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April 16, 2015

Hillary in the uncanny valley

As a strategist for nine successful presidential campaigns and a selectman’s race in an Indianapolis (not the Indianapolis), I’d like to offer Hillary Clinton some free advice:

Get yourself out of the uncanny valley. When you try to be sincere and folksy you get just close enough that it’s a bit uncomfortable to watch.

Say what you will about Clinton’s campaign announcement, you have to admit that the tiny vignettes were effective.

Did you doubt that they were real people? Nope. Were they charming? Yup. Would you like to see more of them, including giving the fish kid his own sitcom where he teaches life lessons to the gay engaged couple and to the woman who’s about to retire? I’m already setting my Tivo!

What was the one moment of ickiness? Clinton bringing the whole scene to a screeching halt with her announcement “I’m getting ready to do something too.” The delivery was poor and the idea itself clanged against the first minute and a half of the video: ordinary folks talk about what they’re doing, and Hillary Clinton equates that with running for president. “We’re not so different, you and I: we both do things.”

Unfortunately, these issues of personality and performance count far more than they should. So, if we want Hillary Clinton to be president (and I do), then she needs to not be “warm and approachable.” When she tries, it just doesn’t work for her.

Ms. Clinton, I have no doubt that you are a delightful person when out of the public eye. But after more than twenty years of experience, we ought to conclude that in the public eye you’re socially awkward. Fine! Lots of us are. (You know someone who’s not? Your husband. Try to avoid standing next to him.)

So, how about if you embrace that awkwardness? Let it work for you. Be a bit shy. Bumble visibly. Get angry at heartless questions, like ones that act as if you were somehow personally responsible for the murder of your friend, Ambassador Chris Stevens. When not giving a speech, stop giving the internalized version of that speech; talking points are for See ‘n’ Say toys.

But recognize that when you do speak from the heart in public, it’s still always going to sound stilted and a bit uncomfortable. Acknowledge that. Make a joke. If you can’t be comfortable with yourself, at least be comfortable with that lack of comfort. You’re super-competent and will be the best-prepared president in decades, so it’s ok for you to have a personality flaw.

Because that’s what you really have in common with the rest of us.

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