At Home With Hillary

Political ads dissected and explained.
June 2 2000 3:00 AM

At Home With Hillary

The Hillary Clinton spot discussed here was produced by Devito/Verdi, with Mandy Grunwald and Mark Penn. Click for a transcript of the ad.

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To: Jacob Weisberg

From: William Saletan

The first thing that's striking about this ad is the tense. Most ads are delivered in the present tense to convey action Hillary Vid ("I'm campaigning to make a difference for people") or in the future tense to convey promise ("I'll make a difference for people"). This ad begins in the past tense and, in so doing, pointedly refers to the viewer as well as the candidate: "When I started this campaign, I'm not sure I knew quite what to expect, and you probably didn't either. But I've tried to stay focused on our common mission."

Why the past tense and the joint references? Because Hillary Clinton needs to erase the impression that she's a carpetbagger. The central problem with her candidacy is that her past is in Illinois, Arkansas, and Washington, D.C. She needs to invent a past in New York. What she's doing in this ad, therefore, is telling the viewer the story of their courtship. She's using the past tense to stretch out the sensation of time, recalling the day long ago when two strangers met ("I'm not sure I knew quite what to expect, and you probably didn't either") and suggesting, through the ad's warm setting, music, and tone of voice, that the relationship has deepened to intimacy. Please, don't call her Mrs. Clinton. As the on-screen logo insists, just call her "Hillary."

The second charge she faces is that she's arrogant. To soften that impression, she repeatedly confesses the limits of her knowledge and power. She's "not sure." She didn't "know quite what to expect." She hopes "you'll give me that chance." For a woman thick-skinned enough to have endured multiple investigations, high-profile serial adultery, and her husband's impeachment, her demeanor in this ad is, to say the least, remarkably shy. It's even more remarkable when you remember that as she delivers her words, she's not gazing vulnerably and entreatingly into the eyes of a human being. She's gazing vulnerably and entreatingly into the lens of a camera.

Her third problem is that her negative rating is high. Too many New Yorkers have already decided they don't like her. She needs to make some of them reconsider. So she diverts their attention from personality to issues ("But I've tried to stay focused on our common mission—making a difference for people" on education and health care) and asks them to set aside their distrust for the sake of practical achievements ("If we reach past our divisions, there's so much we can do working together").

I guess Hillary isn't the witch I thought she was. She seems so warm and honest, and I love what she's done with her living room. I feel almost as though I'm sitting across the coffee table from her, with nothing between us but a tray of cookies and tea.

To: William Saletan

From: Jacob Weisberg

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