Sunday, September 23, 2007

Hillary Rodham Clinton, and us

I spent last week on vacation in central California and used my flight time to read two substantial books. The first was Michael Crichton's State of Fear, in which Crichton tried to debunk global warming, and the second was Carl Bernstein's biography of Hillary Clinton. I shall leave Crichton's most interesting polemic for another time. The Clinton biography left me profoundly depressed--all the more so because it has garnered so little attention. Bernstein worked very hard on it, and although it has in the end almost nothing to say about the last seven years of Senator Clinton's life, it provides plenty of food for thought--none of it very inspiring.

Both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton exemplify one of the things that has been going wrong with American politics for the last half-century--the critical importance of name recognition and fundraising contacts. Party leaders and party activists picked Presidential candidates exclusively until the early 1900s, when primaries began to come in. The party leaders, however, dominated the process right up until 1960--and that kept politics as more than a vehicle for personal ambition. The party leaders had to worry about one critical issue: who could win. They also knew that any candidate upon whom they settled could count on his party's established base, and upon a cadre of activists in swing states. But that whole tradition went up in smoke during the 1960s--and ever since then the nominating contests have been free-for-alls in which every candidate and his staff essentially care only about themselves.

Something else, meanwhile, had already transformed the process: the importance of national name recognition and, apparently, contacts with each party's leading fundraisers. Vice Presidents were the first to benefit from this development. Astonishingly, not a single Vice President (save those who actually had inherited the Presidency) ever even became a national candidate for President from John Adams until Richard Nixon, but Nixon inaugurated an entirely new trend. Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H. W. Bush and Al Gore all parlayed terms as Vice President into presidential candidacies, and Bob Dole even used an unsuccessful (and, actually, fairly disastrous) campaign for the office to turn himself into a national figure. Strikingly, Humphrey, the elder Bush and Gore had all failed even to get their parties' nominations in earlier runs for the Presidency, but four or eight years near the center of things were enough to make them front-runners, candidates, and, in one case, a President. Ronald Reagan meanwhile showed that an acting career could be an entry into high-level politics, and during the whole last third of the twentieth century only two obscure politicians, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, reached the White House under their own power. Both benefited from crowded primary fields during the early going.

George W. Bush and Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton represent a new stage in this process--they achieved national prominence through their family connection to Presidents. His father's Presidency "made my life," our current leader has generously acknowledged, and it is certainly hard to imagine him becoming President of the Texas Rangers or Governor of Texas without it. As for Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bernstein details at length, as others have done before, the myth that has held her inner circle together for 35 years--the idea that she would inevitably have become a Senator and probably a President had she not moved to Arkansas and married Bill Clinton. That this is possible I do not doubt, but to regard it as inevitable is almost incredibly naive, given the role that pure luck has always played in the making and unmaking of political careers. Hillary Clinton became a national figure because her husband became President. That, and that alone, gave her both the name recognition and the fund-raising contacts that enabled her to win election to the U.S. Senate and to secure the support of leading Democratic fundraisers in her race for the Presidency.

Today's New York Times confirms that Clinton is today a solid front-runner, even if her lead in national polls is bigger than any edge she has in the first three key states. I have to admit that I found this depressing even before reading Bernstein's book, and I find it even more so now. And at the risk of alienating still more liberals who cannot stand it when I identify similarities across party lines, I have to say that what struck me as much as anything as I read his well-researched book were the similarities between her and the man she wants to replace.

To be sure, I think Clinton would be a considerably better President than Bush, and her values are certainly much closer to mine; yet I put down this book wondering how much her values matter to her. The principle characteristic they share is an extraordinary self-righteousness, combined with a congenital inability to admit a mistake, much less a fault. Religion, surprisingly, plays a role in both cases. Clinton's Methodism has evidently given her, too, the sense that she is a soldier doing the Lord's work, and it has also given her a feeling of superiority over morally flawed beings, most notably her own husband. The investigations she and her husband had to cope with increased her self-righteousness. Here I am sympathetic--neither Whitewater nor the travel office firings nor the President's sexual escapades, in my opinion, would ever have become major controversies in a halfway rational world. Hillary Clinton felt persecuted, and she was right. Yet the fact remains, as Bernstein shows, that she made many misleading statements about her role in the travel office firings and her legal work for James McDougald and that her behavior generally showed a complete unwillingess to admit error. Meanwhile, her secrecy fetish (which seems to have if anything gotten worse during her Senate career) and her questionable political instincts had a lot to do with the catastrophic failure of the Clinton health care proposal. Loyal Democrats, of course, were willing to forgive all of this. They saved the President (rightly) from conviction on trivial charges, and she emerged from it all, astonishingly, as a liberal icon.

I am above all concerned about the possibility of her nomination for one reason: I am very doubtful that she can win. All the scandals of 1993-2001 will be revived in a general election campaign, and rumors of new romantic indiscretions on her husband's part already abound. (Once again, let me make myself clear--I do not think such issues should be a part of our political life--but in the era of Boomer self-righteousness, they have become such, and the genie cannot be put back in the bottle.) Simple electoral math is not encouraging. To win a Democrat must carry Florida or Ohio, and I see no particular reason to believe that Clinton can. She will surely energize the Republican base and contribute to the continuing polarization on social issues. Her candidacy may revive the war between the Clintons and the press. And meanwhile, it is not clear that her election would solve our most pressing problem.

As it turns out, Clinton has made one mistake over the last seven years--her vote for the Iraq war. And typically, she has explained that as some one else's fault, claiming to have believed that George W. Bush really did simply want a bargaining chip to get UN inspectors back into Iraq. (As my former Senator Lincoln Chafee--who has now left the Republican Party--pointed out in an op-ed some time ago, he had introduced the perfect resolution for anyone who took that view, but she did not vote for it.) In fact, I believe that she voted that way for three reasons: that it was the safe thing to do, that she was determined to prove that she could be as tough as any man, and that she feared annoying her large Jewish constituency, whose leaders were firmly behind the war. All those factors also suggest to me that she will not rapidly end the war, but rather try to show that she can make it a success. That would firmly enshrine our attempt to control the Middle East by force as national policy, and I don't think we can afford that.

That Hillary Clinton stands on the threshold of her party's nomination is a tribute both to the weaknesses of contemporary American politics and to her own ambition, energy, and ability to incarnate the aspirations of a significant minority of Americans. It is not, however, to me, anything to be very happy about. I hope that my fellow Democrats will think very hard about this decision. I'm for Obama.


The ad about General Petraeus was, in my opinion, unwise. Just because President Bush has given the general all responsibility for national strategy (in theory at least) is no reason why we should as well. Still, the following item from is of interest.

Before MoveOn's "General Betray Us," there was Limbaugh's "Senator Betrayus"

Summary: Rush Limbaugh has called the "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?" advertisement "contemptible" and "indecent," but months earlier, on his radio show, he told his audience that he had a new name for Senator Chuck Hagel: "Senator Betrayus." Though Limbaugh has taken exception to accusations that he has attacked the patriotism of his political opponents, the "Senator Betrayus" remark is one of several instances in which Limbaugh has done so.

On September 10,'s much-discussed advertisement headlined "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?" critical of Gen. David Petraeus, appeared in The New York Times. On the September 11 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh called the advertisement "contemptible" and "indecent." However, months earlier, on his radio show, he told his audience that he had a new name for Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE): "Senator Betrayus." On the January 25 broadcast (subscription required) of his radio show, Limbaugh broke from his commentary on an interview of Vice President Dick Cheney on the January 24 edition of CNN's The Situation Room to say: "By the way, we had a caller call, couldn't stay on the air, got a new name for Senator Hagel in Nebraska, we got General Petraeus and we got Senator Betrayus, new name for Senator Hagel." A day earlier, Hagel had sided with Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in voting to approve a nonbinding resolution declaring that Bush's escalation in Iraq was against "the national interest."


Nur-al-Cubicle said...

Thank you for making the point re: name recognition. It's a sad day when the "Evitas" and "Baby Docs" run for president of our country.

As to Hillary's savvy, when living in New York, I recall when candidate for Senator Hillary assumed the Hispanics of NYC were Cuban. And that was on the local level.

The jewel and velvet-draped Vogue photos of herself that were published in the aftermath of the Lewinsky scandal were very telling of her self-absorbed vanity.

Nur-al-Cubicle said...

I also meant to bring up the vengeance aspect of Bush Jr. and Hillary.

A lot of witty people compared Bush's invasion of Iraq to Inigo Montoya's (Princess Bride) obsession with avenging his father. I see in Hillary's presidential ambition a very marked desire for vengeance for her husband's betrayal.

She should have, as Ségolène Royal did to François Hollande, just said goodbye and walked out the front door.

But no...she either has some kind of odd loyalty or (more likely) needs the name recognition for her aspirations to power.

I live in the South now and you can't even mention Hillary's name without a guffaw or revulsion. If this is any sign of her chances of winning....Le Monde calls her an entertainment candidate.

V, Cobb said...

I believe Hillary Clinton is very dangerous for our country. Not only does she side step direct questions, her plans for 'hillary care' will cost us millions. Every time I see her on television I get sick to my stomach. I truly believe she does not care about the very people she is professing to stand up for. American's cannot afford her or her politics. She will never get my vote.

Matthew E said...

during the whole last third of the twentieth century only two obscure politicians, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, reached the White House.

Plus Ford, but that, of course, was different.

HoosierDaddy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
HoosierDaddy said...

Crichton seems to me to always be aiming at hubris. The particulars of the plot and character seem to always devolve to a really smart person facing off against an arrogant corporate entity full of empty suits. The smart person sees that the emperor has no clothes and ultimately their view of the situation is revealed as right. Interestingly in the examples I can think of offhand usually the "smart" character is not the protagonist. I guess that allows the wise one to lecture the reader in the guise of informing his fellow players.

On Hillary, the mad rush to move primaries forward seems to play to her name recognition advantage. Also this seems to be a bit of a "nudge,nudge, wink, wink" third term for Bill implicit in some of the folks pushing for her nomination. Rudy Guiliani is also in the race on the basis of happenstance name recognition. Had he not been mayor at the moment of the attacks I don't think he'd have much of a shot at national office.

I'm not sure what the ideal solution is. The founding fathers envisioned a group of electors who would be the well bred and well heeled choosing and electing the president but that idea never really became reality. Party Bosses picked some good presidents and some awful ones (and of course even then name recognition shaped the choices). Now we have the primary system which arose at the same time as the Television age.

NoZe said...

Name recognition has always played a role in American politics...would John Quincy Adams have gotten as far as he had had his father not been of the Founding persuasion?

A year ago, I might have agreed that Hillary would be a longshot for the presidency. I'm an Arkansan who worked on a couple of Bill's campaigns, and she doesn't inspire the same loyalty in me as he did.

However, now I think its hers to lose? Honestly, what Republican currently in the race or likely to enter could beat her? Giuliani won't play well in the South, evangelicals will stay home rather than vote for Romney, Thompson is proving to have been all hype, and McCain's moment has passed. Gingrich would certainly make it an interesting campaign, but he's more controversial even than Hillary!

In fact, I think its very likely that Hillary will carry Florida, and perhaps some border Southern states, something that a year ago would have been unthinkable for a northern Democrat!

I don't think she's running out of some sort of desire for Bill, I think she's wanted to be president pretty much her entire adult life. Not that there's anything wrong with that...many of our best presidents have actively pursued the office (of course, so have many of our worst!)

Anonymous said...

Consulting Michael Crichton re Global Warming is about as credible as consulting South African president Thabo Mbeki regarding the causes of AIDS.

Once again I am struck by the clarity of your insight into contemporary American politics and thank you for it. Sorry I can't get more people to read this blog.