Anti-Clintonism: A Description of the Symptoms
This was intended to be a quick post during my lunch break Friday, but it kept growing, so I waited until Sunday to finish it.
Dave’s technically-not-a-question (in a comment a few days ago) about the reasons why so many people detest Hillary Clinton so much has had me thinking about the reasons for this dislike. My flippant answer—“if you have to ask you’ll never know”—is correct in that the core of this dislike is something that one either sees or does not see. And although Mrs. Clinton seems to attract more of this ire from a broader range of people than does her husband, millions feel the same way about him. It doesn’t really have that much to do with anything that the Clintons have or have not done politically; it’s a perception of the sort of people they are. Although naturally most of the Clintons’ enemies are on the political right, it’s not at all uncommon to hear those on the left confess that they, too, find the former First Couple somehow odious.
So in a spirit of scientific inquiry I have assembled a few samples of Clinton dislike that happened to be handy. I think they are representative enough to serve as clinical specimens. Consider them as data representing a set of symptoms; I will leave it to the reader to decide whether the symptoms are part of a pathological condition or are the reaction of a healthy system to a pathogen. I don’t want to get bogged down in that, or in the question of which Republicans are even worse, or how much so. I admit to being among the anti-Clintonites, but here I’m only trying to describe the phenomenon.
One prominent theme among anti-Clintonites is a conviction that the Clintons combine dishonesty with self-righteousness. This combination is detestable to most people, so the fundamental division between those who like and those who dislike the Clintons is not so much a political one as a question of whether they have this perception. (NB: my apologies if the links to The Atlantic below block non-subscribers; I can access them but that may be because I am a subscriber and am “remembered” as such on my computer.)
Few conservatives, for instance, have denounced Mrs. Clinton as colorfully and thoroughly as Camille Paglia, who intends to vote for her if she’s the Democratic nominee, but nevertheless says:
...Hillary herself, with her thin, spotty record, tangled psychological baggage, and maundering blowhard of a husband, is...a brittle, relentless manipulator with few stable core values who shuffles through useful personalities like a card shark (“Cue the tears!”). Forget all her little gold crosses: Hillary’s real god is political expediency. Do Americans truly want this hard-bitten Machiavellian back in the White House?
Maureen Dowd, also on the left, is probably not throughly anti-Clinton but nevertheless considers Mrs. Clinton a cynical manipulator:
Yet, in the end [of the New Hampshire campaign], [Mrs. Clinton] had to fend off calamity by playing the female victim, both of Obama and of the press.
Caitlin Flanagan of The Atlantic, a more or less conventional liberal who really wants to like Hillary Clinton, describes the failure of that attempt. I think her introductory anecdote about Socks the cat is probably as significant as any larger story in illuminating the sources of anti-Clintonism:
When I first heard, during the strange final days of Bill Clinton’s presidency, that the first couple were going to jettison Socks, the family cat, I assumed that it was one of those weird rumors that attach themselves to the Clintons, in this case one easily dispelled: a single photograph of the kitty happily curled up on a window seat in his new home, and that would be the end of it. But then, as so often happens with weird rumors that attach themselves to the Clintons, the story turned out to be 100 percent true.
A conservative evangelical wonders why he may vote for Obama even though he wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton:
I cannot escape the reality that personality, tone and even voice qualities are shaping my preferences. I recognize that Obama is to Hillary’s left on some important points, and I find myself not caring. The thought of living with Hillary’s schoolmarm demeanor, her cackle and all the baggage of Clintonism greatly agitates me. I feel no such dread about an Obama presidency.
And a commentor on that thread says:
While I don’t agree with Obama’s policy directions (what I know of them) I at least get the sense that he might be honest (though it is more a gut feeling than evidence at this moment) and if a democrat were to be elected as pres. I would rather have him than Hilary because at least I think there is a better chance of getting the truth from him, I hope.
Here is an attempt by Jonah Goldberg, a National Review conservative, to analyze the phenomenon. The column ranges far and wide, and you really need to read the whole thing to get the full picture, but here is one important point:
There is something distinctly baby-boomer in everything he does, but most of all in his eagerness to be a victim....
And there is something that makes people hate Bill Clinton that goes beyond personifying the worst aspects of his generation. He is a liar. He lies about big things and small things. He lies when it might be necessary and he lies when it is necessary not to lie. He takes offense when confronted with his lies because he considers that a form of blame, and we know what he thinks about blame. And because he believes words are a substitute for action, he considers questioning his words mean-spirited and reactionary.
Goldberg also has what I think is a telling comparison of Clinton and Nixon, and I think he’s right in that the similarities between the two are striking. Whether you think this unfair to one or the other, I think it’s plainly true that both were loathed by their political opponents less for what they actually did than for the sort of men they were (those old enough to remember know that Nixon was deeply loathed by the left, and unloved by much of the right, long before Watergate). And it’s worth noting something that I don’t think Goldberg mentions: that both Nixon and the Clintons communicate a strong and personal malice for their political opponents, which naturally tends to produce an equal and opposite reaction.
I myself am sympathetic to the evangelical quoted above. Barack Obama is if anything further from my own political views than is Mrs. Clinton, and I hope he isn’t elected, but if he is his presence in the office will not be a constant annoyance to me in the way that Mrs. Clinton’s would. Here is my attempt to describe and explain my own anti-Clintonism.
And, lastly, backing away from the immediate question and taking a larger view, here is a lengthy piece by Andrew Sullivan from the December 2007 Atlantic in which he rather breathlessly lauds Obama’s candidacy as a path toward escaping the ruinous partisanship of the last twenty or thirty years. I disagree with a great many of the details of what Sullivan says, but I think there’s more than a little truth in his central insight: that our present divisions are rooted in those of the 1960s and will probably only be transcended by people who were not formed by those times. Sullivan’s essay is, at a minimum, real food for thought.
Let me emphasize, again, that I’m not insisting that the anti-Clintonites are right. I think we are, of course, but that argument will always be inconclusive (and therefore tiresome); I’m only trying to get at the question of why they/we react to the Clintons as we do.