Seven years ago, 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, in a New Hampshire primary debate, was asked about her personal appeal. Her prime opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, cheekily interjected: "You're likable enough, Hillary."

She went on to upset him in that primary, but in the long run Mr. Obama, whom she had declared that night to be "very likable," outlasted her for the Democratic presidential nomination. Then, as president, he chose her as his first secretary of state.


Now, in her second presidential run, the question of her political appeal is back to nag her. In the wake of the controversy over the erasing of her private email account when she was at state, the Republicans have seized grounds to resurrect old concerns about her penchant for secrecy.

This time it's about trustworthiness, and in her diligent attempt to resell herself to the voting public, she has pledged a new openness that is being put to a harsh test.

It is a matter not only of her honesty but also of her resilience, in the face of a demanding American news media that challenges her patience and disposition. After months of avoiding the press and its annoying questions, she has begun to open up, to a point. But in her generally cheery manner, she occasionally displays irritation or sarcasm.

The other day she tried humor in saying she wished she had had a Snapchat account because entries in it "disappear all by themselves." And when asked whether she wished she hadn't wiped her private email account clean, she responded: "What, like with a cloth or something?"

Her latest dilemma is not a joke to backers who see her front-running numbers in the public opinion polls slipping. They cite such signs as encouraging Vice President Joe Biden to consider more seriously than before making a late entry into the Democratic presidential race.

Concerning that possibility, Ms. Clinton sounded less than graceful the other day in commenting that her old friend Joe "will do what he has to do" and she would be doing the same. She might have been better served by cheerily welcoming him into the pool.

Ever since her 2008 loss for the presidency, a large female army proclaiming it was "Ready for Hillary" in 2016 has created an air of inevitability similar to that of 2008, before the meteor of the Obama candidacy lit up the sky.

This second time around, no other potential Democratic challenger signaled interest in running during the early stages of 2013 and 2014, enabling Clinton friends to reassure the faithful that she would run again in 2016, though she insisted she was only contemplating it.

From 2009 through 2012 she was able to enhance her resume as a cabinet member marching in step with the Obama agenda. Over the next more than two years, she floated free of any political necessity to lay out any specific agenda of her own on which she would seek the Democratic nomination in 2016.

She maintained public visibility and celebrity as an author and prominent champion of women's rights, without giving voters much new on which to evaluate her as a future president or the administration she hoped to lead.

Republicans, anticipating her 2016 candidacy, have had to rely mostly on her limited role in her husband's presidency to find targets, along with the Benghazi attack that happened on her watch at the State Department. They are still striving to pin the responsibility for it on her.

But now they have the emails controversy squarely in their sights as the prime vehicle with which to bring her down. After much bobbing and weaving, Ms. Clinton has finally decided to turn over her private server to federal investigators. The outcome of their inquiries should give voters a sufficient basis to judge whether there are grounds to reject her.

It seems strange to suggest that after more than 22 years in the national spotlight and public life, Hillary Clinton is not an open book to the American people. But the reality is that the protective coating she has built around herself up to now requires that she keep re-selling herself anew.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is