The Two Faces of Hillary Rodham Clinton
Welcome, once again, the cookie-dissing, Whitewater-dissembling, health-care-botching 'equal partner' who nearly set off a culture war during her husband's first term.
By Dan Kennedy
JUNE 21, 1999: The headline on the front of Sunday's New York Times -- STARR MAY ISSUE REPORT CRITICAL OF THE CLINTONS -- looked like a déjà vu remembrance of a déjà vu moment. The subtext, though, was a cold, hard shot of reality for those who've worked themselves into an ecstatic lather over the possibility that Hillary Rodham Clinton will be the next senator from New York.
The story, by Neil Lewis, quoted an unnamed source who said independent counsel Ken Starr -- yes, him again -- is thinking about issuing a final report that "might be 'blistering' in its descriptions of her actions."
Of course, the widely reviled Starr isn't going to change anyone's mind about Hillary. Nevertheless, the story served as the most prominent indication yet that the wildly popular first lady is not going to have the opportunity to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
Oh, sure, the Democratic candidate will be named Hillary Clinton -- but she won't be the fawned-over sympathetic martyr to her husband's libido who's emerged as something of a wounded icon during the past several years. Rather, the Hillary who hopes to take Manhattan and the rest of New York will, of necessity, be the hard-edged, ethically indifferent, health-care-botching Clinton who was cryogenically frozen after the disastrous congressional elections of 1994.
Times columnist Maureen Dowd, desperately casting about for something with which to fill her 1500-words-a-week quota now that Bill and Monica are kaput, instantly understood the threat posed by the latest Starr report. No doubt she was thinking: God almighty, what if Hillary decided not to run? After making some lame Austin Powers analogies in her Sunday column (Starr as Dr. Evil, Bill Clinton as the shagadelic playboy president), she concluded with a plea to Starr: go away. Now. Yes, it must have been a frightening moment for Dowd, with 16 months' worth of cheap and easy Hillary Clinton-versus-Rudy Giuliani columns flashing before her eyes.
But not to worry. Hillary's running. She's got to, now that she's squeezed out all of the other potential Democratic candidates and even gotten Representative Nita Lowey, who actually comes from New York, to back off. Quitting now would amount to a gross act of selfishness -- something that Bill would do as easily as spending a dime, but that she, presumably, is above.
The movie analogy that Hillary's candidacy calls to mind thus far is not Austin Powers but, rather, The Phantom Menace. Like the latest Star Wars vehicle, the HRC campaign has been the subject of an extraordinary amount of hype. Dan Rather made an even bigger fool of himself than usual in a gooey one-on-one on 60 Minutes II. Time (SENATOR CLINTON?) and Newsweek (HER TURN) weighed in with cover pieces the same week; they even led with similar anecdotes about Representative Charlie Rangel, the Harlem Democrat who first suggested that Hillary would make a good senator. The normally sensible James Bennet wrote a gushing cover profile for the New York Times Magazine in which his principal misgiving was that, gosh, she might not be liberal enough for New York Democrats. (Sounds like fodder for a Clinton campaign ad.)
The danger is that, as with The Phantom Menace, the public might well get sick of this particular show before it even opens. We'll find out soon enough: with her announcement that she is, indeed, forming an exploratory committee, the curtain is about to rise.
There are signs that the novelty is already beginning to wear off. After starting out with a lead of a dozen or so points over New York mayor Giuliani, Hillary has fallen back into a dead heat. "This trend confirms a basic rule about politics: candidates tend to be most desirable when they are least available (think Colin Powell)," observed Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker. And Giuliani's recovery in the polls took place at a time when he was under unprecedented attack because of the brutal excesses of his police department. The truth is that Giuliani, no matter how unlikable he may be, has presided over one of the great success stories of the '90s: the comeback of New York City. As the campaign grinds on, one suspects that will come to be seen as far more important to voters than Hillary's personal drama. ("To fix her psyche, we're supposed to give her one of our Senate seats. We are a One-Step Program for the emotional and political addict," sneered Richard Brookhiser in the New York Observer last week.)
Besides, even on the small stuff, Hillary can be as annoyingly slippery as Bill. Example: her ridiculous assertion that she, an Illinois native and long-time self-described Chicago Cubs fan, is also a big Yankees booster. How? Well, you see, if you like the Cubs, you can't like the White Sox, so you need an American League team to root for, and . . . Sounds like her husband trying to explain what he means by sex. "If Herbert Kohl were retiring, not Daniel Patrick Moynihan, would she be a lifelong Brewers fan?" asked Boston Globe/ESPN baseball analyst Peter Gammons on Sunday.
The nastiest take on the Clinton campaign so far was John Ellis's Globe column of June 5. But Ellis, in dismissing Clinton as someone who "has accomplished nothing of importance," "a partner at a second-tier law firm in a third-rate state" who "entered into a corrupt real-estate partnership that to this day she has never adequately explained," missed the real (that is, the pop-cultural) significance of all this -- accurate though his assessment may be.
The Clinton-for-Senate campaign isn't about who should succeed Moynihan, or whether Hillary's coalition of liberals, feminists, and African-Americans can defeat the conservatives and suburbanites who will presumably support Giuliani. Rather, it's about the Two Faces of Hillary.
Up till now, we've seen the reinvented Hillary, the demure, self-denying helpmate, the sensible but stylish Vogue model who self-righteously inveighed against vast right-wing conspiracies rather than allow herself to believe for one minute that her Bill was getting blowjobs from the office help.
What we're about to be reintroduced to is the unsmiling Hillary who doesn't bake cookies, who somehow turned a $1000 investment into a $100,000 windfall, who's rumored to be the dark force behind Travelgate, Filegate, and Whitewater, who drafted in secret the doomed, Rube Goldberg-esque Clintoncare universal-health plan, and who, depending on which lunatic-fringe theory you care to indulge, is either a man-hating lesbian socialist or a Lady Macbeth who had her boyfriend Vincent Foster murdered and dragged out of the White House in order to cover up her criminal misconduct.
Even former White House aide George Stephanopoulos, in his book All Too Human, puts considerable blame for the Clintons' scandal problems on Hillary. In an excerpt published by the Washington Monthly titled "Hillary's Big Mistake," Stephanopoulos argues that her inexplicable decision to withhold Whitewater documents from congressional investigators was what started her husband on the road to impeachment.
Call this movie The Return of Hillary Rodham, She-Wolf of the Democratic Left.
To page through some of the early press Hillary garnered is to be struck by what a long, strange trip it's been -- and to lament what she might have become. Or, to be more accurate, what she seemed to be. In her first incarnation, during the 1992 presidential campaign, Hillary Rodham Clinton came across as independent, dauntingly intelligent, every bit her husband's equal -- and more disciplined, too. Bill Clinton openly boasted about her, telling crowds that if he won, the public would be getting "two for the price of one." The Clinton presidency was going to be a partnership in every sense of the word.
This, of course, drove cultural conservatives into a frenzy. And though supposedly enlightened baby boomers would never admit it, it seemed to do something to them, too. The emblematic moment came in early 1993, right around the time of Clinton's first inauguration: Spy magazine, the '80s beacon of all that was hip and urbane, pasted Hillary's smiling face onto a leather-clad body, whip in hand, ready to mete out some serious punishment.
One of the smartest deconstructions of the early Hillary (or, rather, of how the culture responded to the early Hillary) was Katha Pollitt's essay in the Nation on May 17, 1993. Headlined THE MALE MEDIA'S HILLARY PROBLEM, the article took the overwhelmingly male punditocracy to task for repeatedly revisiting the topic of whether Hillary had too much power. As Pollitt noted, the proposition was ridiculous on its face: Hillary Clinton had not one bit more power than had been granted to her by the president, which made her no different from any other appointed official. Indeed, with no clearly defined duties, she had far less power than another notable beneficiary of presidential nepotism, Robert Kennedy, who served as attorney general under his brother Jack.
As Pollitt explained it, there was something else going on -- the same something else that could be seen on the cover of Spy. Hillary Clinton wasn't just a strong, independent woman; she was a strong, independent, attractive woman, of roughly the same age as many of the boomer reporters, the first presidential wife whom thirty- and fortysomething journalists could fantasize about. And many men seemed threatened.
"Now that she's actually ensconced in the White House, the first lady has become a quasi-pornographic obsession," wrote Pollitt. "There are dirty jokes, sexist jokes and sexual rumors galore: H.R.C. is a lesbian, currently conducting an affair with a well-known actress; she's got Bill in some incredible sexual stranglehold." And Pollitt blasted the media -- including Nightline, which devoted two shows to exploring whether Hillary had too much power -- for building up "the now-familiar media cartoon: Hillary Rodham Clinton as the overbearing wife with a finger in every slice of government pie, a workaholic ideologue accountable to no one but her pussy-whipped husband."
Pollitt's observations were so acute that her explanation -- that "anti-Hillary media types, for the most part men, are protecting their turf" -- was disappointingly reductionist. In fact, the phenomenon Pollitt tried to explain was more primal than she wanted to admit.
Getting closer to the truth was a 5700-word profile of Hillary in the New York Times Magazine that appeared at almost exactly the same time as Pollitt's essay. Written by Michael Kelly, later the Clinton-bashing editor of the New Republic and now the editor of National Journal and a columnist for the Washington Post, the piece didn't so much explain the cultural antipathy to Hillary as embody it. Kelly's article, titled "Saint Hillary," portrayed her as a devotee of New Age babble and the ill-defined "politics of meaning," a modern Carrie Nation who was, more than anything, a creature of "the pacifistic and multiculturally correct religious left of today."
Kelly added, ominously: "The true nature of her politics makes the ambition of Hillary Rodham Clinton much larger than merely personal. She clearly wants power, and has already amassed more of it than any first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. But that ambition is merely a subcategory of the infinitely larger scope of her desires." (Like what? World domination?) The Hillary Clinton of Michael Kelly's fevered imaginings was not a whip-wielding dominatrix but, rather, a hypermoralizing social worker who would make all of us conform to her vision of what was right and true and proper, like an overbearing teacher cracking down (okay, cracking the whip) on her unruly charges. No more talking. No more chewing gum. No more fun.
At the time, Kelly's piece was both celebrated and criticized for the supposed viciousness of his attack. Hillary Clinton, in particular, was said to have been deeply hurt by it. In retrospect, it's striking how much has changed since then -- how mild it seems now that we know so much more about Hillary. Today, no one makes fun of her idealism, because that idealism is at such variance with the many scandals she has oh-so-lamely attempted to explain away. Today, it's her husband who's seen as the corrupt one. Remember, though, that pre-Monica, the roles were reversed.
It was Hillary's subpoenaed billing records that mysteriously appeared in the White House living quarters. It was Hillary, after Vince Foster's suicide, who ordered Foster's papers to be spirited away before the FBI could get hold of them. It was Hillary who was supposed to be behind the travel-office firings and the improper use of FBI files on prominent Republicans. And it was Hillary, not Bill, who Matt Drudge reported would be indicted just before the 1996 Democratic National Convention. Drudge gets no points for accuracy, but his alleged scoop does say something about that particular cultural moment.
Which brings us to yet a third major piece of Hillary Clinton journalism -- a piece that, unlike Katha Pollitt's essay and Michael Kelly's profile, seems as relevant today as it did when it appeared, on June 2, 1996, on the front page of the Washington Post. The massive, 11,800-word take-out, by Clinton biographer David Maraniss and Lewinsky-affair pit bull Susan Schmidt, was headlined HILLARY CLINTON AND THE WHITEWATER CONTROVERSY: A CLOSE-UP.
Dealing mainly with the unfathomable Castle Grande real-estate development, the piece reported on Hillary's business ties with the unsavory Jim McDougal and documented a series of half-answers, changed answers, and suddenly-expanded answers that she offered over time in response to investigators' questions. Maraniss and Schmidt wrote that "an examination of Hillary Clinton's public statements suggests someone less passive in her behavior, less consistent in her answers, and less committed to full disclosure" than she wanted us to believe. The story concluded: "There appears to be a four-year pattern of Hillary Clinton avoiding full disclosure, occasionally forgetting places and events that might embarrass her, and revising her story as documents emerge and the knowledge of her questioners deepens."
In discussing the risks and benefits of Clinton's running for the Senate, one of the first hazards her allies invariably bring up is the insatiable mean-spiritedness of the New York tabloids -- principally the New York Post, owned by Clinton-loathing press baron Rupert Murdoch.
In fact, Clinton should be -- and probably is -- far more concerned that the quality press, such as the New York Times and Long Island's Newsday, will produce pieces similar to the Washington Post's.
To be sure, despite the many legitimate unanswered questions about Hillary Clinton's past conduct, there remains a degree of irrationality about the antipathy expressed by her enemies.
Former Reagan-Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan hyperventilated in the Wall Street Journal that Clinton's candidacy "is such an act of mad boomer selfishness and narcissism that even from the Clintons -- the Gimme and Getme of American politics -- it is an act of utter and breathtaking gall."
Terry Golway, in the New York Observer, called Hillary's candidacy "an offensive and astonishingly tone-deaf notion."
Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, no Hillary admirer himself, put it in the proper perspective this past Monday. Noting that Clinton brings considerable assets to the race, such as popularity among Democrats, 100 percent name recognition, and the ability to raise mucho money, Jacoby pointed out that New Yorkers who don't want her to be a US senator have a simple solution: they can vote against her.
But Jacoby, like his Globe colleague John Ellis, doesn't get the broader cultural context in which Hillary's candidacy must be seen. Her enemies, for all their nutcase ravings, don't make that mistake.
On March 21, the Washington Post Magazine ran a profile by Liza Mundy that, despite occasional inconsistencies and artificial attempts to force the argument, really gets at the essence of Hillary Clinton -- that bridges the gap between the Woman Who Stood By Her Man of 1998-'99 and the strong, independent lawyer who ran afoul of health-care policy and Whitewater. Mundy's insight is that Clinton's supporters invariably use the word "choice" when explaining why they continue to admire Hillary despite the travails of the last year -- but that they have turned the word's feminist meaning on its head.
"Choice . . . is the word invoked by leaders of the women's movement as they try to make sense of Hillary Clinton -- her silence, her suffering, her decision to stay with her husband, her newfound popularity -- and how all these things affect her status as a feminist leader," Mundy wrote. "Choice, apparently, is the one concept strong enough to dissolve the inconsistencies and explain the devolution of Hillary Clinton's public persona. It's the ideal that permits her supporters to accept her dual role as one of the world's most articulate advocates of women's rights, and, at the same time, a wife who has endured months -- years, decades -- of emotional mistreatment."
The problem, Mundy argues, is that by defending Hillary Clinton's choices, the women's movement has been forced to abandon its previous position that "the personal is political," and that "decent treatment in one's own household was a crucial element of equality." (And, though Mundy doesn't mention it, Hillary's choices have included staying with a husband who has been credibly accused of forcible rape.)
"If Hillary's choices are okay," Mundy asks, "are there any choices that aren't?" Mundy offers an interesting synthesis of the she-wolf and the suffering wife: what transformed Hillary was not cold political calculation so much as the compromises she's made over the years -- compromises not with Bill, who's never had to give up a damn thing, but with her own principles. It is, in the end, a sad story.
The Clintons have been with us for a very long time. It's been 11 years since Bill Clinton appeared on the Tonight show, full of youth and promise, making light of his way-too-long nomination speech for Michael Dukakis. It's been seven years since he lied to us about Gennifer Flowers, about the draft, about inhaling. It's been nearly that long since Hillary Clinton began stonewalling on questions about her law practice back in Arkansas, about her dealings with one partner, Vince Foster, who committed suicide, and another, Webster Hubbell, who went to prison. Later this summer, she may be called on to testify at yet another Hubbell trial -- not the sort of photo op that an aspiring senator wants in her campaign literature.
Clinton fatigue has long since set in. Al Gore's mentor Martin Peretz recently ran a cover story in the magazine he owns, the New Republic, urging Hillary not to run -- in part on the grounds that one Clinton legatee, Gore, may be all the public can handle. Don Imus, commenting on the Yankees' appearance at the White House with Bill and Hill, put it this way last week: "We hate you people. You've disgraced this country, you're a buck-toothed crook, your husband's obviously a dirtbag. Get out of our life. Leave us alone. God almighty. Just go away! God, it's like some rash you can't get rid of. God, would you two fat goobers just get out?"
The media are going to have the time of their lives. Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani (assuming he's the Republican nominee -- no sure thing, given that Republican governor George Pataki hates his guts) are brutally tough political brawlers with massive egos and a love for the limelight. But as Imus so delicately put it, the public's enthusiasm for Clinton's celebrity psychodrama is likely to fall considerably short of the press's.
If Clinton is to be elected, she'll have to reconcile the Two Faces of Hillary -- to come up with a credible synthesis of the independent woman and the suffering wife, the she-wolf and the doormat. If she can do that, she could be formidable. If she can't, voters will likely opt for the One Face of Rudy instead.
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