a presidential education that can be had. It would be a shame to waste her talents. … No woman has been deemed sufficiently well-known, qualified, or campaign-tested for the ultimate political responsibility. But in a few years we will have that woman. And she already sleeps in the White House.”
But let’s remove Hillary, America’s political koan, from the equation, and step back. What are we actually saying when we call a person a natural politician? It is a title awarded with great reverence, whatever it means. Back in 1904, The New York Times said of Theodore Roosevelt, “He is a natural politician, experienced, skillful, and so adroit that whatever methods he employs his admirers rise up and with one voice proclaim them blameless and pure.” Chris Christie, John Edwards, John McCain, Andrew Cuomo, and, of course, Bill Clinton have all been called naturals, too. The qualities that make up their innate glad-handing gifts are hardly ever explained; it seems as if being a natural politician is something we know when we see it, like the pornography that 26-year-old Ted Cruz watched with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
It would probably be more accurate to call these charismatic candidates natural campaigners. A nice smile and pretty words aren’t as useful when governing — although it’s hard to get off the trail and on to the politicking without them.
Judging from the cruel descriptions of the artless, it is far easier to diagnose the unnatural politician. In 2008, Vanity Fair called Eliot Spitzer “a bit awkward, maybe even shy” and remarked that he “speaks too quickly.” The Atlantic wrote last year that Jeb Bush’s “admirers consider him wonky, hard-working, and principled. But he’s also an introvert who doesn’t much like to campaign.” Politico said that Mitt Romney “lacks a gut instinct for how audiences will hear what he says.” Decades earlier, The Atlantic described Richard Nixon as a politician who had been made rather than born: “Richard Nixon has never slapped a back in his life, and his smile often seems a difficult muscular exercise.” Like Hillary Clinton, he was aware of his defect, telling CBS News, “I am not a natural politician.”
Many of the so-called non-native refuse to abandon nuance for applause and are unable to divorce ambition from reality. Any attempts to stir emotion usually take an inordinate amount of effort, which ends with them being written off with this convenient catch-all, a polite, pity-inducing synonym for “inauthentic” that can be deployed by all who need to describe what they see as overeager fakes. In fact, a better synonym for “not a natural politician” would be “there are so many reasons I don’t like this candidate that I can’t fit it into one adjective.” Bernie Sanders isn’t someone you’d call a natural politician — recounting his political gifts requires too many “toos” to make such a placid descriptor fit — but you’d also never call him inauthentic. His awkwardness is the wrong type to make it a bad, unnatural trait. He is impervious to criticisms decrying policy overload or presentation (something Clinton is probably intensely jealous of); if he had to sweatily debate next to John F. Kennedy in 1960, those watching TV might have swooned and said, “That’s our Bernie!”
Because the words used to described politicians are usually attached thoughtlessly, if with a durable adhesive that makes it impossible to take it off once placed, no one seems to mind that we allow people gifted at sloughing off their selves to be described as authentic, while those stuck with themselves even on a stage are accused of not being genuine. Daniel Day-Lewis may be better at making you believe in a fantasy than Tommy Wiseau is, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t both acting.
The problems of being dubbed an unnatural politician are made worse by the fact that these unfortunate souls are still politicians, even if the clothes don’t fit. Hillary Clinton was not only not born with it — she studied the manual so damn hard that she is accused of being the worst Washington insider of them all. Marco Rubio, “obviously the political natural in this race,” on the other hand, might work in D.C., but he obviously didn’t read the assignments too carefully.
Clinton has made no secret of how hard she works to be a politician; after conceding that she was no natural, the former senator and secretary of State added that she had “very much committed to the best of my ability my energies and efforts” to trying to get this job and help people. If working harder than everyone else makes you a less-than-natural politician, Clinton never had a chance from the beginning. As Rebecca Traister wrote last month, “women — understanding that making promises they cannot back up will not get them taken seriously and that they must prove themselves extra-competent in order to be understood as basically competent — become the nose-to-the-grindstone wonks … They’re the wet blankets, the ones all too acquainted with the limitations imposed by the world, and all too eager to explain their various ideas for working around them.”
The best thing you can be, based on the loophole-ridden logic that governs our feelings toward candidates, is an outsider who is also a natural politician. Americans don’t want their leaders to be politicians, as evidenced by the increasingly dismal views people have of Congress and the federal government. We just want them to act like the best of them.
Being a politician is bad — but being good at campaigning to be one is not.
Donald Trump hardly ever gets described as a natural politician — probably because the majority of politicians don’t want to further sully their sullied name. But Trump is loved by his fans for the same reasons that many people loved those “natural” politicians above — and because he lacks many of the attributes Clinton can’t help but possess. He is a back-slapper who talks about policy so rarely that he must be worried that nuance would send him into anaphylactic shock. He points, he mugs for the camera. He has no need to condense his thoughts into sound-bite-friendly snacks. All of his thoughts are fun-size.
The 2016 election is filled with unnatural politicians, and explaining why you do or don’t like them — or, for the politicians, why you aren’t appealing to some voters — is going to require a bigger vocabulary.