The Hubris Holding Back The Woman Who Should Become President

The political collective is still light-headed with glee over the leak of former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s private emails, but of all his pointed, frank, and sometimes sassy remarks, his characterization of Hillary Clinton’s “hubris” is getting particular attention — possibly because calling Donald Trump a “national disgrace” and “international pariah” isn’t all that much of a revelation.

But then, is calling out Clinton’s hubris all that revelatory? Can you think of any presidential candidate — present or past — who doesn’t have hubris?

Of course, Powell’s comments struck a slightly more specific chord: in an email to a business partner he wrote, “Everything HRC touches she kind of screws up with hubris.” Powell had been discussing the difference between how the two of them had approached digital communication while serving as Secretary of State.

To leave aside the specificity of Powell’s criticism of Clinton — which, I think we can agree, has a mournful quality to it — I think it’s important to interrogate this notion that candidates for political office must appear humble and easygoing in order to win, or that hubris is somehow a damning quality. How on earth could you survive the hell of a campaign without a healthy dose of hubris?

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And yet, if we take a slap-dash look at the last few decades of presidential elections — since, say Reagan vs. Carter in 1980 — it wouldn’t be hard to make the argument that most of the time, the more easygoing-seeming candidate wins: Reagan vs. Carter, Reagan vs. Mondale, H.W. Bush vs. Dukakis*, Clinton vs. H.W. Bush, Clinton vs. Dole, W. Bush vs. Gore, W. Bush vs. Kerry, Obama vs. McCain, Obama vs. Romney. (*H.W. Bush vs. Dukakis might be the exception to the rule.)

What’s really messed up about this personality hurdle is that the egotism that is required to think that someone could be president must then be completely masked by their personality. (Let us, for the purpose of this conversation, ignore the Republican candidate, whose hubris might be large enough to alter the gravitational field of space-time.) It’s like the media and the electorate has a willingness to be fooled, to be sold a bill of goods that they know for a fact to be false, or at least partly false. That Obama was able to project the image of an aw-shucks kind of guy while ambitiously running for president without even a full term in the U.S. Senate speaks to his charismatic savvy.


Clinton does not have that same savvy. I ascribe that partly to how her personality plays on camera (or doesn’t), but also to the fact that, never having had a female president, to many her bid feels arrogant. That she can’t hide that arrogance the way Obama did (or, really, the way her husband does) is at the core of her struggle to gain the upper hand over a candidate as dismal as Trump.

And that seems to be what Powell is really getting at in his hubris comment — the fact that she has it is irrelevant. It’s that Clinton and her campaign seem unable to manage it, package it, or just plain hide it. As much as I’d like the political conversation to move beyond these questions and focus on the candidate’s abilities, the race is close enough now that her bid for the White House (and the defeat of Donald Trump) rests on her ability manage and disguise the "hubris" — even if it’s what got her where she is today.