I can’t remember how many times in the last three months I have typed “the final indignity of Hillary Clinton.” Even for a woman who has been in the spotlight for decades, she seems to have had more than her fair share.
Had she not run for the Senate as first lady, it’s possible that Clinton’s final indignity would have been her husband’s betrayals, literally in the Oval Office, after she had supported him for years. But after a failed impeachment against him and a New York listening tour for her, “Mrs. Clinton” became “Sen. Clinton” and she was on her way to a political career of her own.
Clinton likely would have had as many terms in the Senate as she wanted, but a decision to run for president herself exposed her to a professional low she never could have anticipated — losing the Democratic primary to a talented, but untested, Senate freshman named Barack Obama. For a woman who had waited for decades to take “her turn” to run, losing to a young man embracing “the fierce urgency of now” might have been her final indignity.
But that talented freshman won the White House and tapped Clinton as his secretary of State, giving her both a position of honor and a platform to launch her next bid for president. Had she resisted the urge to run again, and the chance to make history that went along with it, she could have retired into private life as a wealthy and legitimately historic woman, all the same.
Stepping up again
But Clinton did run for president again, and in so doing, put herself on a path for a series of humiliations that many would find impossible to move past.
One of those moments came when Anthony Weiner, her closest aide’s husband, was caught texting half-naked pictures of himself to underage women, complete with photos of his own toddler. The episode not only reminded voters of Huma Abedin’s messy marital problems, but of Clinton’s decades earlier. More importantly, it led the FBI to reopen its then-closed investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server, days before the election, all because of Weiner’s texts.
That moment sent her campaign reeling, and might have been Clinton’s final indignity, until Election Day. After a lifetime almost entirely focused on gathering experience, she was beaten by a man proud that he had none.
And not only did Trump defeat her, he did it clapping along to chants of “Lock her up” at his rallies. At one debate, he looked her in the eye and said, if he were president, “You’d be in jail.” That same debate unfolded with four of the women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault in the 1990s, sitting squarely in the front row, placed there by Trump and staring at her as the debate dragged on.
Was Election Day her final indignity? Not even close. Maybe that came on a day shortly after the election when an eager supporter tweeted a photo of herself with Clinton in the forest near her Chappaqua home. As Trump was assembling his Cabinet and taking calls of congratulations, the photo revealed a make-up free Clinton literally walking alone in the woods.
Other indignities followed as Inauguration Day approached. About a month after the election, Clinton returned to the Capitol for Harry Reid’s retirement party, where Democrats were still in shock at the election’s outcome.
“This is not exactly the speech at the Capitol I hoped to be giving after the election,” she joked.
But maybe, Clinton’s final indignity came today, as she and Bill Clinton arrived at the Capitol for the inauguration of a man she had beaten in the popular vote by millions, but lost the presidency to nonetheless. Other Democrats had stayed away, but she was there, in a cream pantsuit, with a smile on her face.
Her head held high
As Clinton made her way to her seat on the platform, chants of “Lock her up” rang out from a pocket of the crowd below. She smiled and waved. Minutes later, when she extended her hand to an arriving Mike Pence, he turned away in a flurry of well-wishers without reaching back. She smiled and turned back to Bill. When Trump took the oath and then gave his inaugural address without thanking her, Clinton visibly held her head high.
Even while first lady Michelle Obama struggled to pretend to enjoy the occasion, Clinton was there, back from defeat and playing her role. And that, really, is the lesson and legacy of Hillary Clinton.
There will never be a final indignity for her or anyone who insists on reaching for a goal that’s not assured or trying for a prize that’s not guaranteed. There will never be a final indignity for people who are passionate, and thus disappointed, or people who are human, and thus make mistakes — sometimes really big ones.
But Clinton shows America again and again that it’s returning from the failure that matters. It’s keeping your pride — even when people or events could have understandably taken it from you — that counts.
A first lady had never been a senator, but she became one. A woman had never been president, but Clinton tried to become the president, again and again. And on Friday, as she went to the Capitol to show Democrats and Republicans alike that the election is over, that she is moving forward, and that the nation must, too.
And that will be Hillary Clinton’s final, and lasting, dignity.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.