It was January 16, 1993, and the Associated Press was ruminating on the supposedly contradictory nature of the woman who would become, in four days, the first lady of the United States.
Hillary Clinton was so many things at once—a “corporate lawyer” on the board of “capitalist corporations” but also a “devoted mother” associated with “do-good liberal groups”—that, the news service said, it was difficult for some to reconcile her tendency to be “incisive and businesslike” with her ability to also be “warm and witty.”
They quoted her mentor Marian Wright Edelman as saying, “We are complicated people…I’m sure she will find her voice. She’ll do it in her own way.”
What Edelman may not have anticipated is that Clinton would find her voice and lose it and find it again over and over and over for 23 years.
A review of media coverage of Clinton reveals that the Associated Press, USA Today, CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Observer, Bloomberg, Politico, The Fiscal Times, US News and The Hill, among other local and international publications, have reported on Clinton “finding her voice” some 19 times since 1993—and that doesn’t include the countless instances it’s been said on television or radio.
Over the course of a career that’s included stints as the first lady, the senator from New York, a presidential candidate, the secretary of State and now the 2016 Democratic nominee, Clinton has demanded that our nation’s newsmen and wordsmiths and headline architects stretch the finite number of applicable words and phrases in the English language to the brink. And at some point, it seems, claiming Clinton had “found her voice” became a default literary device for a media that had a century’s worth of experience writing about male power, but had never before been tasked with reporting on a woman of her stature and ambition.
She famously found her voice in Beijing with her daughter, Chelsea, in tow in April 1995, when she told the United Nations Fourth World Congress on Women that, “women’s rights are human rights.”
At the time, CNN’s Claire Shipman said, “Perhaps because the women here have a greater distance to travel, her presence resonates more deeply. Perhaps she’s come halfway around the world to find her voice.”
But then she must have lost it, because she was trying to find it once more in 1999, when she was running for the United States Senate from New York.
According to The Boston Globe, her campaign was “being positioned as an existential mission, during which she will connect with voters and in so doing find her voice.”
She kept losing it and finding it in 2008, to the extent that she even used the phrase herself in New Hampshire.
“I want especially to thank New Hampshire,” Clinton said then, following a memorably emotional campaign stop in Portsmouth when she teared up while explaining why she got up every morning and hit the campaign trail, “over the last week I listened to you and in the process, I found my own voice.”
The New York Observer used the headline “Hillary, Triumphant, Finds Her Voice” for a story about how she had improved as a candidate since announcing her bid for the White House. The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette said, “Clinton Finds Voice In New Hampshire.” The French Agency France Presse declared, “Clinton Finds Voice, Savors Unlikely Triumph.”
And then her voice was gone, because in August of 2015, Bloomberg broke the news that she had found it.
“Hillary Clinton Finds Her Voice Making Gun Violence Plea Following Roanoke Murders,” Bloomberg reported. “It really wasn’t what she said, but how she said it, with what came across as honest heartbreak.”
And she found it again in February of 2016, when The Washington Post said that “Ahead of New Hampshire, Clinton Finds her Voice and Trump Fades” (lol) because “Hillary Clinton has hit on a succinct statement of her political philosophy.”
But not succinct enough, because sometime between February and May, her voice vanished and she just kept finding it all over the place throughout the summer.
In May, CNN said, “Hillary Clinton Finds Her Voice in Donald Trump Attacks.” In June, The Fiscal Times reported, “Clinton Finds Her Voice On Trump: Withering Criticism, With a Side of Mockery.” While both The Hill and US News reported, “Clinton Finds Her Voice” and “Hillary Clinton Finds Her Voice” in stories that claimed she had worked out the kinks in her message.
In July, Politico asked, “Has Hillary Finally Found Her Voice?” reporting that “Interviews with more than half a dozen Clinton allies inside and outside her campaign reveal a candidate who remains deeply insecure when trying to commit to a message about her campaign, and reluctant to indulge in the rhetorical flourishes that make for the rousing poetry of campaigns.” In her campaign headquarters, Politico said, “the joke [is that] she would take the public safety slogan ‘If you see something, say something’ and, in her literal-minded way, change it to say, ‘if you see something, alert the proper authorities.’”
Other people have found their voices, too, of course—Barbara Bush, when she published her autobiography in 1994, according to The New York Times. And so have men—Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, to name a few. But no one has found it with as much regularity and at such mundane intervals as Clinton.
So why is this the way we’ve decided to talk about America’s most prominent female politician?
The Cambridge Dictionary says finding your voice means becoming willing to talk. But in a political context, the idiom seems to mean arriving at a style in which you talk, either through calculation or its absence.
Clinton, of course, is widely considered the most calculating politician of all—someone who is exceedingly careful, someone who wouldn’t tell you her favorite color without first running a poll. Writing about Clinton, then, is a game of waiting for glimpses of either the human beneath the politician artifice, or the politician fully realized. Her every speech is a Rorschach test, because what we see in Clinton—either a competent, accomplished public servant, as her fans do; or a conniving, manufactured, finger-in-the-wind striver, like her critics say—is in some way an indication of how we feel about a culture in which a woman can give such a speech.
One minor side effect of the United States never having a female president is that the media lack self-assurance when documenting female power. There’s an uneasiness due to a lack of practice and, thanks to social media, you can sometimes see the debates play out in real time. Is it sexist to describe Clinton’s fashion choices? My readers often tell me so, but since I tend to describe the fashion choices of male politicians with venomous glee, I think it would be sexist to give Clinton special treatment. Is it sexist to say she sounds shrill? What about cold? And how far removed from “manipulative” is the phrase “calculating,” anyway?
Paul Begala, a former adviser in the Clinton White House who supports Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, said that because Clinton is usually reserved, any time her personality breaks through, it’s hyper-analyzed in a way that exceeds the protocol for reporting on most other politicians.
“So much of politics has become performance art and self-revelation, all the things she hates,” he told me. “Once in a while, she drops her guard enough that you see a little bit of personality rather than a policy.”
Asked if she would be willing to submit for an interview on this subject, the Clinton campaign didn’t respond. Perhaps she couldn’t find her voice.