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Gwen’s Take: Welcome to the circus

I resisted. I really did. It was too soon, I argued. Couldn’t we get through the midterms first? Did we really have to cover the 2016 campaign for two solid years?

And then I caved. Chris Christie started appearing at Republican activists’ events again. Rand Paul started traveling the country challenging his party on immigration and big tent politics.

And Hillary Clinton published a book. It hit store shelves and the political zeitgeist with the same force. You looked away only at your own peril.

As a modest foreign policy wonk, I found the book interesting -– from the story of the New York Times reporter who brought the secretary pisco sours in a bar while she was trying to cut a deal with a Chinese diplomat, to her description of the time Nicolas Sarkozy (former president of France) helped her step back into her shoe.

But of course, what everyone else was looking for were tea leaves. And so was I, when I boarded a flight to Denver to interview her for the PBS NewsHour.

The former secretary of state still travels with something of an entourage -– sweeping into the studios of Rocky Mountain PBS with a team of aides and security. It’s a nice way to get from place to place, so much so that it’s easy to forget that the only people you interact with are people who have paid to see you or are paid by you.

During our NewsHour conversation, she repeatedly cited how she is reconnecting with Americans, after years of foreign travel, by talking to the people who line up at her book signings.

“I’ve always been reaching out,” she said when I pressed her about the dangers of the getting trapped in the bubble. “Whether it’s talking with our neighbors or going shopping or standing, talking to people in these bookstores and hearing what’s on their minds, or even the work I did for eight years as a senator to bring new jobs to New York and stand up for the people I represented.”

A reminder: Secretary Clinton has been out of the Senate nearly as long as she was in it.

When I asked her about her timeline for deciding on a 2016 run, she returned again to the bookstore analogy.

“I take seriously the passion that a lot of people approach me in book lines, and events, talking to me about this,” she said.

And it came up one more time when I asked her a question I’ve always wanted to pose to a candidate -– whether she would be have to be insane to run for president again. (“Well, you have to be a little bit crazy to run for president, let me just put it like that,” she replied.)

“I’ve had people come through the line who tell me their stories about losing their job, about what’s happened since they got health care that has helped them,” she said. “And I hear this, so I know that my life of service is the biggest reason why I would consider doing this, because I would want to continue serving.”

I’ve been fortunate enough to write a book and travel the country to sign and sell it, so I can safely say that a five-second burst of conversation while you’re scribbling your name, over and over, is not the most reliable way to bond with Americans.

By definition, the “people who come through the line” are all there because they like you and want to meet you. They have the resources to purchase a book that retails for $35. They want you -– her — to be president.

That kind of adoration makes it difficult to hear yourself when you talk about being “dead broke,” sending your only child to Stanford, or shopping in Chappaqua.
Here’s the thing. Americans don’t mind rich politicians. History is full of them. What they do mind are people who ask for their vote but don’t connect with them.

Bill Clinton knew this. I was there in 1992 when his back was against the wall in his first campaign for president. Battling back against a rush of stories about his infidelity and untrustworthiness, he turned the story on a dime, delivering a passionate speech in the closing days of the New Hampshire primary campaign that exhorted voters to remember this was not about him.

“I’m going to give you this election back,” he told a crowd of supporters that night at the Elks Lodge in Dover. “And if you’ll give it to me I won’t be like George Bush, I’ll never forget who gave me a second chance and I’ll be there for you till the last dog dies. And I want you to remember that.”

The voters did remember, and Bill Clinton garnered enough votes a few days later to live to fight another day. It might not be a bad idea -– now or at some point in the future -– for the globetrotting former secretary of state to watch that speech again.

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