Humanizing Hillary Clinton is no easy task. She has no discernible sense of humor (her smile is often fake, her laugh contrived). She’s a policy wonk in all the worst ways, deeply submerged in the boring machinations of government. And in one big measure voters sometimes use to pick their candidates — “Who would you most like to have a beer with?” — Mrs. Clinton would fall last on nearly every list.
But Howard Stern last week succeeded in making Mrs. Clinton appear almost lifelike in a surprisingly frank interview with the former secretary of state.
The shock jock, who battled the Federal Communications Commission for years with his childish antics, has mellowed with age (he’s now 65). And as he’s matured, Mr. Stern has become one of the truly sublime interviewers of our time.
Because of the open format on his four-hour radio show, Mr. Stern can — and often does — go an hour, 90 minutes, even two hours with a guest. He doesn’t waste any time, though, with softball questions. He seeks to extract new information — and real life — to reveal the essence of his subjects, and he almost never fails.
Plus, he’ll “go there” like no one else.
That’s just what he did with Mrs. Clinton, who was making her first appearance on the popular satellite radio show.
Mr. Stern went “there” quickly, to the delight of his millions of listeners. When Mrs. Clinton was recounting her early life and her college courtship by Bill Clinton, she said she had to end a relationship with another man in order to date the man who would one day become her husband.
“He was so handsome, really handsome, he looked like a Greek god,” she said of the former beau. Then she added: “Well, contrary to what you might hear, I actually like men.”
Mr. Stern pounced. “Raise your right hand, you’ve never had a lesbian affair.”
“Never, never, never!” Mrs. Clinton said, laughing. “Never even been tempted.” Mrs. Clinton said she was “pretty popular” in college and “dated a lot of different people, and I liked a lot of them Boys were not my problem,” she said.
Mr. Stern went “there” often and Mrs. Clinton — in a rare instance — spoke frankly, answering questions in a thoughtful, if measured, way.
Mrs. Clinton told some interesting tales: She surprised Mr. Stern by saying that she and her husband have sneaked away from the Secret Service before; said they don’t drive because “we don’t have our own cars any more”; admitted that she and Bill did marriage counseling after his affair with a White House intern; recounted how her mother was “abandoned” by her parents and left her grandparents’ home at 13; and acknowledged that both Mr. Clinton and former President Barack Obama have a charisma that she lacks.
And, of course, she had a coughing fit. “I feel like I need to give you a cough drop or something,” a concerned Mr. Stern said, feeling sorry for her human failings.
The radio host asked the 72-year-old Mrs. Clinton about Election Day 2016, and she spoke poignantly about her feelings that night.
“Obviously, I was crushed. I was disappointed, and I was really surprised,” Mrs. Clinton said, “Because I couldn’t figure out what had happened.” She said she hadn’t even written a concession speech, so sure was she that she would win.
Mr. Stern recounted a story in which Bill and Hillary were laying in bed after her loss and he took her hand silently in the darkness. “You’re going to make me cry,” the shockingly human Mrs. Clinton said with a laugh. “He’s been a terrific support.”
And like he often does, Mr. Stern got his guest to make news.
Mr. Stern asked Mrs. Clinton if Sen. Bernard Sanders, who she battled for months before securing the 2016 nomination, should have endorsed her more quickly after he dropped out. “He could have,” she said. “He hurt me. There’s no doubt about it. He hurt me.”
“I hope he doesn’t do it again to whoever gets the nomination. Once is enough,” she said with more than a hint of bitterness.
Mrs. Clinton’s new honest and open demeanor is a move away from 2016, when she was a cardboard cutout candidate unable to connect with voters, whom she kept at arm’s length as she went through the motions.
In the nearly two-hour interview, Mr. Stern eventually asked Mrs. Clinton why she didn’t appear on his show in 2016. “I often did not prioritize media the way I should have,” she said candidly. “Trump would interview with anybody — and in his pajamas they would take him.”
“I think I made a miscalculation, I do,” she said.
And Mrs. Clinton appeared to finally understand why 63 million Americans voted for President Trump.
“Politics has to be entertaining to a certain extent because you have to attract people’s attention. [Politicians are] not professional entertainers like you are,” she said to Mr. Stern, “but they have to have that personality. I get all that and I’m more willing to try.”
Mr. Stern said earlier this year that he might’ve have been able to help her campaign “if she had come on the show.”
“The way I helped Donald was I let him come on and be a personality. Whether you liked him or not people related to him as a human being,” he said.
And if Mrs. Clinton is going to run again, she’ll need that humanizing big time.
Fox News media reporter Howard Kurtz summed up her appearance on the Stern show best. “If the Howard Stern version would’ve run, maybe she would have won.”
And she still might do both.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @josephcurl.