This One Photo Of Hillary Clinton Sums Up The Significance This Moment

On Monday evening, the Associated Press reported that, according to its tally, Hillary Clinton has become the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee after earning enough delegates and superdelegates to clinch the nomination. This comes, not so coincidentally, the night before the final day of primaries. Whether it's due to pressure from the Democratic Party establishment or simply fear among the superdelegates over what a bad turnout at the polls Tuesday would do for Clinton's strength as a candidate against the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, Clinton has indeed convinced enough superdelegates to endorse her, no matter what happens at the polls ... unless the superdelegates somehow change their minds.

Hearing the news made me think of one photo in particular: The Situation Room .

It was taken in 2011, the iconic photograph of President Obama with his national security team, receiving live updates from Operation Neptune Spear, on the now-historic night of the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, is in the room, eyes focused on the screen. She is also the only woman in the room, save for one other woman, peeking out so far in the back you can barely see her — Audrey Tomason, Director for Counterterrorism for the National Security Council. (Yeah, I never heard of her either.) Clinton, hand over mouth, seems to be one of the most deferential to the magnitude of the moment.

The White House/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The significance is clear, if not as simple as it first appears. She is the only woman at the table, and she has often been one of the only women in the room.

We've come a long way, baby. Almost all the way to the nuclear launch codes.

Thinking about that photo, I was reminded of an excellent profile of Clinton last week in New York Magazine. In it, Clinton was asked by writer Rebecca Traister why she thinks women’s ambition is regarded as dangerous.

She told a story about the time she and a friend from Wellesley sat for the LSAT at Harvard. “We were in this huge, cavernous room,” she said. “And hundreds of people were taking this test, and there weren’t many women there. This friend and I were waiting for the test to begin, and the young men around us were like, ‘What do you think [you’re] doing? How dare you take a spot from one of us?’ It was just a relentless harangue.” Clinton and her friend were stunned. They’d spent four safe years at a women’s college, where these kinds of gender dynamics didn’t apply.

“I remember one young man said, ‘If you get into law school and I don’t, and I have to go to Vietnam and get killed, it’s your fault.’ ”

“So yeah,” Clinton continued. “That level of visceral … fear, anxiety, insecurity plays a role” in how America regards ambitious women.

Maybe it's because I was on an airplane when I read that article and airplanes make me weepy, but either way, I got choked up reading this story. I also learned from it (or I should say, was reminded after probably having learned and forgotten) that Clinton was born in a year when there were no women serving in the senate. We've come a long way, baby. Almost all the way to the nuclear launch codes.

Yet Triaster's profile paints a picture of a woman who, while always extremely ambitious, was also at one point hesitant to run for office herself.

"We were coming out of two terms in the White House,” Clinton told me. “I really [didn’t] know that that’s what I want[ed] to get right into.” Clinton loves telling the story of what finally convinced her: At an event for women athletes called “Dare to Compete,” a teenage basketball captain, Sofia Totti, said to her, “Dare to compete, Mrs. Clinton, dare to compete.” The exhortation gave her pause. “It was like, ‘Am I just scared to do this? Is that really what it comes down to?’"
She had good reason to be scared. By 1999, even without having pursued her own political path, Clinton had learned what it might entail to be a woman who competed: She had taken her husband’s last name after his 1980 reelection defeat in Arkansas had been blamed on her independence; she’d done cookie-bake-off penance for her remarks about prioritizing career over domesticity; everything from her friend Vince Foster’s death to the wandering attentions of her husband had been tied to her purported ruthlessness.

In the end, she decided to run, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now, whether this story is truth or just a beautiful piece of political fiction, we can never know. Who knows, really, what motivates this woman — the only, or the almost-only, woman in the room? Not just to run, but to end up sitting at that table as Secretary of State, watching a special ops team carry out one of most historic political assassinations of our lifetime?

Though her face looks anything but, I imagine her comfortable, or perhaps I should say confident, in that moment. Patient; the way she has been for a long time. Quietly waiting, perhaps knowing that next time, a failure or success of a mission would truly be on her — not in the way of a sort of scapegoat as it was in Benghazi, but one day, as Commander in Chief. It is an impulse I both understand, and will never understand. To be the first woman yes; to have that much power over who lives and dies, even if it's "right," not so much.

I became choked up when I read about Clinton being one of the only women in the room taking the LSATs, and I will get choked up if she is the first woman to occupy the Oval Office desk. I want that to happen. I'm ambitious too. And yet. There are the things I worry about — the hawkishness, the potential desire to prove that she can "protect" us just as well as any man. I have no doubt she would, nor that the impulse could be very dangerous.

So, looking at this photograph, the optimist in me chooses to notice the humanity in her eyes, the significance of having a woman's heart and mind at that Situation Room's table, even if I'd rather that room's very violent situation not exist in the first place. Because, whatever the subtext of that picture's meaning might be, I do know I have no doubt I'd rather have her heading that table than Trump.

In my most pessimistic moments, that's a photograph I fear we wouldn't even live to see uploaded.