Early birds lined up starting at 4am on Saturday as busloads of Hillary Clinton’s fans and critics from around the nation trickled onto Roosevelt Island to attend the much-anticipated first speech of her campaign tour. “I came all the way from DC,” said Victoria Velasquez, who was holding an iPhone case with a black and white photo of Hillary’s face and blue text: “Ready for Hillary.”
By mid-morning, 5,500 people gathered as Clinton launched her 2016 presidential campaign at Roosevelt Island’s Four Freedom’s Park under blue skies and 86-degree weather. (Thankfully the park handed out free water bottles.) The needle-shaped island is bridged by Manhattan’s famed skyline on one side and Queens (the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world) on the other, a nod to Clinton’s proposed presidential platform.
In the last speech of her unsuccessful 2008 campaign, Clinton noted that she was unable “to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling;” Clinton kicked off her 2016 bid by saying it was “wonderful” to be “in a place… with absolutely no ceilings.”
The event kicked off with opening acts by The Brooklyn Express Drumline, a speech by Marlon Marshall (the campaign’s director of political engagement), and a three-song performance by indie rock band Echosmith, including their hit “Cool Kids,” perhaps to convey that Hillary, too, is a cool kid. “It feels like Hillary is towing the line between millennials and parents… showing the younger generations she’s relatable, and peppering in topics like taxes for those who look to these speeches for hard facts,” said Allison Sparkuhl, Hillary Clinton supporter.
Clearly Hillary didn’t need to try that hard; she’s already in with the cool kid-crowd. In a campaign thus far criticized as “sluggish” and “lacking passion,” Clinton’s speech resonated with those who feel marginalized, whether by class disparity, race, gender, or sexual identification. Clinton’s 45-minute speech was straightforward and personal, free of political drinking game buzzwords (like “freedom” “liberty” and “progress”) and predictable political rhetoric. Instead, she turned toward a more personal appeal; she told the crowd she was imperfect, but a fighter and rallied the support of “everyone who has ever been knocked down but refused to be knocked out.” (Ok, so maybe there was some predictable political rhetoric.)
Dressed in a cobalt blue pantsuit, Clinton looked more vivacious in person than in most media images. “She looks great! Do they Photoshop her face to look older?” someone in the crowd remarked.
“All our presidents come into office looking so vigorous. And then we watch their hair grow grayer and grayer… You’re won’t see my hair turn white in the White House. I’ve been coloring it for years!” Clinton joked. The crowd laughed and waved miniature flags in the air.
Even though some in the crowd dismissed their support for HIllary as being driven by the fact that her election as the first female president would be an American first—“I don’t want Hillary to win just because she’s a woman and it would be historic,” said Luis Rivera-Nesrala, an econ major at NYU—others are eager to finally see a woman in office: “As a millennial woman, I am so excited about Hillary running for office (again) and want this campaign to be progressive and turn key,” Allison Sparkuhl said.
Clinton didn’t discuss gender issues in depth, but did touch on egalitarianism in the workplace: “It is way past time to end the outrage of so many women still earning less than men on the job—and women of color often making even less.” According to the former first lady this is a family issue, not a women’s rights issue—perhaps a hint that she too wants to win on grounds stronger than merely being the first female president.
While some might bash her for her age, it’s clearly a source of power to many others. “I think she has a real go-getter ‘mom-charisma,’” said Hillary supporter Peter Feld, “She’s impressive, unstoppable, polished, smart and articulate. The speech made me feel like she’s still got the goods.”
To boot, she does offer some great mom advice: “Be resilient… no matter what the world throws at you.”
And Clinton, who has been criticized as being “out of touch,” faced the age topic head on, “Well, I may not be the youngest candidate in this race. But I will be the youngest woman President in the history of the United States! And the first grandmother as well.”
And a pretty hip grandmother at that. In keeping with Clinton’s social media push, she launched her own Instagram account last week and her team used the gathering to test Periscope for the first time. She’s reached such celeb status that Dan Merica of CNN tweeted that one woman even pointed to her daughter and said as Bill Clinton walked by: “That is Hillary’s husband.”
In a speech that skirted foreign policy issues, Clinton focused on domestic topics and said to the audience, “America can’t succeed unless you succeed.”
One example of triumph among the crowd was Simon Nin Riccardi Zhu, who has grown up on Roosevelt Island and came with his mother to show support. “I’ve been living here since I was five but I finally got naturalized and I am so proud. This is the first election I can vote in. It’s hard not to admire her determination and conviction.”
Drawing a parallel to FDR’s Four Freedoms, Clinton promised she’d wage “four fights”: economic growth, strengthening American families, maintaining leadership for “peace, security, and prosperity,” and government reform and transparency.
Clinton cited another voice from the Great Depression: her mother. She told the story of her mother’s resiliency after her grandparents had abandoned her and left her to fend for herself at age fourteen. “And because some people believed in her, she believed in me,” said Clinton. “I want to be your champion.” Some in the audience began to sob. She proceeded to bring up family issues such as universal preschool and quality childcare, and backed it up with evidence, “Research tells us how much early learning in the first five years of life can impact lifelong success. In fact, 80 percent of the brain is developed by age three… One thing I’ve learned is that talent is universal—you can find it anywhere—but opportunity is not.”
Clinton, who has fought for children’s rights for over a decade, also advocated the de-stigmatization of and better services for the mentally ill and the addicted. This is pivotal for America’s future because “too many of our kids never have the chance to learn and thrive as they should and as we need them to.”
Judging from the crowd’s emotional reaction, Clinton’s ballad struck a chord with those who have endured hardship. “Our country won’t be competitive or fair if we don’t help more families give their kids the best possible start in life.” More mini flags, like lighters—or phone screens—at a concert, waved in the air.
“There may be some new voices in the presidential Republican choir. But they’re all singing the same old song. It’s a song called ‘Yesterday,’” Hillary said.
When the speech ended, thousands of star-struck supporters lingered for autographs, to get a closer glimpse, to shake hands and to take selfies as Hillary, Bill, and Chelsea made their rounds. And like all rock-star events, there was also merch. “I love that the official Clinton 2016 merchandise reads ‘Hillary for America’ not ‘Hillary for President,’” a passerby commented.
Along the walkways, pro and anti-Hillary vendors sold unofficial goods. Upon leaving the rally, a man sold satirical t-shirts, and a seated woman in a paper-maché pig costume and a mask with Hillary Clinton’s face and two men spewed anti-Hillary jargon like “Hillary for hypocrisy” and “Hillary??? In a Pig’s Eye!” and showed support for Senator Bernie Sanders, whom many believe will be Clinton’s toughest opponent.
The political conversations continued on the F train heading back to Manhattan. “I will do everything in my power to help her get elected,” said lawyer Linda Schoefel.
“Who cares!” another passenger commented, “It’s a one-party system anyway. It’s all the same.”
“She’s too drab,” muttered a man in a brown suit. Three strangers came to Hillary’s defense.
But Clinton is the first to admit her shortcomings: “I won’t get everything right. Lord knows I’ve made my share of mistakes. Well, there’s no shortage of people pointing them out!” She paused to laugh. “And I certainly haven’t won every battle I’ve fought. But leadership means perseverance and hard choices. You have to push through the setbacks and disappointments and keep at it. I think you know by now that I’ve been called many things by many people—’quitter’ is not one of them.”
“I’m going to her next show. I mean speech,” a twenty-something said as she stepped onto the platform at Grand Central, “She’s a total rock star.”
Follow Naomi Bishop on twitter @naomi_bishop