In a locker room at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, people are waiting in line to get their pictures taken with Hillary Clinton before a rally in the school’s gym. It’s a kid-heavy crowd, and Clinton has been chatting easily with them.
But soon there’s only one family left and the mood shifts. Francine and David Wheeler are there with their 13-year-old son, Nate, and his 17-month-old brother, Matty, who’s scrambling around on the floor. They carry a stack of photographs of their other son, Benjamin, who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, when he was 6.
David presses the photos of his dead son on Clinton with the urgency of a parent desperate to keep other parents from having to show politicians pictures of their dead 6-year-olds.
Leaning in toward Wheeler as if they are colleagues mapping out a strategy, Clinton speaks in a voice that is low and serious. “We have to be as organized and focused as they are to beat them and undermine them,” she says. “We are going to be relentless and determined and focused … They are experts at scaring people, telling them, ‘They’re going to take your guns’ … We need the same level of intensity. Intensity is more important than numbers.”
Clinton tells Wheeler that she has already discussed gun control with Chuck Schumer, who will likely be leading the Senate Democrats in 2017; she talks about the differences between state and federal law and between regulatory and legislative fixes, and describes the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which extended the protections of the Second Amendment, as “a terrible decision.” She is practically swelling, Hulk-like, with her desire to describe to this family how she’s going to solve the problem of gun violence, even though it is clear that their real problem — the absence of their middle child — is unsolvable. When Matty grabs the front of his diaper, Clinton laughs, suggesting that he either needs a change or is pretending to be a baseball player. She is warm, present, engaged, but not sappy. For Clinton, the highest act of emotional respect is perhaps to find something to do, not just something to say.
“I’m going to do everything I can,” she tells Wheeler. “Everything I can.”
After the family leaves the room, Clinton and her team move quietly down the long hall toward the gym. As they walk, Clinton wordlessly hands her aide Huma Abedin a postcard of Benjamin Wheeler, making eye contact to ensure that Abedin looks at the boy’s face before putting the card in her bag. The group pauses at the entrance of the gym, where 1,200 people are warmed up and screaming for Hillary. Clinton turns to me unexpectedly, and I mutter, “I don’t know how you do that … ”
“Yeah,” she says, looking right at me. “It’s really hard.”
If you ask me how I feel about this election right now the answer is that I am too fucking scared to hope.