Ruth: Remaking Clinton, one burrito bowl at a time

Published Apr. 15, 2015

Subject: Hillary Clinton wants to be president of the United States.

Message: After nearly 25 years on the national political stage, she has discovered she cares deeply about the much-beleaguered American middle class.

Reaction: Better late than never.

To underscore her bourgeoisie bona fides, the Evita of Chappaqua embarked on a populist road trip from New York to Iowa, even stopping for some fast food at a Chipotle restaurant near Toledo to demonstrate she can rub great unwashed elbows with the best of ambitious politicians. Nothing says "Hail to the Chief" more than a burrito bowl.

Still, Clinton better be careful during this Nighthawks diner phase of the campaign. The patrician John Kerry tried the common man approach in 2004 and came off as the Thurston Howell III of the stump. While campaigning in Pennsylvania, he attempted to order a Philly cheese steak sandwich by asking if he could have it served with Swiss rather than the customary and beloved Cheese Whiz. People have been shot for lesser insults in the City of Brotherly Love.

This would be like a candidate visiting Tampa and ordering a Cuban sandwich on Wonder Bread.

So as Clinton noshed her way across the Midwest, we are confronted again with a campaign that could more closely resemble the cranky, know-it-all in-law moving into the house — for the next 18 months.

There were many justifiable knocks on Clinton's 2008 presidential bid, including her not too subtle message that she was entitled to the White House as a matter of Manifest Destiny. She also was ill-served by a hapless, bumbling, feuding campaign staff that made a Three Stooges pie fight look like Bolshoi ballet precision.

This time, instead of coming off as the Lady Macbeth of the Beltway, the strategy appears to be to recast Clinton 2.0 (or is it 8.0?) as a kinder, gentler soul who understands the struggles of average Americans drawn on lessons she's learned after years of collecting $200,000 speaking fees.

The task of transforming Clinton from the cunning Alexis Carrington of Pennsylvania Avenue into the June Cleaver of the nuclear codes has fallen to Kristina Schake, a former image consultant to first lady Michelle Obama.

It was Schake who came up with the idea of sending Obama on a shopping spree to Target and making self-effacing appearances on such shows as Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, where the first lady Mom danced with the host.

Imagine Clinton doing the hokey pokey with David Letterman. On second thought, don't.

You can see the handiwork of Schake at play in Clinton channeling her inner Charles Kuralt by going on the road, engaging small groups of Iowans over coffee and avoiding her traveling press entourage as if they were process servers.

Still, for all the fuzzy-wuzzy optics, a Hillary Clinton is a Hillary Clinton is a Hillary Clinton. This is a woman who has been a ubiquitous presence on the American political scene for decades. And it will be no easy challenge to suddenly convince people Clinton has emerged as a sweetie pie Mary Lou Retton of the electoral college.

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Clinton still has to address questions arising from the Benghazi terrorist attack, her Mary Celeste-esque missing emails and her rather uneventful but well-traveled time at the State Department. Then there is the … uh, ahem Bill problem. And don't we all know there will always be a Bill problem? After all, the Clinton DNA seems to stand for Doing Naughty Always.

Clinton, of course, will be vilified by the Rush Limbaugh/Glenn Beck/Sean Hannity/Fox News axis of stupid.

But that is not her biggest problem moving forward. Her biggest problem is Kate McKinnon of Saturday Night Live.

McKinnon has crafted a brutally telling caricature of Hillary Clinton lampooning all of the candidate's worst stereotypes as a bloodless, duplicitous, elitist, power-hungry narcissist.

The damning portrayal works so well because it resonates so well. It makes Tina Fey's memorable 2008 deconstruction of former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin look like an air-kiss.

Political figures can deal with the harsh indictments of the punditocracy. Savvy candidates can fend for themselves in the hardball glare of a debate.

But surviving the problematic tag as a national punch line is far more vexing.

Perhaps the next time Clinton drops in at a Chipotle she should skip the burrito bowl and head straight to the margaritas.