Hillary Clinton’s Roosevelt Island speech: The Democratic frontrunner holds her first major campaign event.

Hillary Clinton the Fighter Takes Center Stage

Hillary Clinton the Fighter Takes Center Stage

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June 13 2015 7:13 PM

A Fighter Takes Center Stage

Hillary Clinton’s first major campaign event was heavy on policy proposals and the promise to fight until the end.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton speaking on Roosevelt Island in New York City, June 13, 2015.

Reuters/Brendan McDermid

ROOSEVELT ISLAND, New York—Hillary Clinton’s campaign held a grand opening on Roosevelt Island on Saturday. She reiterated that she wants to be a “people’s champion,” fighting to rebalance an economy that has been tilted toward the “billionaires and corporations.” She aligned herself with factory employees and food-service workers “who stand on their feet all day,” and said she was running “for the nurses who work the night shift, for the truckers who drive for hours and the farmers who feed us. For the veterans who serve our country. For the small business owners who took a risk.” Her candidacy, she said, would be a fight “for everyone who’s been knocked down but refused to be knocked out.”

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is a co-anchor of CBS This Morning, co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest, host of the Whistlestop podcast, and author of Whistlestop and On Her Trail.

The event had all the things we’ve come to expect in a modern political rally—a stage that allows the candidate to appear to be bathing in the crowds from all camera angles, vast screens showing the spectacle to those without choice seats, campaign videographers grabbing vignettes to deliver over social media, organizers signing up volunteers, and teleprompters rising before the candidate, who stares into trash-can–sized lights that bathe her in just the right kind of glow, even though it’s a bright sunny day. 

This wasn’t the start of Clinton’s campaign, despite the confusing declaration that it was the “official launch.” It was more like a restaurant that operates for two months before inviting everyone in the neighborhood with a great banner and free mimosas. Or perhaps it was like the distinction between preseason football and the regular season. Or, more appropriate for its New York setting, the event was the Broadway opening of a show that’s been off-Broadway. 

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I wasn’t the only one rooting around for a metaphor. “It’s a hard launch,” said Claire Lipschultz, who attended the rally. “We had the social media launch, which connected with those that are attached to social media, we know she visited small tables of people in Iowa and New Hampshire, but this is really the announcement to America.”*

The event was as choreographed as the ones that have defined the soft launch over the past two months. But campaign aides promise that once Clinton is in this new phase, she will be more accessible to the press, doing regular interviews, and making her policy case. Instead of the slow pace we’ve seen so far, where Clinton and her team were often on defense, they will now go into a higher gear. There will be policy speeches, events where she mixes it up more with the press and voters, and a greater attempt to try to drive the conversation. 

A campaign adviser says that the reason for the two stages was to give Clinton a chance to knock the rust off and find her comfort level. She does not groove on the fussy sweat and jostle of the campaign trail like some politicians. Also, they point out, because she is treated like royalty, the campaign had to start slow, or it would reinforce the image that she is running as royalty and not as a politician.

With such a stunning background, the speech sounded at times like the State of the Union, with long passages devoted to listing policy goals (expansion of broadband!). Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that if you’re going to haul out the echo of Eleanor and Franklin and present such a tableau, it does tickle expectations for a more musical speech. We’d been told Clinton was going to tell her mother’s story, but she didn’t do it as well as she did in a speech in front of camp counselors in March. This matters because these speeches are an effort to show voters where she comes from, what keeps her going, and why they know her drive is felt in her bones, not simply asserted.

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There were occasions when the recitation of policy objectives flirted with becoming background music to the whistle of the wind in the small-leaf Linden trees and the dive-bombing dragonflies. But the State of the Union approach may be a feature and not a bug. An event like this is not about the audience. It isn’t an argument of the kind Bill Clinton used to make. It is a buffalo that is cut up and passed around in social media. So anyone who cares about the environment will see her committed to that in a gorgeous setting. So too, those who are moved most by promises to provide paid family leave. In the age of precise narrowcasting, Clinton offered something that can be shipped to people of all interests. Plus, for a candidate who clearly loves policy and is running at a time when people are wary of high rhetoric, it probably doesn’t hurt to be defined as obsessed with policy.

The best rhetorical flourishes came near the end of her remarks. “I’ve spent my life fighting for America—I’m not stopping now,” she said. “I’ve been called a lot of things, by many people, but quitter is not one of them.” In 2008, when Clinton dropped out of the race, she said that the 18 million votes she received were “18 million cracks” in the most durable glass ceiling. On Saturday, wearing a pantsuit as blue as the sky above, she said she was running “with absolutely no ceilings.” It was one of several nods to her gender. “I may not be the youngest candidate in this race, but I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States,” she said, in one of the speech’s best lines.

At the end of her remarks, Clinton vowed to deliver an “America where a father can tell his daughter: Yes, you can be anything you want to be—even president of the United States.” It was a sentiment I had heard before as I talked to supporters walking into the venue. George Blau brought his 3-year-old daughter with him. “I have two older daughters and this young lady here,” he said, “and I want to show her, if she’s determined, she can do anything. That’s what Hillary Clinton means for her.” 

*Correction, June 13, 2015: This article originally misquoted Claire Lipschultz as saying Hillary Clinton visited tables of people in Iowa and Vermont. Lipschultz said Iowa and New Hampshire. (Return.)