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Today is filled by two long-form pieces on H. Clinton by two of our favorites. Andrew Ferguson is first.
When news broke this spring about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s appetite for other people’s money and their indifference to other people’s rules, I was rereading my way through a shelf of old Hillary biographies. My memory thus was doubly stimulated. In the fresh revelations, as in the books, the traits of the Clintons were spread out for a new generation to marvel at: the furtiveness, the shifting accounts of hazy events, the parsing of language, the bald and unnecessary denial of often trivial facts (did she have two phones or one?). Her admirers, old and young, veteran and novice alike, were faced with the Hillary Paradox.
The paradox is a problem only for her admirers, and as it happens I read only books about the Clintons that are written by their admirers, on the general principle that you can learn more about someone from his friends than from his enemies. Besides, with a few notable exceptions—most recently, Peter Schweizer’s Clinton Cash and Daniel Halper’s Clinton, Inc.—books written by skeptics and detractors are almost psychotically hostile to Mrs. Clinton. I don’t need any encouragement.
The Hillary Paradox consists of two perceptions that are irreconcilable. The first is that Hillary Clinton is a person of uncommon decency, compassionate and deeply committed to justice. The second is that many of her actions over many years are the work of a person who couldn’t possibly be uncommonly decent. How could someone with a wonderful reputation so often behave disreputably? …
… Bernstein approvingly quotes a Clinton aide: “She’s happiest when she’s fighting.” Once, as another Bill Clinton womanizing story broke in the press during the 1992 campaign, Hillary turned mildly to the writer Gail Sheehy and told her she should follow up a rumor Hillary had heard about George H.W. Bush’s “extramarital life.” She even gave Sheehy a name to pursue. Sheehy declined the offer—she had interviewed the woman several years before. (Hillary soon found a willing buyer in a courtier journalist named Joe Conason, who wrote up the probably false story of Bush’s “affair” for the cover of Spy magazine a few months before the fall election.)
Sheehy perceived in the episode another trait of Hillary the fighter. No matter what fight you were in, the other side started it. All offense is payback. She explained to Sheehy, with a sincere but dubious grasp of political history: “In 1980, Republicans started negative advertising. In 1992, [they] have paid political assassination. What Bill doesn’t understand is, you gotta do the same thing.” The crucial word here is Republican. Belligerence is not a quality normally admired by the kind of people who admire Hillary. But they’ll make the exception, considering the enemy and the stakes. …
…The typical Clinton scandal follows a pattern, as the biographies show. Husband or wife commits a shabby indiscretion. Bill will snap the garters of an employee, for instance, or Hillary will befriend unsavory characters in a scheme to make easy money. Except for Bill’s admitted perjury before a federal judge in the Lewinsky scandal, the Clintons are rarely shown to have violated a law. So, whatever the indiscretion, it is probably legal. But it is mean. And its uncovering could threaten the idea that the couple has no motives beyond “uplifting the American people,” in Bill’s phrase.
The indiscretion lies there, out of sight, for weeks or months or years. Then someone finds out about it. Panic ensues. Staff is enlisted to ensure that outsiders believe the indiscretion either didn’t occur or was the work of functionaries. The indiscretion inflates into a scandal when this effort fails. The functionaries, and usually the Clintons themselves, resort to misdirection, bogus legalism, and shifting narratives so complicated that most observers grow bored, then exhausted, then distracted by something else.
The scandal called “Travelgate” was the first controversy to emerge from the White House bearing this Clinton trademark. Travelgate is the idiotic name the press gave to the abrupt firing of employees in the White House travel office, allegedly on grounds of sloppy bookkeeping. The office handled travel arrangements for staff and press on the president’s out-of-town trips. After the firings its work was meant to be handed over to a 25-year-old friend of the Clintons from Arkansas and a wealthy Clinton benefactor who owned a fledgling aviation company. It was a plum: The travel account could generate as much as $40,000 a day in business. The White House credential alone would be an invaluable boost to the benefactor’s company. …
…The Hillary Paradox—that a woman of such excellent character should be capable of such tawdriness and worse—the paradox vanishes if you drop the first part of the proposition. Her reputation for good character, after all, rests largely on simple assertion, on what she says as a public figure, on her politics, rather than on what she’s done. Leave aside the politics, and the shabby behavior is easily explainable: She does what she does because she is who she is.
But renouncing their admiration is precisely what supporters of Hillary Clinton can’t bring themselves to do. Otherwise her enemies might win.
It is odd the things they will swallow, and odd the things they choke on. …
Matthew Continetti is next.
… Her husband campaigned in the ’90s as a tough-on-crime neoliberal who would lock up criminals, even put them to death, who challenged the racism of Sister Souljah, promised to “mend” affirmative action, worked hard to recover the Democratic position in white working class precincts. Hillary was his active partner. Nor did she denounce her husband’s policies when she ran for Senate in 2000 and 2006 and for president in 2008, when the chances of her nomination rested on her ability to win “beer track” white and Hispanic Democrats.
It is only today, when the Democratic Party of Barack Obama has veered left, written off the white working class, and been seized by a practically religious enthusiasm for cultural reformation and purgation, that Clinton has called for an “end to the era of mass incarceration,” said America has “to face hard truths about race and justice,” and launched a campaign, in the words of the New York Times, “focused more on mobilizing supporters in the Great Lakes states and in parts of the West and South than on persuading undecided voters.”
What we have, on issue after issue, is a presidential frontrunner uninterested in leadership, who holds an ambivalent attitude toward notions of political courage and intellectual independence, who is devoted exclusively and mechanically to the capture of high office. …
… Clinton isn’t the first politician who’s inconsistent—far from it. What she and her husband have pioneered is a mode of inconsistency, an entire lifestyle of ideological flexibility the goal of which isn’t public-minded but wholly self-interested. “The only way a man can remain consistent amid changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose,” Churchill wrote in “Consistency in Politics” (1932). But the dominating purpose Churchill had in mind was a public one: the common good. And the pursuit of the common good often requires the statesman to disagree with public opinion—to challenge his base, or indeed the majority.
Earlier this year Bill Clinton identified the dominant purpose behind his family’s inconsistency: “I gotta pay our bills.” …
…The maintenance of what Mickey Kaus calls the “Clinton mode of production” requires at least one member of the family to hold office, so that powerful and wealthy people might obtain a frisson of access and influence through financial gift-giving. What the Clintons understand is that the easiest way to hold office, and thereby keep up the mansions and private jets and villas and beach vacations, is to flatter and cater to the ever-changing morality and self-conception of the liberal ruling caste, to understand what troubles their guilty consciences, to put yourself forward as the representative of their fluctuating and malleable concerns.
Such an approach requires a canny operator able to obscure changes in policy behind a smooth veneer of likability and guile—and if we have learned anything so far in this campaign it is that Hillary Clinton is not such an operator. She is clumsy, stilted, tentative, suspicious, rehearsed, monotonous.
For a bonus, we inserted into the Continetti article a couple of Hillary 2008 campaign buttons with a Confederate flag motif.