Hillary Clinton has changed greatly over the past twenty-five years of public service, as First Lady, then Senator, then Secretary of State, and now presidential front-runner. No one has tracked that evolution more closely than writer Tom Junod who’s profiled Clinton three times (1999, 2010, 2016) over the past sixteen years, most recently in Esquire’s new Feb 2016 issue. We asked Junod how the Hillary he met in 1999 differs from the Hillary he met last month. One thing hasn’t changed—she’s still reviled by some, and believes, even more so than ever, that she’ll beat her naysayers.
Esquire: You’ve written three profiles on Hillary Clinton for Esquire: one when she was about to run for the U.S. Senate (1999), one when she was secretary of state (2010), and one in the current issue. Do you see a common thread in these stories?
Tom Junod: I was forty-one when I wrote the first Hillary piece, now I’m fifty-seven, but one of the things that those sixteen years have not changed is my complete bafflement that men would hate her on the level they do. It’s deeply, deeply sexual. People hate each other politically all the time, and I get that, but the added complication that men seem to hate her physically is just a head-scratcher to me. Because I’ve seen her, I’ve spent time with her, and she’s an attractive person. And I don’t mean to sound patronizing. She’s an attractive human being. It’s what makes this election so interesting—this strangeness is finally going to all come to a boil.
ESQ: You began your first profile, in fact, by talking about Hillary Clinton’s sexual appeal.
TJ: The thing that I wanted to counter in that piece—and what seemed radical at the time—was this widespread revulsion of her. Which was that she was a terrible person and incredibly repellent sexually. I just figured I would take that head-on.
ESQ: I love how her laugh—which you describe as full and appealing—makes it into all three of the pieces.
TJ: She’s presented as this sort of mean nun. I went to school with mean nuns, and they don’t laugh spontaneously like she does. There’s a thing about her that has always been very winning. To me she has a wonderful kind of sense of humor, of the absurd, and she has a twinkling in her eye. Just as a man—and I say this not as a writer but as a man—I’ve never understood Hillary hatred. I just don’t get it.
ESQ: Can you imagine how Eleanor Roosevelt would fare today on Twitter? And yet I suppose any woman in power would be confronted with the same kind of hostility.
TJ: That seems very much the case. Hillary’s become such a familiar character that we forget just how trailblazing she is. She is the first woman who really has a shot at real power—let’s not forget that.
ESQ: There’s a line in the second profile, “She will never be president unless something terrible happens.” I guess something terrible happened?
TJ: Huh. Wow. You know I haven’t looked at that piece in a really long time. The thing that happened was that an astonishing amount of the country, white people in general, decided that its first black president was essentially illegitimate. That Obama’s presidency has been so divisive for so many people.
Now she is coming as something else entirely. She’s not a uniter in any way. That’s something you never hear on the stump with her—that she’s going to bridge gaps and bind wounds. You never hear that. The thing that makes this election so climactic is that it has become a winner-take-all situation. It’s not like we’re going to reach across the aisle and share with our Republican brothers, which was Obama’s line. Now it’s We’re going to beat these people. And you hear that from both sides.
ESQ: She told you more than once in the latest article, “I have to win.”
TJ: And the other side feels the same way.
ESQ: You write about Hillary Clinton as being the candidate who wants to preserve what we have rather than tear it down and start over.
TJ: I think that is the key thing about her and her candidacy. She is, by inclination and experience, a moderate, and I think she looks at what’s been going on for the last eight years as something that can be improved upon, not something to completely throw in the dustbin. The worldview of the Republican base is apocalyptic, so each of those candidates has apocalyptic rhetoric.
The stakes are really high. That’s what makes this campaign like no other. It was really important for Obama to become president—but if McCain had won, would we have been okay? Yeah, probably. Even Romney, who was just the worst sort of Thurston Howell III stuffed shirt, would have been okay, probably. But if you look at Cruz, Rubio, and Trump, those guys are scary guys.
ESQ: And yet, as you point out in the new story, Clinton is not a transcendent figure. She doesn’t pretend to be, and she doesn’t want to be. Fate has put her in a transcendent moment, but you talk with both colleagues and critics who agree she’s not a perfect candidate.
TJ: I wrap my head around it by looking at what she has done in the past. Was she a good senator? Yeah. Was she a good secretary of state? Yeah, I think she was, despite the fact that the world took some really dangerous and dark turns during her time there. Did the Obama administration do a great job? No, I don’t think so. But I think in general she was certainly an admirable secretary of state, despite the idea there were machinations on her part regarding Benghazi that I still don’t really understand. She’s done well at everything she’s ever done. She has a lot of experience and she’s super smart. She can hold her own with anybody about anything. So I think she’s a serious candidate.
One of the things that’s really impressive about her is she’s a much better candidate now than she was eight years ago. I mean, much better. You really have to see her out there [on the campaign trail], because she can be really good. And she can be really good when she is just interacting with crowds. She can’t do what Obama has been able to do. She’s not going to do the “Amazing Grace”-in-Charleston thing. She’s not that person. But that doesn’t make her a bad candidate.
ESQ: I like this line in the new piece: “If you’re a normal person you never want to seem like you’re trying to act like a normal person.”
TJ: Which she does. She probably does that too much. She does that when she’s telling stories about her immigrant forbears. People know instinctively that she’s really far from that now in her life. Of course, you can’t say, “Bill and I have been wealthy for a long time and I try to understand you because my values are good, but I haven’t driven a car or flown commercial in thirty years.” You can’t say that, but of course that’s the situation.
ESQ: Donald Trump is the same way, but he’s from a completely different background.
TJ: He doesn’t have to pretend [to be normal]. I like her when she doesn’t have to try to be the Radcliffe version of Marco Rubio or something. I like her when she is who she is. What’s interesting to me is the drive she still has. I saw it when I was on the road with her in 2010, and it’s still there. You know, Trump takes shots at her all the time saying she’s tired, she doesn’t have the energy to be president. I think her endurance is one of the signature characteristics of her and her campaign. If the Republicans are counting on her tiring, they’re crazy. That woman is made of iron.
ESQ: At the end of the new piece, you talk about how she was more important to her husband during his presidency than he now is to her, and that in many ways she is very much alone.
TJ: There was a scene that didn’t make the final story, which took place after she spoke at Grinnell College in Iowa. She spoke at this concrete gymnasium. I had a long way to walk to my car, and I’m walking across the field and I hear something in the background. I guess Hillary had stayed there for a while. It’s a dark, cold night, and I see that she’s leaving. Her entourage is all around her and she is surrounded completely by male staff and male Secret Service people. As far as I could tell, she was the only woman in this whole procession of bodies. I was like, Wow, she really is alone in that world. This is the way she has been traveling for years and years and years. Which was kind of the point of the second piece, if I’m not mistaken. That moment was a powerful little glimpse of her life and what the nuts and bolts of it are.
ESQ: So, do you have any sense of how things will turn out for Hillary Clinton?
TJ: I don’t know. There were times when I was watching her on the stump when I was like, Wow, she is really good, she can pull this off. She’s going to be president. Then there were other nights when she seemed far away from being able to do it, like the second debate in Des Moines. She tends to say some ridiculous things with an incredible amount of conviction, which throws the whole matter of her conviction into question. So I wonder if her fate is to let a Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Donald Trump into the White House.
ESQ: Speaking of Trump, he came across as a decent guy in your 2000 profile of him. Have you looked back on that piece and wondered, What the hell was I thinking?
TJ: I thought about right after it came out. The thing about that piece was that my mom was very sick at the time. That’s why I was down in Florida, visiting her, and which is why I could go spend some time with Trump. His mom was sick too. And we kind of bonded over that. At least I thought we did. I got the feeling that underneath it all he was trying to be a decent person.
I saw him a couple of months later at a party held at the Esquire apartment. [Editor in chief] David Granger had invited him. I walked up to Trump and said, “Hey, how you doing?” And he didn’t blow me off so much as make clear he was going to hang around with my boss instead. That it was much more important for him to be with the person in the room who could do him the most good. I’d written the story. I was done for him, I was over. I had thought that underneath his bullshit there was a germ of sincerity, but I knew that moment at the party that he is the most insincere human I have ever met, flat-out.
ESQ: Was your ego bruised?
TJ: It wasn’t so much my ego. I’m not like Larissa MacFarquhar of The New Yorker—she’s my favorite writer over there, and she’s always made it clear that she’s there to report a story as an observer. She doesn’t exchange emotion with her subject. For me, the stories I like to write are the ones where I feel like a real human transaction has taken place. I mean the pieces where you spend a considerable amount of time with people and you risk a few things, like when I risked telling Trump that my mother was sick and I was worried. I can’t say that I’ve stayed in touch with everybody I’ve written about, but in a lot of ways I think there is something real that happens between me and the person I’m writing about. I thought he was one of those guys. And I then realized he was not one of those guys. That it was really much more of a transaction. I think the only thing sincere about Trump is his need for attention. What’s insincere is everything else.