No one dreams of someday becoming the runner-up in a presidential election. There is no bigger political contest, and thus no greater political defeat. The struggles to move on suffered by past second-placing POTUS candidates are notoriously gut-wrenching. But for Hillary Clinton, there are specific burdens to be borne — she was the first female candidate of a major party, and she lost to the most unpopular presidential candidate in modern American history. That duo of brutal truths makes the closing paragraph of Clinton's planned presidential election victory speech even more haunting, an excerpt of which she included in her recent memoir What Happened.
Based on Clinton's multimillion vote surplus and the vast majority of polling and pundit projections, more than half the country had anticipated a Clinton win on election night. Clinton's team certainly did; they had planned an extravagant celebration at the symbolically glass-ceilinged Javits Center. Clinton wore white — the color of American suffragettes — and her triumph would be marked by fireworks, exploding in the night sky in honor of the first ever female American president. Her speech would end with an imagined conversation between the newly minted president-elect and her mother as a young girl.
Clinton would relate that if she could go back in history and tell just one person that the United States had elected a female president, that person would be her own mother. The woman who raised Clinton and two other daughters was abandoned by her own parents, and sent on a train cross-country at 8 years old to live with relatives who would treat her poorly.
In Clinton's publicly unuttered victory speech, she imagines approaching her mother as a child:
I dream of going up to her, and sitting down next to her ... and saying, "Look at me. Listen to me. You will survive. You will have a good family of your own, and three children. And as hard as it might be to imagine, your daughter will grow up and become the President of the United States."
Government jobs, during the daily grind, are about crafting and implementing policies that are ostensibly meant to improve the country. But presidential contests are about something else besides just legislative agendas and foreign policy speeches. For better or worse, the president is regarded as an emblem of the nation.
From a historical perspective, Clinton's loss was not just a political defeat for her or the Democratic party. It guaranteed that a particular kind of celebration of American progress would be put off yet again.
There were plenty of Americans who didn't vote for Barack Obama in 2008, and yet were happy to see the country elect a black man to its highest office. The importance of that symbolic victory was recognized far and wide.
But there seems to be far more reluctance on the part of commentators on both the left and right to acknowledge the same historic weight riding on the outcome of Clinton's 2016 presidential bid. A great many women who disapproved of Clinton's policies or personal conduct, even women who voted for Trump, might still have felt some pride and inspiration in watching the country move past its still-standing history of having never elected a woman president. That's to say nothing of the millions who supported her, and the millions of men who chose Clinton, too.
Clinton recognizing the enormous impact of her mother's life on shaping the future Democratic nominee is both touching and telling. It's a willingness to acknowledge the intimate family connections that shape us. It's a willingness to acknowledge the importance of female bonds. And it was a willingness to openly shed light on the fact that America had not yet elected a female president.
What Happened includes a bevy of reasons put forth by Clinton for her loss. No doubt, there is some validity to some of her arguments. The number of election postmortems is already staggering, and will undoubtedly grow, from analyzing why Rust Belt voters abandoned the Democratic Party, to how big a role Russian influence played, to finding answers for why so many Democrats didn't show up to vote at all. And certainly, Clinton herself is not blameless in her campaign's stumbles.
None of that alters the fact that America has yet to see a female POTUS. It wasn't Clinton's, but there will be a another mother, someday, of the first female president. One hopes so, at least.