Last Tuesday Hillary Rodham Clinton was generally at her most appealing as both she and Barack Obama basked in the appreciation of a big-time Hollywood crowd. The two seem set for a long battle, and the Democratic Party is suddenly going to learn how its rules work in a close-well-funded race. As I noted two weeks ago, I was very encouraged by the interview she gave the New York Times on the economy, and she certainly has moved a long way on Iraq, promising a relatively rapid withdrawal in a frantic attempt to re-connect with the mass of Democratic primary voters. Unfortunately, every week something seems to happen that sets me to wondering who she really is, whether she can win, and what kind of President she can actually be.
Last week's exhibit A was a long interview with George Packer of The New Yorker. in which she discussed her idea of the Presidency. It read, in part:
Clinton is presenting herself as the candidate who is tough and knowledgeable enough to fix the broken systems of government: the intelligence agencies, the Justice Department, the legislative process, the White House itself. Last week, speaking on the phone from California, she said that a President allows advisers to oversee the running of government at his or her peril. “Otherwise, you cede too much authority, and although it may not be immediately apparent to the public, the government picks up on those signals,” she said. “What we now know about how Dick Cheney basically controlled the information going to Bush means that we’ll never really know how much responsibility Bush should be assumed to have taken with respect to serious decisions. The water will flow downstream, and often pool in great reservoirs of power that will then be taken advantage of by those who have been smart enough to figure out how to pull the levers. And I know from my own experience, and certainly watching how deeply involved Bill was in those areas that he thought were important, what it takes to try to get the government to respond. It’s not easy. We’re talking about this massive bureaucracy . . . and you have to be prepared on Day One to basically wrest the power away in order to realize the goals and vision that you have for the country". . .
If elected President, Clinton acknowledged, she would have to use unifying rhetoric and reach across partisan lines. But Clinton is less sanguine than Obama is about the possibilities of such efforts; she is readier to march ahead and let those who will follow do so. “It’s also important to say, ‘Look, there are certain things we have to do as a country. You may not agree, but let me explain why, and let me try to persuade you. But if I can’t persuade you, we have to go forward anyway.’ And I think that that kind of understanding of the combination of using the bully pulpit but also producing results—managing the government so it doesn’t manage you, so it does act as an instrument of the policies you’re actually implementing—will give proof to what it is I’m saying.”
Everyone who deals with Senator Clinton remarks on her excellent preparedness and knowledge of issues, and those were certainly on display the other night. Yet I must say I shivered a bit as I read the above words, because they seem to me to express a philosophy very similar to that of the Bush Administration, which had no trust in the bureaucracy either and has repeatedly found ways to insist upon its will (even if, as I am beginning to understand, it rarely had the tenacity to follow through or resolve its own contradictions.) If Clinton's statements do not amount to a declaration that Mother Knows Best, I don't know what would. And meanwhile, I do not remember Bill Clinton as a President particularly skilled at moving the federal bureaucracy, much less putting impressive programs through Congress, either--with the exception of his upper-bracket tax increase during his first year in office. Nor does it make me feel any better that her presumed choice for Secretary of State, Richard Holbrooke, is one of the more difficult personalities to have made his way through Washington in recent years, while Wesley Clark, I happen to know, hasn't been very popular with people who worked for him, either.
Exhibit B, from yesterday's Times, probably isn't very significant, but as regular readers will already know, it touched one of my buttons. In a long story about the development of her views on race, she had to acknowledge that her father was basically a bigot. There's no shame in that. John F. Kennedy was rather astonished in 1960 when, after a telephone call sprung Martin Luther King, Jr. from a Georgia jail, King Sr. announced that while he had planned to vote for Nixon because he didn't want a Catholic President, he had changed his mind. "Imagine Martin Luther King having a bigot for a father!," JFK said, and added wryly, "Well, we all have fathers, don't we." Her father Hugh Rodham, the Times reported (evidently on her say-so), "was not shy about flinging prejudices across the dinner table. 'He had the views that people of that age and time did,' Mrs. Clinton said." It is of course fashionable among our contemporaries, particularly in academia (Hillary and I are exactly the same age, and I had dates with perhaps half a dozen of her classmates while in college) to assume that the United States was composed entirely of racists before about 1968, but of course, that is not true. Outside the South, her father's views were not mainstream for that time and place, and it was contemporaries of her father, obviously, who passed the great civil rights bills of 1964 and 1965. I am not trying to imply anything about her own views, and I think it's childish for Christopher Edley, a black law professor at Berkeley, to hold her support for Goldwater at the age of 17 against her in the same article, but it simply isn't fair to millions of other members of the GI generation to suggest that bigotry was the norm.
Clinton's worst moment in the debate, of course, was her attempt to explain her vote for the Iraq war and her opposition to the excellent Levin amendment. As Wolf Blitzer (whose career never ceases to amaze me, since he lacks intelligence, charisma, and good looks) gently tried to point out, anyone who didn't realize that President Bush was determined on war was being shockingly naive. She obviously favored war too in the fall of 2002 and she should say so. That, however, is ancient history, and she certainly seems committed to withdrawal now--but so did Richard Nixon in 1968.
We are going to learn a lot about both Clinton and Obama in the months to come. Among other things, if the nomination fight remains close--and everything suggests it will--I predict that there will be a classic convention fight over seating delegates from two large states, Michigan and Florida, who have supposedly been deprived of representation because they insisted on holding early primaries. Clinton may claim, not only that they should get their seats back (a reasonable proposition, all the more so since Florida at least is a swing state), but that she deserves most of them for her supporters because of her decision to campaign there. That, like Hubert Humphrey's attempt to take about half the California delegates from George McGovern in 1972, would be changing the rules in the middle of the game, but that has happened plenty of times before. If Clinton is nominated, I hope she can win. I hope she will be a great President. I just wish I really had any confidence in either one.