Table for Three
By PHILIP GALANES
Hiking, yoga, reading, prayer, chardonnay (but not Xanax): These are the things, along with family and friends, that helped Hillary Clinton after her stunning defeat in the presidential election last year. But these are gentle pastimes. What about kicking things — or weeping?
“No,” Mrs. Clinton said ruefully, across the table. “I was more devastated than angry. Just overwhelmed. I tried to ground myself in what I was feeling. And what I felt was profound disappointment, worry for the path forward, and that I had let people down.”
She let people down? America Ferrera, the actress and activist sitting next to Mrs. Clinton, looked stricken.
“It pains me to my core to hear you say that,” Ms. Ferrera said. “Because for me and the thousands upon thousands of people who emailed, texted, called, who I ran into at the Starbucks with tears in their eyes, we were all so grateful. We wanted to be the one who ran into you on the hike. Every single one of us was insanely jealous of the woman who ran into Hillary on the hike.”
Mrs. Clinton, 69, is the first female presidential nominee of a major political party and a former secretary of state, senator from New York and first lady of the United States and Arkansas. Her memoir of the 2016 election, “What Happened,” was published this week.
Ms. Ferrera, 33, rose to fame playing the leading role in the television series “Ugly Betty,” for which she was the first Latina to win an Emmy for best leading actress in a comedy. She currently produces and stars in the show “Superstore,” and has also been an advocate for women, immigrants and Latinos. She was a speaker (along with Lena Dunham) at the Democratic National Convention that nominated Mrs. Clinton as well as the opening speaker at the Women’s March on Washington the day after President Trump’s inauguration, probably the largest single-day protest in United States history.
Over late-afternoon snacks of charred shishito peppers, crispy brussels sprouts and cheese (iced tea for Mrs. Clinton, white wine for Ms. Ferrera) at the Lambs Club restaurant in Manhattan, the pair spoke candidly about the emotional aftermath of Mrs. Clinton’s loss; the deep national divides made plain by the election; and the paths they want to chart going forward.
Philip Galanes: “Letting people down” ties to a theme that runs through your book: feeling like you were on a high wire without a net. No room for error, perfection required. Many of us who are different feel that way. How far back does it go with you?
Hillary Clinton: All the way back to when I was a little girl. I was lucky to have parents who stood behind me, who believed in education, who told me I could do whatever I wanted to do. But when I got to high school, I began to run up against the obstacles that are placed in the way of girls. Boys saying, “You can’t do that; you’re a girl.” But that was part of the background music of somebody my age, coming from the middle of the country, in the middle of the last century.
PG: And yet you’ve done about 17 things before any other woman.
HC: It’s difficult for me to see my story as one of revolution. But I was part of the women’s movement that led to a revolution not just in laws, but in attitudes and doors that had been closed to young women opening. I’m grateful for that, but I’m also conscious of the continuing double standard: I have to be better than everyone; I have to work harder. There’s no margin for me when others have so much leeway. It’s a pressure cooker all the time. I try to pull the curtain back so that young, dynamic women like America can see themselves in historic context and know they can overcome the obstacles in their way.
America Ferrera: As a woman, as a Latina, I’ve always felt there’s a very narrow version of me that’s acceptable, that’s allowed to succeed. And if I stray from that, I’m not just failing myself, I’m failing so many. So, I’ve operated from a place of fear, not from my most-alive self. As an actress, the idea that women are relegated to a certain roles, and Latina women are further relegated to hyper-sexualized objects, just to fit in, has completely limited my career and me as a human being. But I’m calling bull! Why should I have to compete with every other brown woman just because somebody says this is the amount of pie we’re willing to give you?
HC: The idea that women have to fit certain stereotypes; that’s a weight around the ankle of every ambitious woman I’ve ever met. You should be able to work hard and succeed — not because you’re perfect, but because you’re good enough. We should be proud of that. Instead, we get constant messaging our whole lives: You’re not thin enough, talented enough, smart enough. Your voice isn’t what we want to hear. This has to be called out for what it is: a cultural, political, economic game that’s being played to keep women in their place.
PG: I know you’ve lived this. But I was shocked by the Pew research that only 69 percent of Democratic women and 46 percent of Democratic men wanted to see a female president in their lifetime. And Republicans polled two-thirds lower.
AF: Why is that surprising? Women grow up in the same culture as men. We’re taught to hate ourselves with as many, if not more, messages every day.
HC: I wrote this book about what happened largely to make the case that it will happen again if we don’t take action against it — shoehorning every woman into a little slot and saying: “This is where you belong.” Girls as young as 6 say boys are smarter than they are. They haven’t even gotten to school yet, but their cultural antennas are already up.
PG: Tucked into the middle of the book is a very gentle primer on being a woman in politics: No anger, no defensiveness, just laying out the story with data.
HC (laughing): There were many drafts.
PG: Is your hope that education, not anger, gets this job done?
AF: I have to disagree with you. We women know this tactic well: how to walk into a room and make everyone feel comfortable with our intelligence, not threatened by it. How to bring up great ideas that we help them think are theirs. We’re trained for that from Day 1. But I’m troubled by this notion that change has to happen when everyone is ready for it. There has to be a space where women get to be angry, where we get to call things what they are.
HC: I don’t think it’s either/or. I’ve seen all kinds of strategies to promote change: marching, burning bras, invading corporate spaces. I’ve read excellent essays and heard moving speeches. Some people will respond to reasonable arguments; others have to be confronted. It’s a constant balancing act. But one thing I’ve learned is that if you’re going to be angry, be angry on behalf of a cause bigger than yourself, on behalf of someone other than yourself. I didn’t call out Trump for stalking me around the debate stage. I was running for president; it would be used against me. But there have been many times when I called out someone for how they were treating other people. It was absolutely the way to go.
PG: Looking at your decades in public life, there’s this whiplash: hundreds of articles calling you a villainous Lady Macbeth, while simultaneously being voted the most admired woman in the world for 21 of the past 24 years.
HC: There you go!
PG: Has it gotten any easier to be a candidate?
HC: This election was so unusual, it’s hard to compare. I had a great time running for the Senate in 2000. I loved crisscrossing New York and hearing what was on people’s minds. And in 2008, I ran against a worthy opponent in President Obama. It was a tough campaign, but as soon as it was over, I endorsed him and worked hard to get him elected.
But this time was different. The candidate on the other side had insulted his way to the Republican nomination against 16 experienced office holders and activists. His insults were given great attention by the press. It was like watching a new reality TV show. So, by the time I was running against him — talking about his business record, cheating people, bankrupting companies, his admitted sexual assault — it was if we weren’t electing a president, it was: Who’s the most entertaining person on the stage? And now we face some very threatening actions taken by this president against our democracy. His lack of steady leadership shows how unqualified he is.
PG: Let’s jump to the Women’s March. Do you own a pink pussy hat?
HC (laughing): I do! I was given one that’s going into my archives.
PG: America gave a moving speech there, which included the line: “America is a nation of immigrants, not ignorance.” Care to revise that?
AF: Not according to what I believe in my heart. Let’s remember how many more people voted for Secretary Clinton than for Trump. Our American experiment has always been about striving to be a more perfect union. In the deepest part of me, I believe that the people who turned out to vote for Trump, even those who marched on Charlottesville with Nazi signs, those people’s smallest selves are being called upon. We’re not doing our work to call on their better selves. We have to reup our agreements with each other about who we choose to be.
PG: Is it a kind of gift to see how deeply divided we are? As a first step to addressing it?
AF: Look, I’m a storyteller. I believe in the power of stories to change hearts and minds. There’s a certain story that’s dominating and winning now: We’re a divided country. I don’t know that that’s necessarily true. As human beings, we have more in common with Trump voters, even with Nazis in Charlottesville, than what divides us. Sure, there’s fear; there’s pain; there’s loss. But we also have a human story that connects us, a truth that we’re ignoring.
HC: We have not yet developed a modern, future-oriented narrative. And because we haven’t, people who were shaken and hurt by the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 are seeing the world as a zero-sum game: “If that woman, that immigrant, that Muslim, that African-American, if they get ahead, that’s coming from me.” We haven’t done what we need to do to create an alternative narrative. I tried to with my platform of “Stronger Together” — because I believe it.
The real job killer in America is automation, robotics, artificial intelligence. You’re not going to lose because your neighbor’s child gets a chance to go to college. You’re not going to lose because a hard-working immigrant family starts a small business. That’s good for you! We never made that case. And the message from Trump was a retrograde message of nostalgia: “We can go back to the way things were. You don’t have to compete with a woman for a job. Or with a striving young immigrant.” It’s a falsehood that gave some comfort to people and gave them permission to scapegoat others.
PG: You write that when people are mad, they want to vent. And they want a candidate who vents, not a 10-point plan to fix things.
HC: You put your finger on one of my challenges. I understood that people were upset. They hadn’t fully recovered from the financial crisis. But I believed there would come a time in the campaign when people would say: “O.K., what are you going to do for me?” But there was so much anger, and not just from the candidate — from Fox News, Breitbart, the Russians who were stealing information and weaponizing it, making stuff up, putting it into Facebook posts.
There was a well-coordinated campaign to fuel anger. That’s not how I’m made. I wasn’t going to try to compete with that level of vitriol. Remember, Trump was provoking violence at his rallies. I kept thinking: “People are going to be shocked by this.” But it had the feel of a Roman circus. “Show me a bigger lion!” But despite my efforts to break through and put forward the plans I had, I never figured out how to contend with the anger or overcome it.
PG: Another criticism of your campaign is that you relied too heavily on identity politics, to the exclusion of an economic message. But thinking about what you just said, it was the opposite: Trump relied on identity.
HC: That’s right. There was a big debate after the election as to why Trump got those 77,000 votes he needed to win the Electoral College. And the initial take by commentators was that it was all economics. But that doesn’t stand up. In exit polls, people who said that economics was the No. 1 issue on their minds voted for me. And in the book, I rely on more research that’s been done since the election. The best indicator of whether someone voted for Trump were attitudes about race, immigration, sexism, L.G.B.T. issues and the like.
PG: One thing that strikes me is that those issues — race, sex, religion — aren’t merely political issues. They have a moral component.
HC: The larger point is that we need both economic justice and social justice. I’m not prepared to throw anyone under the bus because they’re standing up for their human rights. We now know much more about what motivated voters, but we shouldn’t be surprised. Trump started his campaign accusing Mexicans of being rapists. It was irresponsible, terrible rhetoric. I called him out immediately and continued to call him out. I got to “Stronger Together” because I believe it. A community in which people are embraced and respected is the goal for America. But what we are seeing with this president is a theory of politics that divides and focuses on a small but stalwart base of voters who agree with his bigotry and paranoia. He’s not even trying to be the president of all Americans.
AF: Something else on “Stronger Together”: One of the reasons I am so in awe of the organizers of the Women’s March is that they were able to bring together so many people, across so many issues. Because we’re either going to lose separately, or we’re going to win together. If I only stand up and fight when DACA is threatened, or when the trans community is threatened, or when Black Lives Matters is threatened, that’s not a winning strategy. We can’t win that way.
PG: Is there a terrible irony in protest movements? Some folks seem to feel a lot more excited by resisting than they do by the ordinary business of registering and voting.
HC: We need both. We need people to stand up and mobilize for causes like the 800,000 DACA recipients who are under threat of being deported from the only country they know and love. And we need to understand that the best way to protect them, and everything else we hold dear, is by registering and voting. But you’re absolutely right. A lot of people, particularly young people, don’t feel that voting is important to them. That’s been a problem for a long time; that’s not a recent challenge. It’s why I’m working with groups that aim to register voters and recruit candidates. If we turn out voters who share our values, we will win in the midterm elections of 2018; we will win in 2020. And if we don’t, the other side gets their way, and we’ve seen how pernicious that is.
PG: As we speak, you’re days away from launching your new book. I’ve read the whole thing, not just the snippets that leaked. I found it human and vulnerable, not a blame fest. But the coverage has been angry. Are you nervous, or are you thinking about the 63 million voters who are ——
HC: You mean the 65.8 million voters?
PG: Say it again?
HC (laughing): 65.8! Am I nervous? No.
Haters are going to hate, but I’m determined to tell my truth and throw it to the future. The reason it’s important for my fellow Americans to pay attention is because what happened to me can happen again. It can undermine our democracy.
PG: Your plan, America?
AF: To become the biggest, best, badass version of myself possible to honor the lives of women like Hillary Clinton, like Gloria Steinem, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. To honor the sacrifices they made so women in my generation will have more access.
PG: So, neither of you plans to “shut up and go away already,” as requested by several media outlets?
HC: You are right about that, Philip!