Let’s just do it. Let’s get it over with. For better or worse. It can’t be as bad as some suppose. It might turn out to be better than we could imagine. Let’s bow to the inevitable. Let’s make Hillary President.
As I write, the votes for the midterm election haven’t been counted, but whatever the results, we are going to be staring in the face of maybe two straight years of 24/7 talk about Hillary Clinton, her virtues and vices, a woman President and what that will mean, yada, yada, yada, ad infinitum.
Can you bear it? Are we going to learn anything new from it? Is there any aspect of it that hasn’t been beaten to death with discussion and debate already? Isn’t there some way we can just get it over with, just give way to the unstoppable force of nature that is the junior Senator from New York?
Hasn’t she paid her dues, done her job, demonstrated a kind of solidity and poise in the face of relentless, nonstop microscopic scrutiny with barely a misstep? Hasn’t she suffered enough for her husband’s sins? Hasn’t she shown something we couldn’t be sure of when she was in the shadow of her husband: an ability to grow, to learn? Hasn’t she—no small task—become that complex cosmopolitan creature, a true New Yorker?
Yes, I’ve had problems with her in the past; I have some problems with her now. I’ve criticized her support for capital punishment, her refusal to support same-sex marriage rights (a position she seems to be edging away from since my column on the subject: “Gay Marriage Is Love; Why Are Chuck, Hillary Skittish on the Topic?”, The Observer, July 24, 2006; do I get credit?).
But isn’t it true that so many of what others see as her vices may turn out to be attributes as President? She’s “Machiavellian,” people say. But doesn’t a superpower need an effectively Machiavellian leader? “Machiavellian” doesn’t necessarily mean “unprincipled.” There’s a longstanding academic debate on the question of Machiavelli’s attitude toward principle: Was he advocating “Machiavellian” methods in the service of Enlightenment principle, and thus more of a pragmatic idealist than he’s given credit for? I think “Machiavellian” can mean “effectively principled.” There can be an idealistic Machiavellian: someone who knows how to get the right things done. I wish we lived in a world where good things happened by waving fairy dust at a problem and saying all the right things, but sometimes it takes more than that.
And what about global politics? It seems to me that any future international politics will be dominated by the clash of theocratic and Enlightenment values in one form or another, and a woman would be especially attuned to the need to resist the kind of woman-hating, woman-fearing theocratic movements that want to take back all the freedoms women have won in the past century. I think she knows this in a profound way that should give the woman-haters something real to fear.
“Well, what about the past—what about the health-care disaster?” you say. The point of that, I’d argue in retrospect, is that she was absolutely right about the disastrous American health-insurance system, but she didn’t know how to address it effectively, as a policy matter, as a political matter. She wasn’t Machiavellian enough at that point. But one thing one feels from observing her is that she doesn’t make the same mistake twice. Give her another shot at it.
What about “character,” what about the fuss that Hillary-haters make about the “missing” Whitewater billing records, for instance? The ones that went missing, then mysteriously showed up at a time more opportune for her. You really want to discuss them? Ken Starr couldn’t pin anything on her for them. O.K., I’m down, but first let me explain the genesis of my sudden “Hillary for President” conversion.
My Hillary Conversion
When I say “conversion,” I mean precisely that; it was a genuinely radical readjustment of my previous attitude. I came to realize that I had become imprisoned by calcified cynicism about Hillary. An inability to see beyond the conventional wise-guy attitude toward her that reduces everything about her to calculation and ambition and ignores an element of idealism that I think is real, however Machiavellian its means.
To shake off the shackles of conventional wisdom about Hillary requires several weeks of mind-control programming in a re-education camp (kidding!). Seriously, though, it requires one to be receptive to rethinking, re-evaluation, to be ready to be shaken up a bit out of old attitudes. For me, it required a trip to L.A. to acquire a new attitude toward our New York Senator.
Let me briefly recount my conversion narrative. I was in L.A. for my book tour (for The Shakespeare Wars), finding myself in an uncharacteristically good mood. The night before, I’d done a reading at one of my fave bookstores, Book Soup on Sunset. I was having a lunch in one of my favorite eating places there, Kate Mantilini on Wilshire, meeting with an interesting fellow, Rod Lurie, a former magazine writer who’d become a highly successful Hollywood writer/producer/director. Mr. Lurie had written and directed The Contender, a smart movie about a woman nominated for the Vice Presidency who faced down a Clintonian sex scandal; he’d gone on to create Commander in Chief, the short-lived TV hit in which Geena Davis played the first woman President (and was seen by many as an explicit advertisement for a Hillary candidacy, although I don’t think that’s necessarily the case).
He’d asked to meet to discuss a magazine story I’d done, but I was fascinated by his story. A West Point graduate, a boxing, sports-betting, Vegas-loving guy, he’d managed to use his skills in the service of movie and TV product that, I believe, measurably shifted the consciousness of the culture toward acceptance of a woman President. Gotta give Mr. Lurie props for that.
It’s something we all think is not impossible, even something that will almost certainly come to pass one day. We all take it for granted in theory, but it has yet to happen; making it real would be a major civil-rights victory. Yes, the “right” has already been “won,” but until it has become an accomplished fact, it’s really unwon (if not undone, in every sense of that word). It’s not about the theoretical right, but the actual job—and not for the perfect woman, but for someone who deserves the office as much as any male.
So, in a rare, expansive mood facilitated by the sublime corn chowder at Kate Mantilini, I was open to fresh thinking, and found myself prompted by Mr. Lurie’s dedication to the female-President cause to reassess Hillary. To abandon my knee-jerk cynicism about her. And to think that I should do my share to convince others to do so, too.
O.K., now let’s deal with the negatives, the “despites.” I’m not saying that I’m turning a blind eye to them.
I think it’s possible to favor Hillary despite her cattle-futures windfall (back when she was Arkansas’ First Lady, she made almost $100,000 in 10 months with money advanced on margin by a corporate Clinton supporter when, in fact, it’s not clear that her trading acumen—as opposed to special treatment for the wife of a governor—was responsible for the distribution of the windfall). No one was charged with a crime, but I think she’s too smart not to have known that something fishy was going on.
It’s a difficult question, but I feel that she must have learned a lesson from this. It’s not an excuse, but she must have realized something about the subtle ways that money can corrupt politics. It was a mistake—call it a moral failing. But let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Isn’t most campaign fund-raising a slightly less blatant form of that kind of cattle-futures-trading bribery?
And I think you can be for Hillary despite the Whitewater billing-records problem, although I admit the affair still mystifies me. But say we think the worst of what happened—I just don’t think it’s enough of a blot on her past, on her character, to disqualify her.
What about the other candidates, then? As someone who’s never voted for a Republican in his life, I’d like to find a Dem that I could feel enthusiastic about. I wrote a column endorsing John Kerry in 2004, but without much enthusiasm. I like John Edwards, but is he a winner? What it really comes down to is: What about Obama? And I don’t have any good answer for that. Either he or Hillary would represent a historic civil-rights breakthrough—and I don’t think that one precludes the other. One could succeed the other; one could run with the other. But if that’s your only objection, then join the movement to have everyone else but those two drop out. That means you, Joe Biden. That means you, Al Gore. That means you, John Kerry.
DESPITE MY NEWFOUND EVANGELICAL ENTHUSIASM for Hillary, I thought it worthwhile running my argument about a woman President—and Hillary specifically—past at least one woman. The one I chose, a smart journalist, didn’t much like the Hillary idea. She wasn’t arguing against a woman President; she was just unconvinced by the argument that some make: that we need a woman President regardless of the beliefs or character of the woman in question (i.e., the Liddy Dole problem).
She had another suggestion for a candidate, though. I’m not sure whether it was just a debating point, but it was a good one. What about Tammy Duckworth, she said, a woman she’d met and written about and had limitless admiration for.
Do you know about Tammy Duckworth, the Black Hawk helicopter pilot who had her legs blown off and her arm shattered in Iraq, but who survived and, in an incredible act of strength, character and courage, rehabbed herself (with the help of her husband) to the point where she was able to make a run for Congress as a Democrat in a traditionally Republican Illinois district—and where, as of this writing, the race is too close to call? No, Tammy Duckworth doesn’t have the usual executive-office experience. But look where the usual executive-office experience has gotten us.
O.K., I can see it. Both are stories of women who overcame wounds of a certain kind and might even have the strength to heal and inspire the nation. True, uniting people is—so far—not what Hillary is known for. It will be her last hurdle, and there will always be Hillary-haters that she’ll never convert. But she can win over the doubters; she’s won me over. Who knows? She’s shown herself capable of surprising us in so many other ways.
In any case, guys—you male Presidential candidates in both parties—it’s time to step aside this time.