Thursday, February 1, 2007

Hillary & Me. Can this relationship be saved?

I really want to be excited about Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Six years ago, when she was first running for her senate seat, I was positively giddy over the prospect of a second Clinton presidency. Something’s happened though, in the interim. I couldn’t tell you exactly what, or precisely when, but things just aren’t the same between us these days.

There’ve been moments, these last few weeks, when those old feelings returned. The first time I heard her say, “I’m in it, and I’m in to win,” almost made me cry. After all, this is the first time we’ve had a woman taken seriously as a presidential contender, and for an unreconstructed feminist like myself, that is a big, big, deal. It’s not impossible she’ll get my primary vote on that basis alone. Her quip about being well prepared for dealing with “bad, evil, men,” in Iowa a couple of weeks ago, I thought was a brilliant way of beginning to defuse the three hundred pound gorilla of a husband who’ll be following her to every campaign stop. And, it was just funny. Did you know Hillary had it in her to be that funny? I watch these things like a hawk, and I hadn’t had a clue. She gave a great speech to the DNC’s winter meeting last weekend, the sight of which, again, got me all weepy. As has, for the last week, the music she chose for that appearance, the Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” I’ve never really given that song a moment’s thought, till now, so some subliminal pull or other must be pulling me along.

You might well be thinking, at this point, that I’ve just listed an awful lot of moments for someone who’s telling you she’s ambivalent about Clinton’s campaign. Fair enough. The thing is, though, that those moments which have moved me so, all have one thing in common. They are all about the ridiculous amount of simple political talent that seems to attach itself to anyone carrying the Clinton family name. Hillary isn’t quite up to her husband’s level in that department, at least not yet, but hardly anyone is. And she is catching up quickly, getting better and better with each day of her national campaign. Like an armchair quarterback awestruck by anyone’s beautifully thrown pass, I am a sucker for a brilliant politician. I am not so easily impressed in this department, I don’t think, but when I am, it’s serious.

A moment as simple as the joke Clinton made in Iowa, “Question was: What in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?" followed by a pause, and a full thirty one seconds of laughter from the audience, can take my breath away. Think about everything that was happening in that one moment. First, as I mentioned earlier, Hillary was inviting her potentially problematic past into the room, and treating it like an old familiar friend. Brilliant. And she did it in a funny, unscripted seeming, kind of way. Better yet. How much have we read, and heard, about her lack of spontaneity on the campaign trail? What better way to begin to quell that criticism could anyone have come up with? Then there’s the “likability factor” we keep hearing about where she’s concerned. Who’s more likable than a wronged wife, who’s been strong enough to keep her marriage together despite her husband’s infamously bad behavior, and sassy enough to joke about it? In one fell swoop, she’s winning our sympathy, reminding us she doesn’t actually need it, and letting us off the hook for having thought she might. Suddenly, she’s passing that clichéd test of coming across as someone who’d probably be a lot of fun to go for drinks with. This moment makes me fall back in love with Hillary, more than a little bit.

As Hillary’s political talents blossom on the national stage, they do inevitably call to mind her husband’s. Simply the sound of Bill Clinton’s voice on a PSA about disaster preparedness can make me ache with nostalgia for the days when America was a country that had the common courtesy to leave things like torture in the hands of highly trained professionals, who kept it to a highly classified minimum. I was hardly the biggest fan of his presidency, but it was always hard to keep that in mind when he got up to give a speech. The big question about him in my mind has always been, what does he really believe in? And now the same question keeps coming up about Hillary. I’ve never doubted that they both had real principles, but it can be hard to see what those are, behind all the charm, and political pragmatism. Trying to sort that out, where Hillary’s concerned seems to lead me, inevitably, downtown. All the way down to the World Trade Center site, to be exact.

For all the personal and political criticism Hillary Clinton attracts, I’ve yet to find anyone who finds fault with her performance as New York’s junior senator in these last six years. Down in DC, as a member of the minority party, she’s been impressive in her ability to reach across the aisle, and actually get her priorities included in legislation as it passed through the Senate. Here in her adopted home state, Clinton’s garnered wide praise for her commitment to constituent services. Nowhere do these two lines of thought and work intersect so clearly as at Ground Zero.

Senator Clinton has been consistent and effective in her advocacy for the people and businesses still suffering from the effects of 9/11. Most recently, she’s brought attention, both public and presidential, to the devastating respiratory health problems being faced by 9/11’s first responders. At first glance, this might not seem like such a big deal. Who doesn’t want to be publicly associated with America’s heroes, after all? The difference I see here, though, is that Clinton’s achieved tangible benefits for people who have been generally left out of the public discourse around 9/11 and its aftermath, and she’s done so without a lot of political grandstanding. She’s not going around to firehouses doing exciting photo-ops, rather, she’s putting her own high profile to good use, on issues like lower Manhattan’s air quality post 9/11, that nobody else is mentioning much on the national stage anymore.

So I keep wondering, what does Hillary have to gain politically by trying to keep these subjects part of our national conversation? Honestly, I don’t see much. Once she’d won her first senate race, there was little danger she’d lose the second. If there had been, it certainly wouldn’t have been coming from Manhattan. As far as her presidential campaign goes, New York’s been a pretty sure state for her, in both the primary and general elections, from day one. Granted, she’s hardly taking a risky stand on this, but time spent on first responders’ health problems is diverted from other issues that might carry more political capital.

Assuming I’m correct in my political calculus, what do I at least think all this tells me about Hillary Clinton’s principles? It’s reminding me I’ve always been convinced of both the Clinton’s devotion to an ideal of public service. Remember Americorps, for instance? Bill’s pet project, in which two years of public service were rewarded with college tuition assistance? It still exists, by the way.

The right wing has been very successful in portraying the Clintons as a matched set of power hungry self-promoters. Constant repetition of any talking point can be a shockingly effective political tool. However, endless repetition, hardly makes something true. There are more effective ways of satiating an appetite for power than personally engaging in electoral politics. Just ask Bill Gates, George Soros, or Rupert Murdoch. If power had been the only item on the agenda, they could far more easily have set out to make themselves huge piles of money, and enjoyed the power that brings one in postmodern America. Instead they chose the expensive and risky path of politics. Even elephants, you know, have moments of inspired altruism.

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