While most of the television-watching public was fixated on the extra-innings/past-midnight/unlikely matchup/first game of the World Series, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made her first appearance on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” color-coordinating to the new host’s set with a pair of kicky red pumps. If I draw attention to the foremost female candidate’s fashion choices in a way that seem gendered, excuse me; but it seemed to me that the heels set the tone for the evening. After a few appearances that seemed to be selling Clinton’s geniality for a mixed audience, on “The Late Show” Hillary didn’t seem to be selling anymore; she was both loose and sharp, more at ease in her role as candidate than ever.
Clinton could definitely stand to acquire more chill, of course. She has trouble finessing topics when she knows they look bad: With Jimmy Fallon, last month, she stumbled through the leaked emails questions, even though they were largely softballs. On the debate night, she never quite evinced the confidence of the winner, despite being on her game for most of the evening. Yesterday, the parody news site the Onion wrote a satirical op-ed from Clinton’s perspective, which repeated in various iterations the phrase that is also the headline: “I am fun.” The candidate’s official account linked to it, with an appended “Humorous!” that sounded about as fun as the robotic narrator. And Kate McKinnon’s digs at her still resonate—she did bring up her granddaughter with Colbert, as she does every public appearance, with a kind of forcible immediacy that suggests she has been told many times that she polls better when voters are reminded that she’s a grandmother.
But a few crucial things have changed since Clinton’s last major appearances. Vice President Joe Biden is not running against her. The latest Benghazi hearing went nowhere—and, indeed, made her look like quite the beleaguered hero. And the result is that Hillary isn’t scared any more, at least in the taxing image act that is politicking on late-night television. And as has been increasingly obvious over the past six weeks, as the fall TV season has ushered in the fall late-night politics cycle, Clinton 2016 is a very different candidate from Clinton 2008—smoother, quicker, funnier, and a lot less stressed out. As I suggested early this month—maybe being a grandmother really has given her some perspective.
Because last night’s interview was a lovely little romp through Hillary’s presidential narrative, without being too obvious about it. For example: Any question about her marriage is a inherently touchy subject. And yet in the first few seconds, somehow Hillary introduced us to the image of she and Bill watching “House Of Cards” together on her birthday. It’s mind-boggling—the Underwoods’ tense, co-governing, bitterly compromised marriage became the focal point of the most recent season, echoing the real-life marital drama of the Clintons in the ‘90s. And the creator the BBC version right out and said that Claire Underwood was Hillary Clinton. But you know, here they are, two grandparents taking the day off and binging a Netflix original series. Indeed, along with “House Of Cards,” Clinton named practically every television show that is near-explicitly about her as some of her favorite binge-watching. Is it possible we’re through the looking glass? Where do we even go from here?
It’s worth observing that one of the reasons Clinton did so well on Colbert is because Colbert appeared to want her to. Colbert is also still settling into his non-persona host role, and his interview with Clinton was kind of a litmus test for that; the two squared off in the final days of “The Colbert Report,” when she was promoting her memoir “Hard Choices.” (As she told him with good humor last night, she didn’t like him very much in that role.) Colbert wasn’t exactly tossing softballs her way, but he also wasn’t going after her as he seemed to be with Bernie Sanders. And Hillary Clinton is very good at explaining herself—in fact, she’ll sit there and do it all day if you’ll let her. A few questions from Colbert led to long monologues from Clinton—one about Sanders’ democratic socialism, which allowed Clinton to go off on a patriotic spiel about the middle class, and another about big banks that let her get through her talking points of her new financial policy proposal. There was also a question that gave her a chance to talk about her parents, which allowed her to share some uber-vetted and uber-tested biographical notes. (I think, during her story about why she was a Republican when she first went to Wellesley, that Colbert winces as he looks down at his notes, and I read that as him being worried about time. He immediately thereafter tries to speed her through the biography. Clinton will not be speeded, but she is more than happy to omit. Unanswered questions include:
- who threw better parties in college: Republicans or Democrats
- which is better pizza: Chicago-style or New York-style
- whether or not we have to return to ‘90s fashion if she is re-elected
- who she would rather run against: Donald Trump or Ben Carson
And you know, other crucial concerns.)
Oh, it’s not perfect. President Obama has the market cornered on cool in politics; Hillary, like any earnest nerd, only accidentally backs into cool when she’s not paying attention and then desperately tries to recreate it the next time she’s feeling vulnerable. It makes her awkward where others might be suave, and frustrated where others might be laissez-faire. But Clinton is a much more confident candidate than she ever has been, and this appearance with Colbert seals the deal. It feels a little like it’s finally Hillary’s graduation day.