Politics, Personalities and The Understanding

To my mind the biggest question about Donald Trump, as I wrote back in January, is whether he represents a paradigm shift for Republicans or merely a passing phenomenon – whether he’s Barry Goldwater or, say, John Anderson. (Remember John Anderson? Probably not, and that’s the point.) As Matt Sitman noted here yesterday, an article in the Times last week by Michael Lind,  titled “Trumpism and Clintonism are the Future,” argued for the Goldwater model, portraying Trump as avatar of a new Republican Party – and identifying parallel shifts on the Democratic side. The article is worth reading, even if you don’t agree with all of it.

But for now I’m going to put politics to one side and focus on personalities. The other night we watched on TV as Hillary fielded the question from the little girl about whether she, Hillary, would get the same pay as President that a man would. Hillary nimbly answered with a laughing rejoinder that elicited mirth while scoring a good political point. My wife and daughter cheered aloud. But my response was more grudging – as I find it often is to Hillary. I have no doubt she’ll be a capable President, and I expect to vote for her. But I don’t warm to her, and I’m hard-pressed to say why. Polls show all the candidates garnerning unprecedented personal negatives. I get that when it comes to Ted Cruz (smug self-aggrandizing weasel universally despised by his colleagues) and Trump (well, Trump). But why does Hillary inspire such dislike? 

While no one should underestimate the resentment that confronts a powerful woman, I think there’s something Hillary-specific in the grudging responses she elicits. Many observers, not least Bernie Sanders, have noted her willingness to abandon positions (Iraq, Nafta, etc) once they become disadvantageous. Such flexibility may help Trump’s epithet of “Crooked Hillary” stick come fall. (Btw, has anyone noticed how brilliant is Trump’s populist demagoguery in tagging opponents with derisive two-word nicknames like Lyin’ Ted, Little Marco, and Crooked Hillary? These quaint riffs on gunslinger monikers allow him to slander opponents while broadcasting a folksy, Mark Twain kind of frontier American charm.) But the animus goes deeper than whatever is contained in “Crooked Hillary” – and farther back, too. I think it traces to Hillary’s stint as First Lady. One part is her role in the failed health-care reform, where she came off as naive, politically unskilled and self-righteous (errors she assiduously corrected in her subsequent political career.) The other part, in my view, has to do with her behavior during the Lewinsky scandal. So lets take a trip back down the sordid byway of Monicagate. 

Bill Clinton’s grand-jury testimony in August 1998 followed months of revelations, allegations and denials, and by the time he was compelled to account for himself, there was little mystery about what he would say, and how: Talmudic-grade legalese for the lawyers (“it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”) with a public mea culpa for the rest of us, choreographed down to the last Presidential lip-nibble. More interesting was what Hillary would say. Her show of solidarity through all Bill‘s denials inspired admiration and curiosity. Was she standing by her man, Tammy Wynette-style, after all? Did she believe him when he insisted that he “never had sex with that woman”? What did she know about his infidelity, and when did she know it? Such questions boiled down to the essential question: what kind of marriage did the First Couple really have?

Of course it is unseemly, however enjoyable, to indulge in idle speculation about other people’s marriages. But in this case it was irresistible, if only for what it might disclose about how different a marriage of ambitious politicians could be from yours and mine. What was the sinned-against Hillary really thinking and feeling – and what was she saying to Bill? There was the “hell hath no fury” scenario, in which she had finally recognized her husband as an incorrigible philanderer and had given up on him. She wouldn’t divorce him while he was still in office, but when the moving vans pulled away from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., they’d go in different directions. Then there was the “circle the wagons” scenario, in which Hillary didn’t necessarily believe him, and was hopping mad, but her anger had been eclipsed by indignation at what she perceived as an orchestrated and cynical attack on him and on the Presidency. This scenario left the couple with plenty to work out, but at least with the solace and distraction of shared enemies.   

The third and most tantalizing scenario could be called “The Understanding.” In this version of Hillary and Bill, the question of whether she believed him was irrelevant, since the two had long ago – perhaps from the start? – decided on a marriage of convenience, created to serve mutual ambitions. Duties in such an arrangement would be not connubial but political; husband and wife would lean on each other as advisors, strategists, etc., but get their ancillary passions fulfilled elsewhere.

Of course, many societies have comprehended marriage as other than a romantic institution -- and the marriages of leaders, often serving dynastic and political functions, most of all. But this was America in 1998, not England in 1888; in our modern democracy, we want to believe certain things about marriage, and want our leaders to believe them too. Well, what if our leaders don’t? What if Bill and Hillary were playing a different game altogether? Would we sit still for that? Or would that violate taboos more sacred than those against messing around with a White House intern?

It was interesting to see that aside from partisan players, and despite media attempts to whip up a frenzy around the Lewinsky story, Americans by and large showed reluctance to impeach Bill Clinton -- a crawl to judgment that at the time was attributed variously to moral apathy, resentment of tabloid sensationalism, or stupefied satisfaction with the 90s economic boom. The truth is that when push came to shove, most Americans showed themselves able to separate the political and public from the personal and private. Infidelity, we decided, was a marital crisis, not a constitutional one; and that meant Hillary should do the husband-whacking, not Ken Starr or Congress. If her guy messed around, she should throw the galoot’s things out the window. No need to drag dirty presidential laundry into the Senate, in other words, when there was hell to pay at home.

But what if there was no hell to pay? What if Hillary didn’t toss out her straying man, or even ream him out? What if the only trouble with their marriage was that it was untroubled, at least by such conventional transgressions as a sexual liaison? In The Understanding, sin doesn’t inhere in such trivial indiscretions as sleeping with a young intern, but only in the risk such actions pose to reputation and thus to the fulfillment of future ambitions. Sloppiness, not faithlessness, is the transgression. The lethally cool presidential marriage depicted in the TV drama House of Cards is said to have a Shakespearean inspiration, but there’s surely a touch of Bill and Hillary too.

This leads back to what bothers many about Hillary, and to the role she seems destined to play in this year’s presidential race. Where Bernie is the True Believer, Cruz the Gloating Know-It-All, and Trump the Brash Billionaire Bully, Hillary is Lady MacBeth-cum-Norman Vincent Peale. In her, ambition for power meets the power of positive thinking.  Such a divided character isn’t easy to feel at home with. Bill Clinton’s ambitions synched up perfectly with his personality; he loved the limelight as ardently as he sought the presidency. This unity of politics and personality is what made him such a formidable campaigner. Put simply (and as the indelible opening scene of Primary Colors captured), Bill loved the whole shebang. Hillary, in comparison, seems averse to a lot of it. But with many years of practice she has learned to put up a front of determined positivity that by now is nearly seamless. Where Obama has never been able to hide his distaste for politics – the smile that crosses his face often betrays admixtures of irony and impatience -- Hillary has mastered the Big Glowing Dazzle. She has steeled herself.

Steely determination is good in a president. But steely cheerfulness doesn’t exactly endear. Nor does it play well at a moment when voters seem to be demanding authenticity. It makes one’s response – well, grudging. It gives us the sense of a politician who would put ambition before almost anything else, including a wife’s rage at betrayal and humiliation. It is ironic that Hillary may find herself being punished now for not having punished Bill back then, or ever.

 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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