Why Hillary Clinton Isn’t Just Going to Go Away
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered the 2018 Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture on Sunday evening at Manhattan’s Cooper Union college, closing PEN America’s annual World Voices Festival. The event, which culminated the weeklong festival, typically features prominent figures who have dedicated significant time to protecting expression rights worldwide; past speakers include Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi, and novelists Salman Rushdie and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who was invited back this year to moderate a discussion with Secretary Clinton following her speech.
When Clinton stepped up to the podium in one of her signature pantsuits—olive this time, and paired with a multicolor scarf—she didn’t dance around the issues at hand, tackling the threats to America’s freedoms head on. Nations like Russia have jailed journalists and artists for their opinions, ideas, and expressions in recent years, Clinton said, and while she lauded journalists for their courageous efforts in holding the powers that be accountable—most recently recognized in this year’s Pulitzer Prizes, which celebrated exposés on topics like Hollywood’s high-powered sexual predators and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election—she admitted that she couldn’t recall a more dangerous time to be a reporter. “Celebrating and protecting the power of the written word is more important at this moment than any time in recent history,” she stressed. “You are artists, and truth-tellers, and that may not always make us comfortable. In fact, sometimes it is your job to make us uncomfortable. As someone who has been on the receiving end of some of those books and articles over the years, I can attest to that. But it does bring to mind that quote that we all learned in school and we probably should pull out and display prominently: Voltaire’s ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’ ”
Following Clinton’s impassioned speech, Adichie (clad in hot pink for the occasion) joined her on stage. Together, they covered topics from Clinton’s hesitation to display emotion publicly—growing up in the 1950s, she said, was a time in which exhibiting any kind of emotion was “the worst thing you could do”—to the problem of Clinton’s likability (Adichie: “I kept thinking, Who the hell cares? She’s qualified!”). The two discussed the last few years of Clinton’s life, in and out of politics. Clinton, in turn, gave her answers with more candor than we’re generally privy to; when asked, for example, about the untruths that the public has believed about her, she cited an Ohio State study that detailed the significant influence of three stories on Obama voters who either didn’t vote in 2016 or voted for Trump or a third party. “The three were: that I was dying,” she said, incredulously. “The second was that the Pope had endorsed Trump. And the third was that I was supplying weapons to ISIS. Now, why do people believe that? Well, partly because those stories are delivered in a way that looks like news.” It would be hard, eventually, to comprehend what depraved theories other people were willing to entertain about her: “[People believed] I was running a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of a pizzeria. . . . It was delivered to people who the very smart manipulators behind that knew might be effected.” (Clinton noted that pizzeria didn’t even have a basement.)
The hallmark moment of the event, however, was when when Adichie brought up the concept of silencing women—referencing, specifically, the members of the government and public alike who have suggested that Clinton relinquish her platform since losing the election. “Of course I would vote for a woman, just not that woman,” Clinton said, quoting the complaint she’s heard most. “We’ve seen Elizabeth Warren ordered off the floor of the Senate by Mitch McConnell [for quoting Coretta Scott King] . . . Or Kamala Harris, who was doing her job in cross-examining Jeff Sessions in a committee hearing and basically was told to stop talking. . . . Getting me off the stage was a way of ignoring everything that had gone on [in 2016], and I think if we don’t understand what happened in that election, we are doomed to see it repeated.” She went on to underscore the importance of continuing to speak out. While we’ve come a long way, she asserted, there’s still a long way to go. “No man who ever lost a presidential election was told to shut up and go away,” she noted. “This remains a serious challenge to women speaking up and speaking out. . . . I hear the echoes going back thousands of years.”
Toward the end of the conversation, Adichie asked a question about Clinton’s Twitter bio. “In your Twitter account, the first word that describes you is wife,” she began. “And then it’s mom, and then it’s grandmother. And when I saw that, I have to confess that I felt just a little bit upset. And then I went and I looked at your husband’s Twitter account, and the first word was not husband.” (In fact, it is “Founder, Clinton Foundation and 42nd President of the United States.”) While the question has since become a flash point across social media, with some saying that Adichie was suggesting that one identifier (politician, businessperson) has more merit over the other (parent, wife), Clinton responded with a laugh, explaining that while people define their worth differently, between their personal and professional lives—and she sees no issue in identifying, first, through personal relationships—Adichie had a point. “When you put it like that, I’m going to change it,” she said.
The two ended the conversation with some words of encouragement for the future, and Clinton admitted to being a fundamental optimist and a believer in overcoming the dark state of things today. “I believe that there’s enough strength and resilience not only in American institutions but in the American people to see us through this period,” she said. “But I don’t take anything for granted.”