Clinton, show us the real you

Story highlights

  • Ruth Ben-Ghiat: Reaction to Clinton's illness highlights double standard for transparency expected from her and Trump
  • Her campaign needs to better prepare for such dustups, which play to Clinton stereotypes, not strengths, she says
  • Ben-Ghiat: Clinton, show your vulnerable, spiritual, nurturing side to build trust with voters

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Her latest book is "Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The media storm around Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's "stumble," which was due to heat exposure while she suffers from walking pneumonia, highlights the double standard being applied to Clinton and Trump in terms of transparency and fitness to lead.

It's also further evidence that Clinton's campaign is doing her a disservice by not anticipating such reactions. This minor health event should be a major wake-up call for her advisers as we go into the final stages of this long campaign.
    Clinton's stumble should cause us, as citizens and as human beings, to pause as well. Has the onslaught of messages of hate and division during this campaign damaged us so much as a nation that we can't cross party lines to offer healing thoughts and sympathy for a 68-year-old individual who simply pushed herself momentarily beyond her limit? Jeers and jubilant speculation that Clinton might have Parkinson's or some other disease don't seem the right reactions to the video footage of the event.
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    At the same time, no one should be surprised at the depth of hostility to Clinton, who as America's first female presidential nominee is also a symbol of women who aspire to leadership positions in our country. After all, the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, has been consistent on only a few things during his campaign: stirring up racial animosity for immigrants and all those who don't look, or pray, like him, and insulting women -- like Clinton -- who exist outside his sphere of control.
    Clinton's stumble was a lucky thing for Trump. It played right into a mainstay of his strategy: to delegitimize her by claiming she's weak of body and mind. He's made Clinton's health an issue, while keeping his own health information secret, other than a strangely worded letter from his doctor that raised more questions than it answered. In that sense, his upcoming show-and-tell about his health on Dr. Oz's television show is a good development.
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    The Trump campaign has also repeatedly invoked violent imagery in discussing Clinton, feeding the flames of his supporters who publicly wish that her body would meet a painful or terrible end. I don't only speak of his social media followers who pray that she gets cancer, eats poison, or meets with some accident. In July, Trump's "veteran adviser," Al Baldasaro, called for Clinton to be shot for treason.
    Trump himself has made statements that could be interpreted as a wish for harm to come to her. Remember his comment about "Second Amendment" people "taking care" of her?
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    He offered a kind of sequel last Friday at a rally in Florida, when he provided us with the unique spectacle of an American presidential candidate pretending to fire a gun while speaking about his rival. The context was his statement that Clinton is so "protected" that she could "shoot somebody" in public and avoid prosecution, but the result was to remind his supporters of his own January 2016 comment that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York and not lose supporters.
    Given this odd and sometimes ominous fixation on her physical person, Clinton might be forgiven for deciding to inform only her "inner circle" about her walking pneumonia and carry on as if she were not ill. Moreover, "powering through" is what Americans do well: We work more hours, and take less vacation, than almost any other nation. How many of us have seen colleagues at the office who really should be home in bed?
    Here's where the value of outside counsel comes in. No one could have predicted Clinton would falter in public, but many of the issues engaged by this event were known triggers of public reaction. Chief among these is the distrust created by the Clinton (all together now) penchant for privacy. The fact that only senior staffers knew she was ill is of little comfort to a public that feels estranged from a woman often seen as cold and remote.
    Clinton's show of vulnerability could have helped the campaign render Clinton more "likeable" to voters. Ingrained habits of nontransparency and protectiveness prevailed, though, and she squandered the opportunity.
    As Clinton recuperates, her campaign might consider the seemingly paradoxical move of occasionally launching a more open, softer Clinton into the fray. By all accounts of the people who have met or know her, this is who Clinton genuinely is -- the Clinton possessed of a deep spirituality, which would surely resonate with voters; the woman we saw at the Democratic Convention, filled with maternal and grandmotherly pride.
    We already know the tough Clinton, who won points for her blazing speech against Trump's mobilization of the alt-right movement. She should be showing the people who must decide upon her as their leader that there is more — that she is also just like them.
    Our former secretary of state is the only candidate fit to lead the country, for reasons not of gender and bodily health but temperament, public service and leadership experience. Greater transparency might seem risky to her campaign, as it will undoubtedly bring greater attacks. It will also help to increase what Clinton needs most at this point: the American public's trust.