I suspect that many of us were watching attentively when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. I certainly was, and I was very impressed with what I saw. I am a fan of Secretary Clinton, both for what she does for our country abroad but also for the strong role model she is for women professionals throughout the world. My opinion of her has morphed a bit over time since she first came on the national scene with husband Bill, and most of my reservations have been allayed and replaced by admiration.
Like you, perhaps, I was cheering when Hillary took on Senator Ron Johnson from Wisconsin, pointing out to him that what mattered most was how to fix problems in the future and not dwelling on the past and “who struck John.” Although I was not sure that the substance of her response was totally accurate, I really liked the way she handled the opposition. AND you will recall that I am from the great state of Wisconsin, so that is saying a lot!
But, as I contemplated Secretary Clinton’s response to Senator Johnson, new concerns started to take over my thoughts. Later, when I heard her detractors comments on the exchange, like “No wonder Bill is afraid of her,” I knew that I had to write this blog.
The subject of my concern is the degree of emotion and anger that Secretary Clinton showed in her response. I would not doubt if some of that emotion and anger related to the accusations by detractors that Hillary had concocted an illness to avoid testimony on the Benghazi crisis last fall—Benghazi Flu, I think they called it. That would make anybody mad, especially when it turned out that her illness was real and landed her in the hospital. But, that’s not the point.
The point is that giving into emotions like anger and disdain and forcefully gesturing the way that Hillary did—and on camera—have a way of coming back to bite you, especially when the target of your anger is a man. If Hillary decides to run for president in 2016, you can be sure that the footage of that exchange will be run again and again in Republican campaign adds with very strong tag lines. You can expect to hear campaign rhetoric about the appropriateness of similar responses with foreign leaders who do not share or approve of US opinions and actions and on …. and on … and on.
I am sure that Hillary will be able to handle the push back that surely will come if she decides to run for public office again. She is a pro and highly skilled. She brings the kind of gravitas to any situation that gives her advantages over others—all well deserved. I have no doubt that she knew what she was doing and had calculated the risks.
My concern is not for Secretary Clinton. My concern is for the young women watching that exchange and misinterpreting it for their own lives. Young women who were as thrilled as I was to see Hillary take Senator Johnson to task but do not fully comprehend the repercussions to them of similar conduct. For instance, have you asked yourself whether you could risk a display of that kind of emotion in the office? Could you survive the criticism and the allegations of lack of professionalism that are easy to level at junior lawyers? If you do not think so, and neither do I, consider a different approach when the time comes. Start by practicing now for that moment.
Think of something that makes you really mad. Some allegation of wrongdoing that is not true and impeaches your honor and your dignity. Let yourself react the way you would like to—preferably in front of a mirror so that you can see yourself or, better yet, on camera. Study those images, and then, get it together, and deliver the same response again in a strong and willful way but as a controlled advocate and without an excess of emotion. Practice, practice. Practice makes perfect.
I continue to be a big fan of Hillary, and I am excited to think what lies ahead for her and for all of us as women. But there is a big difference between you and Hillary Clinton. She knows that, and I think that she would be the first person to want you to do everything you need to do to survive and prosper in your profession.
So, use the example of Hillary Clinton to inform your future, remembering always that you can get away with a lot as a Clinton, as a former First Lady, as the Secretary of State and…………..more? Keep it all in perspective.
Having said that, there also are likely to be times when you will be completely within your rights to “Give ’em Hell!” I know that I have had my moments—and it was the right thing to do, and I had no regrets. Most women lawyers have similar experiences. But, it has to be the right thing at the right time. Distinguishing the right time for emotion and outrage and anger from the myriad other incidents that pique you on a daily basis is what will set you apart as a professional.