The Nominee: a short story about Hillary Clinton

In this warm and wholly believable short story from Curtis Sittenfeld’s collection You Think It, I’ll Say It, Hillary Clinton reflects upon a razor-sharp female journalist who she has sparred with for many years.

The journalist was born in 1964, which is to say she’s seventeen years younger than I am. She has, starting in 1992, interviewed me several dozen times—she was at The San Francisco Chronicle when I met her, then moved to The Washington Post, and for the last eight years has been at The New York Times—and while we aren’t friends, she reminds me of a neighbor or cousin; we didn’t exactly choose each other, but we are ineluctably part of each other’s lives.

What I appreciate about her is the blazing, undeniable intelligence that manifests itself in her ability, in our conversations, to recall minutiae from a transportation bill I sponsored in the Senate, or a 1994 speech I gave in Stockholm as First Lady; in her observations, appearing in her articles, of the perfect colorful detail from a state fair or pancake breakfast that I myself, sitting amidst it, missed; and in her snapping, spontaneous sense of humor. Once, at a signing ceremony for a greenhouse-gas-emissions law, when the president inadvertently referred to “hair pollution” instead of “air pollution,” my eyes landed on the journalist’s, and I had to look away and bite my tongue. When we spoke after the ceremony, she began by saying, “Like when you spill conditioner in the shower?” and I replied, “I was actually thinking about a certain perm I got in the mid-eighties.”

The truth is that when she interviews me, I feel an alertness, a welcome kind of challenge, that’s deeply satisfying. I’ve sometimes thought that the reason people who aren’t particularly bright don’t care for people who are is the hunch among the former that the latter speak to one another in code. Which we do: brain to brain, with an explanation-dispensing briskness, a shared understanding of subtext. I would never publicly admit this, least of all to her, but I believe the journalist is worthy of interviewing me in a way many kinder reporters are not.

The Nominee

The truth is that when she interviews me, I feel an alertness, a welcome kind of challenge, that’s deeply satisfying.

What I care for least about the journalist is the sense of entitlement she demonstrates in small and large ways. Small: I never witness it, but according to my staff, she’s a notorious pain about the logistics we’ve arranged for the press corps in a manner no print journalist from anywhere other than The Times would dare to be; she complains about which hotel room she’s been assigned, or where she’s sitting on the plane or bus. Large: I believe she’s quite sexist and either is blind to it or, more likely, sees herself as impervious, what with her fancy education, her cynicism, and her job at the cultural nexus of our post-everything society. Over and over, year in and year out, she asks me questions she’d never ask a man running for public office, a man elected to public office, a male senator or secretary of state or presidential candidate: Who designed the pantsuit I wore to the State of the Union? How has my husband influenced my foreign-policy views, stance on minimum wage, and opinion of vegans? Do I consider my marriage to be a good one? Is the country ready for a president who’s also a grandmother? And always—always—some variation on this: Why do so many voters, even ones who admire my record, have difficulty connecting with me? Why do the American people find me fundamentally unlikable?

The journalist cushions her rhetoric. She says, Some people say . . . or There’s concern that . . ., as if she is a mere observer of the questions’ perpetuation. She then muses over the questions, and my responses, in her articles, which have become longer, less newsy, and more leisurely and reflective as she has achieved greater professional success. Granted, it is her editors who conjure the headlines and decide upon the accompanying art: a caricature of me with eyes and mouth opened so widely I look deranged, possibly about to devour a small child; or a photograph shot close up then magnified in such a way that every line on my face is a ravine, even beneath a visibly massive quantity of powdery foundation. However, I hold the journalist accountable for steering the packaging. The words in the headlines are someone else’s, but it is she who has written the original sentences resulting in a magazine cover asking (with prominent bags beneath my eyes, no less), FRONTRUNNER FATIGUE?

At this point, I expect to be burned by the journalist. No matter how friendly our encounter, how personal, even, I will at best be irritated by what she writes. Years ago, when her child was a toddler, I found myself describing the bribing-with-Skittles method of toilet-training I’d used with my own daughter; a few days later, I read the journalist’s borderline defamatory article about the controversial, and unprofitable, real-estate investments my husband and I had made in the late seventies. I might be irritated while recognizing that a piece does more harm than good, or I might be irritated and know it will lose me votes. Nevertheless, right now, in this moment, in July 2016, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, deep in the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center, in the minutes before I go onstage, she—the journalist—and the photographer accompanying her are the only media in the greenroom. My husband is here, our daughter and son-in-law and grandchildren, their nanny, many members of my campaign staff—my political director and communications director and media consultant and chief strategist, a handful of policy advisors—as well as my closest friends, among them my college roommate and the woman who was the second female partner at the law firm where, in 1979, I became the first. And of course our own photographer and videographer are here, the ones who chronicle the version of the narrative I not only prefer but believe to be true. Apart from the journalist and her photographer, however, there is no press.

“Madam Secretary,” the journalist says, “how are you feeling?”

“I feel great,” I say. When I smile—my smile, of course, has been compared to that of a vulture and a hag, that of Lady Macbeth and Cruella de Vil and Joker from Batman—she smiles back.

 “You’ve talked about this ad nauseam, obviously,” the journalist says, “but now that it’s really, officially happening—what’s it like to be the first major party female nominee for president of the United States of America?”

I feel the way you felt at your high school graduation, I think. It’s anticlimactic. We’ve been marking time, waiting for this, since April 2015, right? Or since 2007? Or perhaps since 1992 or 1969 or 1789? But I also know some specific instant tonight will seize me, will catch me off-guard in spite of myself, and I’ll be struck by the enormity of the situation and probably tear up, thereby launching a thousand articles about gender and crying.

Aloud I say, “I’ve been preparing for this moment for my entire life. I’m confident, I’m humbled, and I’m very optimistic about the future of our country.”

In 2002, when I was a senator and the journalist was at The Washington Post, she interviewed me in a hotel suite in San Francisco on a day on which I’d first traveled to meet the survivors of a tornado in Oklahoma and would spend the evening at a million-dollar fundraising dinner in Pacific Heights. In the suite’s living room, we sat facing each other in armchairs a few feet apart; her recorder was set on a small round glass table to my left. Also in the room were my deputy chief of staff and two aides. My Secret Service agents stood outside the suite’s exterior door.

The journalist has dark, short hair, and both of us were wearing pantsuits, mine navy and hers maroon (Ralph Lauren, though I’m speaking only for myself here). We’d been talking for about ten minutes, and my communications director had promised the journalist fifteen more, though I was prepared to go to twenty or even twenty-five.

The Nominee

...and then her torso pitched forward and she vomited partly onto her lap, partly onto the floor, and partly onto my lap.

“With regard to recent comments made by your colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee—” she began, and then her torso pitched forward and she vomited partly onto her lap, partly onto the floor, and partly onto my lap. Although it happened quickly, some impulse had told me to cup my hands together, and a portion of her vomit, which was plentiful and dark tan in color, also landed in this ad hoc receptacle. (I’ve always suspected she’d recently eaten curried tuna salad; I have, since 2002, never eaten curried tuna salad.) The journalist raised her head, and her expression was so stricken—a bit of vomit clung to her lips—that truly, I felt far more concerned about her than me. “Oh, my God,” she said, and her face had gone pale. “I’m so sorry.”

“Well, I am a mother,” I said, “so it’s not the first time. Do you think there’s more coming?” Already my deputy chief of staff had sprung up and was approaching us, but her revulsion was undisguised. She’s one of the most competent people I’ve ever worked with; she’s also squeamish, and I wondered if she might be the next to unleash the contents of her stomach.

“I can’t believe I—” the journalist was saying, but didn’t complete the thought. Instead, again she said, “I’m so sorry.”

“Are you staying in this hotel?” I asked.
The journalist nodded.
“Give her your room key,” I said and gestured to my deputy chief of staff. “She’ll get a change of clothes from your suitcase and bring it back here.” Unsteadily, the journalist passed off a key card—“Room 318,” she called as my deputy hurried away—and, addressing my personal aide, I said, “Please bring over a glass of water.” I stood, crossed the carpet, and entered the bathroom off the living room. Without closing the door, I scrubbed my hands; small brown chunks lodged in the drain. When I emerged, I asked the journalist, “Do you need to lie down?”

I could see her hesitate—it’s easy enough for one workhorse to recognize another, and I knew she wanted to continue the interview—and I said, “Go into the bedroom. Put on a robe and rest on the bed, at least for a few minutes. All the linens can be changed tonight while I’m out.”

Still she hesitated—behind me, I heard my two aides murmuring to each other—and I extended my hand. The journalist grasped it as she stood, and I could feel her shakiness, a literal shakiness, as we walked arm in arm into the suite’s bedroom in our vomit-bedecked pantsuits; the smell was disgusting, and later that night I ended up moving to a different suite altogether. I had never been this physically close to the journalist. I escorted her to the threshold of the bathroom inside the bedroom and asked, “Shall I wait while you clean up?”

She shook her head, and when she spoke, some firmness had returned to her voice. “I don’t know what came over me.”

“I’ll give you privacy,” I said. “Take your time.”

“I’m not pregnant,” she said, and though I can’t claim the thought hadn’t crossed my mind, it was her very adamance that made me question the statement. She was at that time recently divorced and her son was in grade school. She didn’t go on to have another baby, which, of course, is proof of nothing.

I began to close the bathroom door and she said, “Wait.”

Our eyes met.

“I trust that this is all off the record,” she said, and even then it occurred to me that if the situation were reversed, she’d never have extended such a courtesy.

“You’re in luck,” I said. “Because I’m not a journalist.”


“How would a female president change other countries’ perception of America?” the journalist asks in the Wells Fargo Center’s greenroom. We stand next to a long table covered in a white cloth, beside the huge platter of sliced pineapple and strawberries; all around us are the hum and laughter of other conversations as well as the words and applause from the speech currently being delivered on the arena stage and broadcast on a TV on the green-room wall.

I say, “I imagine many countries will be pleased that we’ve caught up to a milestone they reached years ago.”

“And what might your presidency mean for women?”

“If elected, I’ll proudly work on behalf of all Americans.”

“But it’s no secret that you’ve always been a Rorschach test for people in terms of where they stand on issues like feminism and women in the workforce. Just as a symbol, you—”

I shake my head, interrupting her. “Surely you realize that no one sees herself as a symbol?”


In 1957, my friend Carol Gurski’s tenth birthday party took place at her house in Park Ridge, Illinois, a block away from where my own family lived. Six of us fifth- grade girls sat at the Gurskis’ dining-room table eating cake, along with Carol’s younger brother; her parents stood nearby. The subject of baseball arose—I was an ardent Cubs fan, despite their terrible record that year— and I said, “Even if the White Sox are having a better season, Ernie Banks is clearly the best player on either team. If the Cubs build around him, they’ll be good in time.”

Carol’s father was across the table, behind Carol and facing me, and he smiled unpleasantly, in a way I had never previously recognized but have observed on a daily basis ever since. He said, “You’re awfully opinionated for a girl.”

The Nominee

When, in a 1995 speech in Beijing, I resisted pressure from both the White House and the Chinese government to tone down my declaration that human rights are inseparable from women’s rights? You’re awfully opinionated for a girl.

And, really, there are so many other words people use to express the sentiment, but I always hear the echo of Bud Gurski.

When, in a 1995 speech in Beijing, I resisted pressure from both the White House and the Chinese government to tone down my declaration that human rights are inseparable from women’s rights? You’re awfully opinionated for a girl.

When I criticized the Taliban before everyone criticized the Taliban? You’re awfully opinionated for a girl.

When I pushed for universal health care, a goal that turned out to be so controversial that my security detail required me for a time to wear a bulletproof vest in public? When I insisted, as secretary of state, on directly addressing with other governments the diplomatic damage wrought by the rash choices of the previous president? When I made that now-infamous crack about how I could have stayed home baking cookies and having teas? All those times, I was awfully, awfully opinionated.

During my tenure at the state department, I visited 112 countries, and much of what I did, in Pakistan and Russia, in Indonesia and Israel and Angola and El Salvador, was listen. Indeed, though I’ve failed at various times on various fronts, I’ve often thought that the bulk of my professional achievements have rested on two equally unsexy strengths: I am always willing to do my homework, and I am always willing to listen.

Also: I actually know, in a daily, granular way, what it’s like to live in the White House, and the difference between thinking you know what it’s like to live in the White House and living in the White House is the difference between thinking you know what it’s like to be a parent and being a parent.

Yes, I get it—the typical American voter possesses no more than fleeting familiarity with my résumé while feeling that he or she has been choking on my public image and my politics for almost twenty-five years. The typical American voter doesn’t wish to share a beer with me.

I have my supporters, of course, and then some. But it’s a bitter pill to swallow for those who aren’t in that category: that the person most qualified to be the next president is an awfully opinionated girl.

Is the journalist’s sexism attributable to the age difference between us, because she always took for granted her entry into the workforce? But surely she has experienced discrimination in the newsroom, at press conferences, on campaign planes and buses? Although she seems friendly with her male colleagues, sometimes her very jocularity suggests a compensating energy.

Is it because she was just nine years old when Roe v. Wade was decided?

Is it because, while I grew up middle-class, she grew up rich? She’s from Boston, I know, and she attended Choate and Yale.

Or is it because fundamentally, as a writer, she’s a bystander instead of a participant?

We still are next to the greenroom’s buffet, in this thicket of people I have known and mostly loved for many years. It’s strange how much I feel and cannot say. Even stranger is how much I can say without being believed, without my words being considered anything other than hollow propaganda. The irony: I really have been preparing for this moment for my entire life. I actually am confident, humbled, and optimistic about the future of our country.

I plan to win the election in November, and I plan after that to win the reelection. I trust that Americans will become accustomed to a female president in much the way they became accustomed to a black one—in some cases enthusiastically and in others gracelessly. The thought of what will happen if I don’t win, if my opponent somehow triumphs, is almost inconceivable, less for me personally than for our country. I am not exaggerating when I say it could be catastrophic; fortunately, I also don’t believe it will occur.

Thus, it will likely be January 2025 when my presidency concludes. I will be seventy-seven years old, and the journalist sixty-one; we’ll have known each other for more than three decades. And undoubtedly, before I return after so long to private life (Will I ever return to private life? Presumably not really, but such things are relative, and I might feel as if I have), the journalist and I will have one final encounter: my exit interview.

How delicious it will be to stop trying to convince people! To stop pretending that I don’t hear the criticism, or that I don’t care about it—there are, of course, ways in which I really don’t hear it and really don’t care about it, but neither can be entirely true so long as a heart still beats inside my chest. But it will be only after my long stretch in the public eye has concluded, after all my bids for quantifiable and unquantifiable approval, that I can be honest with the journalist and by extension with the American people.

The journalist will end my exit interview in the way she ends all interviews, which is by saying, “Is there anything I should be asking you that I’m not?”

I cannot lie; more than once I’ve been tempted to say,

Do you remember when I caught your curried-tuna vomit in my hands? Because I do. But the truth is that I had forgiven her even before she finished throwing up; that, at least, was out of her control. So, no. Such a question would be a waste.

Instead—I’ll be casual, as if it’s an afterthought—I’ll say this: “You’ve mentioned many times over the years that you find me unlikable. How do you think I find you?”

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