That Lena Dunham Interview Didn’t Do Hillary Any Favors
Why these continuing attempts to make Hillary seem fun and relatable are backfiring.
There are many questions I would like to hear Hillary Clinton answer. Like how she squares her traditional allegiance to Wall Street with her recent stab at populist rhetoric. Or why she decided to use a private email server when she knew it would make the always-cagey Clintons look even less transparent. Or whether she actually regrets voting for the war in Iraq because it was an ill-conceived invasion from the start or whether just regrets doing something that eventually turned out to be politically unpopular.
What I did not want to know is whether Hillary Clinton had seen Lenny Kravitz’s junk when his pants split during a concert.
It was the latter question, however, that was included in Lena Dunham’s recent sit-down interview with the Democratic presidential contender for the Girls auteurs new LennyLetter project. This is not a critique of Dunham. I think she is one of the most politically astute voices in America today—able, like few others, to combine her passion for activism with a keen sense of the pulse of her audience. And I suspect that, from a numbers and chatter perspective, Lena Dunham’s interview with Hillary Clinton will be a success.
But Dunham’s Clinton interview will do little to assuage detractors concerned about her vague centrist stances on key policy issues. Nor does it help humanize Clinton very much. Yes, it’s a great read—but, weirdly, the full interview was released as a transcript, with only certain segments released on video. In print, Clinton can come across as more relatable and engaging. In video? Her patrician opacity is more on display, as in the awkward Kravitz exchange.
Dunham’s interview with Clinton is a blend of personal and political. Dunham and Clinton talk mostly about Clinton’s formative years in college and in her 20s, the age range of LennyLetter’s target demographic.
“I don’t trust anybody who says that they didn’t have some questions in their 20s. That’s a period of such exploration and often torment in people’s lives,” Clinton tells Dunham. They talk about Clinton switching from Republican to Democrat while in college, her student activism and propensity for illegal lake swimming at Wellesley, and her finding her own career path and identity in the midst of that of her husband, Bill.
Dunham does ask a few policy questions. One is about student debt, and Clinton outlines her plans to create affordable college debt payment plans and sunset provisions.
Dunham also asks Clinton about how “so many young women of color—so many people of color—have suffered at the hands of police in the last few years” and what Clinton will do about the “terrible fracture in race relations that we’re experiencing in America right now.”
Here, Clinton’s answer is less than satisfying. She talks about the problem resting in police training, demilitarizing police forces and engaging in more community-police dialogue. All of which is good, but ignores broader conversations and solutions around deep, structural racism for which Black Lives Matter activists and others are clamoring.
Clinton has to convince mainstream Democrats eyeing Bernie Sanders that she is the authentic populist she claims to be, or at least populist enough and better at actually getting things done. Whereas in the general election, her positions seem less of a liability than her persona—Clinton says all the things on economic policy and foreign policy and women’s rights and racial justice and immigration reform that the majority of voters back.
But there’s something about her trustworthiness, whether voters actually believe they can rely on Hillary Clinton to be on their side or do what she promises. Swing state polls suggest voters simply don’t trust her. Does this softball interview help on this point? No.
And while Clinton’s campaign might hope that she can build the sort of grassroots groundswell of young voter support that animated Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, there’s no evidence she can inspire that kind of excitement. In fact, Clinton’s greatest appeal as a Democratic candidate—that she can actually get things done in Washington, as opposed to Obama, who has largely struggled to translate his rhetoric into action—directly cuts against that kind of fever-pitch passion.
It’s no secret that the campaign has decided it has to show Clinton as more human and humorous—to “bring spontaneity to a candidacy that sometimes seems wooden and overly cautious” as The New York Times reported. Since then, we’ve seen her hang out with some very talented, very cool celebrities like Dunham, Amy Schumer, and Ellen Degeneres. But unlike Obama, Hillary is not cool. In fact, just the opposite: Her experience and lack of cool freshness are her greatest assets. She needs to play to her strengths and figure out a way to be authentic as she is, not try so hard to be something she's not.
Who knows? The LennyLetter interview might give Clinton a bounce with young women. But it doesn’t do anything to address the real issues that have been dogging her campaign.