Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Hillary Clinton speak at the San José State University Event Center on my campus, and I must say the experienced politica—a former first lady, New York senator, and secretary of state for Obama—possesses quite the presidential presence.
While researching Champion of Choice, the biography of Dr. Nafis Sadik, I interviewed Nafis about her work at the UN Population Fund and her collaborations with Hillary. Nafis talked about her admiration of Clinton’s speaking ability as the two women both headlined at the Beijing Women’s Conference. Nafis said to Hillary, “I notice that you never look at your notes.” And Hillary replied, “Yes, after a time, one does develop a knack.”
That knack was clearly in effect last night as Clinton spoke extemporaneously with nary a note in sight. In fact I will go so far as to say that she is the best public speaker I’ve ever encountered, including her hubby, who while President Bill Clinton, gave a phenomenal commencement address when I graduated from Penn State. For those of us who speak for a living, like any craft, its practitioners analyze the skills of others and Hillary ruled the packed 7000-seat auditorium, receiving two standing ovations.
When her host, Santa Clara County tax assessor Larry Stone, (described as an old friend of the Clintons), asked if Hillary had any announcements to make—i.e. that she was running for president in 2016—the crowd roared.
I was curious about Hillary’s choice of theme last night: women’s rights. But she was no doubt speaking to her base, as the crowd was predominantly female. Accommodating her message for her Silicon Valley audience, she made note of the enormous gender disparity in high tech, noting that only 20% of the workers are female. That disparity exacerbates as the stakes rise, with only 11% on the boards of technology firms being women.
Last night Clinton seemed intent on establishing her long-standing record as a women’s advocate—showing she’s not a newcomer to the game—as she continuously referred to her participation at the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995. While everything Clinton said about her participation there is true, she didn’t mention that all the work she and the U.S. team did at Beijing was based on the diplomatic successes of the previous year at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, where 179 governments reached an agreement on females’ rights to education and reproductive health. In Beijing the Americans’ greatest goal was simply to protect the advancements for women made the previous year.
Actually Hillary was not well-received by the Chinese in Beijing in 1995. Then First Lady, she arrived at the conference hall to great fanfare, wearing a pink suit, her shoulder-length blonde hair styled into a smooth wave framing her face. In her address Clinton touched on many of the human rights abuses for which the Chinese had been excoriated in recent years; her comments clearly disparaging them were not well received, considered improper behavior for a guest in their country. Yet Clinton boldly addressed the issues head on at this global summit—with the international press corps recording. She referenced China’s one-child policy and their coercive tactics toward women to enforce it. That takes real guts when you’re on stage under the spotlight of the nation’s capital.
Last night, Hillary quoted her hero, Eleanor Roosevelt’s line: “Every woman in public life needs to develop skin as tough as a rhinoceros’s hide.” That trait will no doubt serve Secretary Clinton well if folks continue to lob shoes at her—as they did in Las Vegas last week. But she just ducked, cracked a joke, and carried on…acting very presidential indeed.