Is Hillary Clinton Eleanor Roosevelt?
Hitchens, Christopher, The American Enterprise
I attended Oxford with Bill Clinton (at one point sharing a girlfriend in common--she later became a radical lesbian), so I have a deep-rooted understanding of both the President and the President's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton. And I regard both of them as partly a consummation of the 1960s, and partly a negation of their era.
Mrs. Clinton's call in It Takes a Village for sexual abstinence among teenagers, for instance, may be the furthest she's gone from what would have been predicted. It's probably her most ironic advice. But there have been many other similarly unexpected pronouncements that I wouldn't have expected to hear from a spokeswoman for her particular slice of her narcissistic generation.
Steadfastly building a double personality, Mrs. Clinton has alternately presented herself in two very distinct lights. First, as a deadly tough and strong woman, assertive, and out on her own. Second, in the mode of the simpering female, quick to take offense, easily resorting to self-pity, claiming to be vulnerable. In short, she presents herself as either the Amazon or the weak sob-sister.
Let me give you an example. When asked how it was she couldn't remember any of the facts about her infamous cattle futures trading, Mrs. Clinton replied, batting her eyelashes, that, Well, she was pregnant with Chelsea at the time and in such a hormonal state that it was very hard to keep track of such mannish matters.
That's the simpering bit, in case you were wondering.
But she was tough enough to hire private detectives to go after dangerous opponents, tough enough to be a very ruthless overseer of many political campaigns, tough enough to recall Dick Morris to the colors not once but twice when hubby was in trouble.
By the same token, Mrs. Clinton once argued (because she'll try anything once) that the source of the vile rumors directed against her husband was a rooted prejudice, among the intellectual and political classes, against southerners and people from Arkansas.
Those are only a few of the ways in which this woman who is constantly reinventing herself (currently carpet-bagging from D.C. to New York, and I have a feeling back to D.C. again) can deploy herself--always in such a manner as to suggest that nothing can be her own fault, but always someone else's.
And the reality is, the First Lady has had great success, particularly among some intellectuals, in recruiting sympathy to herself. This raises the question of whether she will ever accept the responsibilities that go with her obvious power and influence. This question applies with particular force in a White House that has gone to some length to replace the concept of accountability with the concept of deniability.
In a famous speech, British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin said that what his opponents wanted was power without responsibility, adding that this was the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages. It might be incautious to mention the prerogative of the harlot in the same breath as the First Lady or her husband, but the issue of power without responsibility is what most underlies the contrast between Mrs. Clinton and those who preceded her to similar heights of power.
One exemplar whom Mrs. Clinton has cited as a role model is Eleanor Roosevelt. The First Lady s famous attempt to communicate with Eleanor Roosevelt via "channeling" from the White House strikes me as grotesquely suggestive of the differences between these two women.
We know from her friend Gore Vidal that Mrs. Roosevelt herself was extremely contemptuous of absurd processes like channeling which attempt to ventriloquize or otherwise seek access to burblings from the beyond. We have Mrs. Roosevelt on the record about this, in fact. When the Queen of the Netherlands tried to interest Eleanor in spiritualism, she was met with a withering riposte: "Since we're going to be dead such a long time anyway, it's rather a waste of time chatting with all of them before we get there." Somehow this didn't stop Mrs. Clinton from hiring an enabler to try to get in touch with Mrs. Roosevelt.
There are many other differences, of course. Mrs. Roosevelt did not run as a buy-one-get-one-free spouse. (And I must say, I don't know if there has ever been such a vulgar phrase as that, deployed with so little protest, in presidential politics.) Nor did Mrs. Roosevelt try to have it both ways in portraying herself as both an intimidator and a victim. She accepted the limitations of her own unelected role, and concentrated instead on seeking to expand the President's conception of his role.
That's the precise reverse of the state of affairs under Mrs. Clinton. Hillary Clinton has chafed endlessly and self-pityingly at the bonds imposed on her by her unelected status, while always reinforcing the narrowness and cheapness of her husband's conception of his job. She has also actively reinforced the President's opportunitism and cynicism, while publicly justifying everything he does--a course that Mrs. Roosevelt, I think, would have recoiled from twice.
Mrs. Clinton has also sought to publicly justify her husband's brutish infidelities and the free exercise of his yobbish libido, another thing that Mrs. Roosevelt, who suffered greatly in public and in private from her husband's infidelities, would have died rather than trying to do. She would have died from shame alone.
Mrs. Roosevelt tried to convince her husband, the President, to take an interest in the survival of Republican Spain, in the abolition of Jim Crow, in the right of Marian Anderson to sing in Constitution Hall. These and other causes were not popular with the public, with the Congress (always the apple of Franklin Roosevelt's eye), or with wealthy backers.
Mrs. Roosevelt was simply introducing principle into politics, always trying to get her husband to do the unpopular or uncommercial thing. Whatever one thinks about Jim Crow or Republican Spain or desegregation of the Armed Forces, these were positions that required courage, and required her urging courage and principle on her husband. I think I don't need to underline that contrast any further.
As I've noted, it was Mrs. Clinton who rehired Dick Morris, and elevated him to the White House. It was she who had her own chief of staff, Maggie Williams, accept a $50,000 check in the White House from a Chinese influence peddler. This man, when deposed on the matter, said, "Well, the White House is a bit like the New York subway. You have to put the tokens in before you're allowed access." Though English isn't his first language, it's to that gentleman that we owe probably the best working definition of this First Family and the White House it has run--where the Lincoln Bedroom is a motel for fat cats, the Oval Office is a massage parlor, and Arlington Cemetery a repository for people who are buried falsely under full donor honors and confected military records.
Hillary and Bill Clinton have presided, in other words, over a full-blast profaning of all the secular temples of the American Republic. This has been done more or less without protest from the First Lady, and often with her aggressive encouragement, because a strong woman has her needs after all.
Had Mrs. Roosevelt run for the Senate from her home in Hyde Park, New York, I do not believe she would have used, as if they were no more than her just due, all the appurtenances of high office for campaign purposes. Every time Mrs. Clinton goes to New York, it costs the taxpayers a fortune in the use of government aircraft, security protection, cars, and so on, to say nothing of the expense of shutting down traffic and workplaces wherever her imperial guard takes her. And if Mrs. Roosevelt had become a candidate, is it even conceivable that she could have been asked any of the following questions (none of which our so-called adversarial press has yet gotten around to asking Mrs. Clinton)?
* First question: Did you, Mrs. Clinton, approach my colleague at Vanity Fair, Gail Sheehy, during the Gennifer Flowers affair in the 1992 election and suggest George Bush had a mistress? What did you mean when you said, quote, "I hear he has a Gennifer, too." The "too" is especially interesting considering that Mrs. Clinton publicly denied her husband had had a Gennifer at all.
Since the woman Mrs. Clinton was fingering spelled her name Jennifer, I suppose if she were pressed on it now the First Lady would say, "Well, it depends what you mean by `Gennifer.'" There is, the Clintons have taught us, a lot of wiggle room in one consonant. But, really, why and how was her suggestion pardonable, and how does she explain it? This question goes very strongly to the way the entire 1992 campaign was managed.
* Second question: How have you tolerated the use of your daughter in photo opportunities with the President only on days when he has lied to Congress and his Cabinet and the American people, while insisting all the time that any questions to yourself or criticisms of your family are out of bounds because they are violations of your daughter's privacy?
And while we're on the subject of privacy, why do you argue the Privacy Act covers inquiries about overnight guests in the Lincoln Bedroom? The first, second, and third line of defense when the Center for Public Integrity asked questions about those overnights was, "We're not telling you who sleeps in the Lincoln Bedroom because that would be a private question; the First Lady and her daughter often have people to sleep over; that's none of your business." So again Chelsea and your position as wife were used politically and manipulatively to head off an inquiry, this time into the use of the Lincoln Bedroom as a hot-sheet motel.
Yet somehow the Privacy Act does not apply to Kathleen Willey's private correspondence. When you as First Lady talked to Sidney Blumenthal about whether it should be released, the only question was where and how quickly.
* A follow-up question: Mrs. Clinton, how can you have taken such a deep and rapid interest in the private letters of Kathleen Willey--discovered, by the way, after a long stretch of being "unobtainable," even though they were requested under subpoena by Paula Jones' lawyers--yet have failed (by your own report) to watch the televised testimony of Juanita Broaddrick? It seems an abnormal want of curiosity on your part to ignore a charge plausibly leveled by a respectable woman that your husband is a rapist.
These sorts of questions and their implications serve to distinguish the style as well as the character of our current First Lady from that of Eleanor Roosevelt, or any other of her predecessors.
Questions should also be asked of Mrs. Clinton about the way her Senate campaign in New York has been organized. Those who have read The Last Hurrah, Edwin O'Connor's wonderful novel about Boston politics, may remember that the central figure of that story, modeled on Mayor James Curley, at one point has to explain what the foreign policy dimension of a local election in Boston is. He explains, "It's actually not that difficult to grasp. Only two things count. One, Trieste belongs to Italy. Two, all Ireland must be free." The second point counts a bit more than the first, he adds, because the Irish were a bit faster than the Italians in getting to the trans-Atlantic boats.
Now let us look at The Last Hurrah as it is currently being played out in the New York Senate race. I'm glad to say that in this case, the philistine Democratic maxim that "all politics is local" happens not to apply. Rather, in much of New York, all politics is global--and what you have to bear always in mind are the three "I's" of Ireland, Israel, and Italy. Yet this ethno-political game has never been played with the level of cynicism Mrs. Clinton has brought to it. Let me discuss some obvious and not-so-obvious examples.
Everybody remembers the switch--actually, three switches--on the question of amnesty for the Puerto Rican bombers. The thing to keep one's eye on was the way in which Mrs. Clinton both was and was not involved, was and was not adequately informed, had or had not discussed either everything or nothing with her husband. The same slipperiness applied to her trip to Palestine and to Israel. It seemed she was an emissary of the United States while the trip was going well, but when things took a turn for the worse, the White House presented her as just a private citizen on vacation.
Perhaps the most significant and least remarked manipulations were over Pakistan. Every smart liberal in America knew exactly how and when to laugh at Governor Bush last fall when he couldn't remember the name of the self-appointed military dictator of Pakistan but said he had the impression the man was reasonable.
It was thought to be wrong to say either of these things--to admit he didn't know his name, and to suggest the military dictatorship could be a good thing.
Well, who's got the last laugh now? Mr. Lanny Davis--Mrs. Clinton's former errand boy and fibber in chief (though there is competition for that title)--has now been retained by the Pakistani military dictatorship at $22,500 a month plus expenses, and he has already arranged two dinners, one in Washington and one in New York, for Pakistani donors. And at one of these dinners, Mrs. Clinton said that though her husband had no plans to go to Pakistan on his trip to the subcontinent, she did hope that he would be able to alter his itinerary. The itinerary was duly altered. Afterwards, it was insisted again that, no, Mrs. Clinton had nothing to do with the change, never discussed it with her husband. This despite the fact that the First Lady has told us on other occasions that, "We talk all the time, Bill and I."
Mr. Davis, too, had to come before the cameras and say that he had no influence either with the First Lady or with the President. One wonders whether he tells that to the Pakistanis: "I don't have any influence with the President. If you want to give me $22,500 a month, that's your affair, but don't think I can make anything happen."
What I'm describing, ladies and gentlemen, comrades and friends, is the politics of a particularly sweltering banana republic. That's what we've been reduced to. And that's what you've become used to.
I don't know how long Mrs. Clinton's act of playing both ends against the middle can go on. Is she a bewildered outsider, amateur in politics, innocent newcomer to the scene? Or is she the always-consulted, always-activist, always-well-briefed operator? Which of Mrs. Clinton's dual personalities--simpering feminine versus tough, cool, plugged-in professional--will root in the public mind?
I have an awful and increasingly clammy impression that, for all of what I've just laid out (and for every example, I could have given ten of similar moral and financial and personal and intellectual squalor), despite all of this she's going to be saved by the humblings of Rudy Giuliani and other opponents, the same way her terrible husband was saved by Newt Gingrich. In certain respects I've come to think that there really is a Vast Right-wing Conspiracy concerning the Clintons--and that it is helping keep Bill and Hillary in power, just as stupid conservatives helped the Roosevelts to four successive terms.…
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Publication information: Article title: Is Hillary Clinton Eleanor Roosevelt?. Contributors: Hitchens, Christopher - Author. Magazine title: The American Enterprise. Volume: 11. Issue: 5 Publication date: July 2000. Page number: 18. © 1999 American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.
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