A picture of Hillary Clinton in the woods says so much about the election

Leaving Donald Trump’s Manhattan victory party on election night, Sixth Avenue was loud and chaotic.

Demonstrators restrained by police barriers flipped off Trump supporters leaving the Midtown Hilton. The partygoers jeered back.

But underground in a nearly empty subway car, it was as if nothing had happened — a moment of calm before renewed internet access and the altered political world. It was nearly 4 a.m. It struck me that at some point that night, Hillary Clinton would be alone.

She would put down her draft concession speech. Her teary aides would leave the room. She would sleep.

No political reporter or WikiLeaks email has yet shown Clinton at that moment and in an appearance last week at the Children’s Defense Fund she intimated that she was having a hard time recovering, sometimes wanting to “curl up with a good book, or our dogs, and never leave the house again.”

But she has ventured out, beginning to navigate her unexpected future. We got a brief glimpse of that just after the election, in a remarkable picture taken by a mother in the woods.

A picture worth 1,000 words

By now you’ve likely seen it, heard the story.

Just a few dozen hours after the election results came in, Margot Gerster was hiking through the woods around Chappaqua with her infant daughter strapped to her back. She says she was feeling down because of her favored candidate’s election loss and decided to go for a walk. In a clearing, surrounded by soft red leaves, she came upon the Clintons.

“I got to hug her and talk to her and tell her that one of my most proudest moments as a mother was taking Phoebe with me to vote for her,” she wrote in the Facebook post that spread the moment around the world. She and Hillary posed. Bill snapped the picture.

If we find out this picture was staged, I’ll be very sad. But it doesn’t have the feel of it. The angle is wonderfully amateurish, as if Bill isn’t particularly good with a cellphone cam (the former president, like the president-elect, doesn’t regularly use a computer): The two women’s legs are foreshortened, their feet tiny and appearing to hover above the ground.

Yet the composition is accidentally impeccable. Gerster leans toward the former candidate, seeming to be stabilized by the trailblazing woman. It looks as if they are almost touching cheeks. Margot’s daughter, Phoebe, bundled in pink on her mother’s back, looks straight into the camera, separated from the two adults. Yet it looks like Clinton’s hand, behind Margot’s back, is supporting the little girl’s arm.

Three generations of connected women look into the camera: two of them hoped and fought for a female president, and one will be of voting age when this seems an antiquated fight. The baby appears positively curious, her round cheeks and wide eyes looking at the man unseen in the picture.

Clinton looks unarmored and natural. Her hair is a little wispier than normal. The lines around her mouth are softer, not hidden by makeup or accentuated by a hi-definition lens. She is in the foreground — the rest of the picture hinges around her. She has donned activewear and stands in an athletic stance.

Her left hand has a firm grip on her dog’s leash and she appears both in control and at ease. Which was always the obvious implicit pitch for her campaign — here was a reasonable woman who knew how to get things done. But old and weighty baggage, caution, an unhinged opponent, and our own biases complicated her efforts to connect and meant this kind of easy appearance was rarely seen during the race.

A moment of serenity

Most striking about the picture, though, is her contented expression. It’s hard to see a hint of the battle she spent more than 30 years waging. Is she relieved that her immediate struggle, at least, is over? Did she simply get a good 24 hours or so of sleep? Is she smiling so naturally, effortlessly, because she’s become accustomed to doing so? Or perhaps because she’s doing the one thing she seems to have consistently tried to do even in a long career in the spotlight — help someone, even if it’s just a little thing.

Besides the three figures, there is nothing human cluttering the picture. It’s a calm pastoral, a blurred landscape of trees and leaves. There, at the end of a not-so-well-trod path, perhaps Clinton was able to find momentary solace.

She deserves it, even if her loss has meant the opposite for her supporters.