Hating Hillary

Gloating, unshackled sexism of the ugliest kind has been shamelessly peddled by the US media, which

History, I suspect, will look back on the past six months as an example of America going through one of its collectively deranged episodes - rather like Prohibition from 1920-33, or McCarthyism some 30 years later. This time it is gloating, unshackled sexism of the ugliest kind. It has been shamelessly peddled by the US media, which - sooner rather than later, I fear - will have to account for their sins. The chief victim has been Senator Hillary Clinton, but the ramifications could be hugely harmful for America and the world.

I am no particular fan of Clinton. Nor, I think, would friends and colleagues accuse me of being racist. But it is quite inconceivable that any leading male presidential candidate would be treated with such hatred and scorn as Clinton has been. What other senator and serious White House contender would be likened by National Public Radio's political editor, Ken Rudin, to the demoniac, knife-wielding stalker played by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction? Or described as "a fucking whore" by Randi Rhodes, one of the foremost personalities of the supposedly liberal Air America? Could anybody have envisaged that a website set up specifically to oppose any other candidate would be called Citizens United Not Timid? (We do not need an acronym for that.)

I will come to the reasons why I fear such unabashed misogyny in the US media could lead, ironically, to dreadful racial unrest. "All men are created equal," Thomas Jefferson famously proclaimed in 1776. That equality, though, was not extended to women, who did not even get the vote until 1920, two years after (some) British women. The US still has less gender equality in politics than Britain, too. Just 16 of America's 100 US senators are women and the ratio in the House (71 out of 435) is much the same. It is nonetheless pointless to argue whether sexism or racism is the greater evil: America has a peculiarly wicked record of racist subjugation, which has resulted in its racism being driven deep underground. It festers there, ready to explode again in some unpredictable way.

To compensate meantime, I suspect, sexism has been allowed to take its place as a form of discrimination that is now openly acceptable. "How do we beat the bitch?" a woman asked Senator John McCain, this year's Republican presidential nominee, at a Republican rally last November. To his shame, McCain did not rebuke the questioner but joined in the laughter. Had his supporter asked "How do we beat the nigger?" and McCain reacted in the same way, however, his presidential hopes would deservedly have gone up in smoke. "Iron my shirt," is considered amusing heckling of Clinton. "Shine my shoes," rightly, would be hideously unacceptable if yelled at Obama.

Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, American men like to delude themselves that they are the most macho in the world. It is simply unthinkable, therefore, for most of them to face the prospect of having a woman as their leader. The massed ranks of male pundits gleefully pronounced that Clinton had lost the battle with Obama immediately after the North Carolina and Indiana primaries, despite past precedents that strong second-place candidates (like Ronald Reagan in his first, ultimately unsuccessful campaign in 1976; like Ted Kennedy, Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson and Jerry Brown) continue their campaigns until the end of the primary season and, in most cases, all the way to the party convention.

None of these male candidates had a premature political obituary written in the way that Hillary Clinton's has been, or was subjected to such righteous outrage over refusing to quiesce and withdraw obediently from what, in this case, has always been a knife-edge race. Nor was any of them anything like as close to his rivals as Clinton now is to Obama.

The media, of course, are just reflecting America's would-be macho culture. I cannot think of any television network or major newspaper that is not guilty of blatant sexism - the British media, naturally, reflexively follow their American counterparts - but probably the worst offender is the NBC/MSNBC network, which has what one prominent Clinton activist describes as "its nightly horror shows". Tim Russert, the network's chief political sage, was dancing on Clinton's political grave before the votes in North Carolina and Indiana had even been fully counted - let alone those of the six contests to come, the undeclared super-delegates, or the disputed states of Florida and Michigan.

The unashamed sexism of this giant network alone is stupendous. Its superstar commentator Chris Matthews referred to Clinton as a "she-devil". His colleague Tucker Carlson casually observed that Clinton "feels castrating, overbearing and scary . . . When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs." This and similar abuse, I need hardly point out, says far more about the men involved than their target.

Knives out

But never before have the US media taken it upon themselves to proclaim the victor before the primary contests are over or the choice of all the super-delegates is known, and the result was that the media's tidal wave of sexism became self-fulfilling: Americans like to back winners, and polls immediately showed dramatic surges of support for Obama. A few brave souls had foreseen the merciless media campaign: "The press will savage her no matter what," predicted the Washington Post's national political correspondent, Dana Milbank, last December. "They really have their knives out for her, there's no question about it."

Polling organisations such as Gallup told us months ago that Americans will more readily accept a black male president than a female one, and a more recent CNN/Essence magazine/ Opinion Research poll found last month that 76 per cent think America is ready for a black man as president, but only 63 per cent believe the same of a woman.

"The image of charismatic leadership at the top has been and continues to be a man," says Ruth Mandel of Rutgers University. "We don't have an image, we don't have a historical memory of a woman who has achieved that feat."

Studies here have repeatedly shown that women are seen as ambitious and capable, or likeable - but rarely both. "Gender stereotypes trump race stereotypes in every social science test," says Alice Eagley, a psychology professor at Northwestern University. A distinguished academic undertaking a major study of coverage of the 2008 election, Professor Marion Just of Wellesley College - one of the "seven sisters" colleges founded because women were barred from the Ivy Leagues and which, coincidentally, Hillary Clinton herself attended - tells me that what is most striking to her is that the most repeated description of Senator Clinton is "cool and calculating".

This, she says, would never be said of a male candidate - because any politician making a serious bid for the White House has, by definition, to be cool and calculating. Hillary Clinton, a successful senator for New York who was re-elected for a second term by a wide margin in 2006 - and who has been a political activist since she campaigned against the Vietnam War and served as a lawyer on the congressional staff seeking to impeach President Nixon - has been treated throughout the 2008 campaign as a mere appendage of her husband, never as a heavyweight politician whose career trajectory (as an accomplished lawyer and professional advocate for equality among children, for example) is markedly more impressive than those of the typical middle-aged male senator.

Rarely is she depicted as an intellectually formidable politician in her own right (is that what terrifies oafs like Matthews and Carlson?). Rather, she is the junior member of "Billary", the derisive nickname coined by the media for herself and her husband. Obama's opponent is thus not one of the two US senators for New York, but some amorphous creature called "the Clintons", an aphorism that stands for amorality and sleaze. Open season has been declared on Bill Clinton, who is now reviled by the media every bit as much as Nixon ever was.

Here we come to the crunch. Hillary Clinton (along with her husband) is being universally depicted as a loathsome racist and negative campaigner, not so much because of anything she has said or done, but because the overwhelmingly pro-Obama media - consciously or unconsciously - are following the agenda of Senator Barack Obama and his chief strategist, David Axelrod, to tear to pieces the first serious female US presidential candidate in history.

"What's particularly saddening," says Paul Krugman, professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton and a rare dissenting voice from the left as a columnist in the New York Times, "is the way many Obama supporters seem happy with the . . . way pundits and some news organisations treat any action or statement by the Clintons, no matter how innocuous, as proof of evil intent." Despite widespread reporting to the contrary, Krugman believes that most of the "venom" in the campaign "is coming from supporters of Obama".

But Obama himself prepared the ground by making the first gratuitous personal attack of the campaign during the televised Congressional Black Caucus Institute debate in South Carolina on 21 January, although virtually every follower of the media coverage now assumes that it was Clinton who started the negative attacks. Following routine political sniping from her about supposedly admiring comments Obama had made about Ronald Reagan, Obama suddenly turned on Clinton and stared intimidatingly at her. "While I was working in the streets," he scolded her, ". . . you were a corporate lawyer sitting on the board of Wal-Mart." Then, cleverly linking her inextricably in the public consciousness with her husband, he added: "I can't tell who I'm running against sometimes."

One of his female staff then distributed a confidential memo to carefully selected journalists which alleged that a vaguely clumsy comment Hillary Clinton had made about Martin Luther King ("Dr King's dream began to be realised when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964") and a reference her husband had made in passing to Nelson Mandela ("I've been blessed in my life to know some of the greatest figures of the last hundred years . . . but if I had to pick one person whom I know would never blink, who would never turn back, who would make great decisions . . . I would pick Hillary") were deliberate racial taunts.

Another female staffer, Candice Tolliver - whose job it is to promote Obama to African Americans - then weighed in publicly, claiming that "a cross-section of voters are alarmed at the tenor of some of these statements" and saying: "Folks are beginning to wonder: Is this an isolated situation, or is there something bigger behind all of this?" That was game, set and match: the Clintons were racists, an impression sealed when Bill Clinton later compared Obama's victory in South Carolina to those of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 (even though Jackson himself, an Obama supporter, subsequently declared Clinton's remarks to be entirely inoffensive).

The pincer movement, in fact, could have come straight from a textbook on how to wreck a woman's presi dential election campaign: smear her whole persona first, and then link her with her angry, red-faced husband. The public Obama, characteristically, pronounced himself "unhappy" with the vilification carried out so methodically by his staff, but it worked like magic: Hillary Clinton's approval ratings among African Americans plummeted from above 80 per cent to barely 7 per cent in a matter of days, and have hovered there since.

I suspect that, as a result, she will never be able entirely to shake off the "racist" tag. "African-American super-delegates [who are supporting Clinton] are being targeted, harassed and threatened," says one of them, Representative Emanuel Cleaver. "This is the politics of the 1950s." Obama and Axelrod have achieved their objectives: to belittle Hillary Clinton and to manoeuvre the ever-pliant media into depicting every political criticism she makes against Obama as racist in intent.

The danger is that, in their headlong rush to stop the first major female candidate (aka "Hildebeast" and "Hitlery") from becoming president, the punditocracy may have landed the Democrats with perhaps the least qualified presidential nominee ever. But that creeping realisation has probably come too late, and many of the Democratic super-delegates now fear there would be widespread outrage and increased racial tension if they thwart the first biracial presidential hopeful in US history.

But will Obama live up to the hype? That, I fear, may not happen: he is a deeply flawed candidate. Rampant sexism may have triumphed only to make way for racism to rear its gruesome head in America yet again. By election day on 4 November, I suspect, the US media and their would-be-macho commentators may have a lot of soul-searching to do.

In this comment piece on sexist language in the US media in relation to Hillary Clinton Andrew Stephen suggested that Carl Bernstein had publicly declared his disgust for Hillary Clinton's thick ankles. We are informed that Carl Bernstein intended, in his biography of Hillary Clinton, to refer to comments made by others about her when she was at high school. We are happy to accept that Carl Bernstein was not motivated by sexism, and we are sorry for any embarrassment caused.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?

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Does Tony Blair deserve so much of our contempt?

Tom Bower slays the former Labour prime minister in his latest biography – but is it justified?

I doubt that Tony Blair leaped with joy when he learned that he was the next subject of a Tom Bower biography. The writer’s rogues’ gallery had so far included Robert Maxwell, Tiny Rowland, Mohamed Al Fayed, Richard Branson, Simon Cowell and Conrad Black. Bower does not do fair, he does hatchet. Blair was clearly meat for the slaughterhouse.

After almost 600 pages of reputation-shredding, I must admit to a twinge of ­sympathy for Blair. Much of him was rubbish, yes, but this much rubbish? The winner of three elections came to power in 1997 after staging one of the great coups of postwar politics. The “Blair project” stripped Labour of decades of ideological dross and made it electable. It re-engineered the left of British politics and won the admiration of even Margaret Thatcher. Bower largely ignores this achievement.

Instead we meet Blair installed in Downing Street, surrounded by sycophants, but utterly unprepared for office and his ministers even less so. His confidence is total, his programme waffle, little more than a string of abstractions about things “getting better”, with some headline-grabbing targets to prove it. Within months, Blair emerges from Bower’s narrative like Frodo Baggins, wandering across Mordor with little sense of destination. He grapples with one venture after another – the fiends of the
NHS, bogus asylum-seekers, gold-plated academies – with Gordon Brown as Gollum and Cherie Blair as the Black Rider. Our hero has around him only a tiny band of loyalists, Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Powell and Peter Mandelson, on whom he is pathetically dependent.

Bower’s technique is to select five topics – immigration, health, education, energy and war – to exemplify Blair’s style. More than 180 participants are interviewed and published records ransacked. He proceeds through Blair’s term of office chronologically, diving in and out of each subject in turn, much as circumstances forced Blair to do. He recounts little that is new to those who have trod this territory but he well conveys the pandemonium that is any modern British government.

Thus, on immigration, we see Blair trapped between his belief that newcomers are good for the economy and a slow realisation that this is electorally disastrous. As the inflow soars past half a million, with chaos at border controls, Blair’s ignorance of government process becomes stark. He blames officials, judges, the then home secretary, David Blunkett, and even his beloved Delivery Unit. Eventually he goes on television
and simply pledges that the number of asylum-seekers will fall “by half within six months”. Blunkett is aghast at the naivety.

The same is true of the NHS and education. Blair’s initial approach is to rid the public services of Thatcher’s markets and hurl vast sums at them. As this fails to deliver swift results, Blair thrashes about, turns turtle, sacks ministers and appoints advisers, demanding ever more money from a truculent Brown. He seems quite unable to master the intricacies of government. When he complains that Jack Straw has been “captured by [his] department”, the retort is that Blair has been “captured by the fairies” – in this case the former BBC man John Birt, his useless aide.

A third of a million new NHS staff are hired even as productivity plummets. Doctors get a 30 per cent pay rise for shorter hours, yet the nation is still near the bottom of some health league tables. To Blair, promising is delivering. As one colleague observes, “It’s government by assertion, and hope that the facts will catch up.” In 2006 he promises to build 200 academies, at double the cost of normal schools, and then suddenly promises 400. Figures are snatched out of the air.

Blair and Brown indulge in competitive initiative-itis. Brown’s health action zones, New Deal for Communities and individual learning accounts (later dropped because they were too open to fraud) are countered by Blair’s strategy reports, delivery units and offices of government reform. Around the time of the gloomy 2005 ­election, Blair launches “five-year plans [for] each government department”, 20 targets for delivery and six “people’s promises”.

Blair is terrible at debate or criticism. He doesn’t like civil servants – whom Thatcher cleverly manipulated – and excludes them from his “sofa” meetings. As a result, minutes are not taken and little is done. Blair’s response to any crisis (meaning a poor headline) is to reshuffle the minister. Straw, Blunkett, John Reid, Charles Clarke and Ruth Kelly seem to be in perpetual motion, their initiatives scuppered by Brown’s opposition and Blair’s failure to confront him.

At the centre of the web are Campbell and Powell, in charge respectively of presentation and executive decision. Campbell loathes the media and Powell loathes civil servants, so relations are fraught. They shut Blair off from Britain’s constitutional checks and balances – collective cabinet and an independent civil service. The prime minister is left with no levers to pull in his undoubted desire to make his country a better place.

The Downing Street madhouse also contains Cherie Blair (who hates Brown), Campbell (who hates Cherie), Anji Hunter, Blair’s director of government relations (whom Cherie hates), and Campbell’s wife (who seems to hate everyone). As for the black cloud next door, no prime minister has cursed himself with such a nightmare colleague as Gordon Brown. This bundle of envy and ambition – grossly overrated as chancellor – seems to end every conversation by slamming down the phone with the refrain, “And when are you f***ing resigning?” It is no wonder that Blair prefers to tangle with the Taliban.

All this is grippingly readable and Blair’s inability to assert sovereignty over Downing Street is the source for much black humour. Twice Blair summons up the courage to sack Brown and twice his courage fails. But Bower unbalances his criticism of Blair by disregarding the scale of the task that the prime minister set himself, especially against the history of Britain in the 1990s.

Detoxifying Labour was never going to end with the election victory in 1997. Blair understood that a new Labour approach to government needed to build on Thatcherism, not turn back the clock. Bower largely ignores Blairism’s debt to Thatcherism even where, in his selected topics, the continuities – privatisation and internal markets – emerged through the fog of war. Blair was obsessed with Thatcher, even making her his first VIP guest in Downing Street.

Labour’s old guard was never going to take this lying down. The public-service unions resisted, Labour councils resisted, Blair’s colleagues resisted. Brown may have been infatuated with City bankers and recklessly used private finance for hospitals, schools and the London Tube, but he cynically revived Old Labour as a weapon against the prime minister. It is to Blair’s credit that he never surrendered as David Cameron has done to George Osborne. Bower convincingly argues that he stayed in office so long in part to save the country from his “psychologically flawed” rival.

Where Bower is most convincing is on Blair’s wars. The brief conflict in Kosovo in 1998-99 was a success, with Blair stiffening Washington to sign up for bombing and forcing the Serbs to retreat. Thus emboldened, he appointed himself envoy to capture Osama Bin Laden in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, again a worthy venture that Bower largely ignores. But from then on his obsequiousness towards George Bush, dismaying even the one general he trusted, Charles Guthrie, drove him to disaster.

***

We now enter the maelstrom of dodgy dossiers, suborned intelligence and the death of David Kelly. The sole defence of Blair’s blindness to reality through the sorry saga is that he appears genuinely to have been deceived about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction through Alastair Campbell’s desire that the spymasters Richard Dearlove and John Scarlett “sex up” the threat. Blair’s reliance on Campbell, like his cowardice towards Brown, is a lethal thread through Bower’s narrative.

By the time of the orchestrating of the Hutton and Butler reports to whitewash Blair, the No 10 bunker has taken on the air of Nixon’s last days. There is the same contempt for process, the frantic survival instinct, the loathing of enemies. What is most remarkable is that Blair’s gift for presentation never leaves him. I recall being (almost) persuaded by his parliamentary speech on Saddam’s WMDs. Could a prime minister really deceive his country on this scale?

Bower correctly analyses Blair’s confused justifications for his warmongering. The invasion of Afghanistan was to teach terrorist regimes a lesson but it got sucked into soggy “nation-building”, with Helmand to become “a mini-Belgium”. Blair invaded Iraq to eradicate weapons of mass destruction but wrote in his memoirs that it was to topple Saddam, as “the whole future of Islam” was at stake. He wanted to crush “the forces opposed to modernisation”. War was a sort of New Labour project.

Blair’s final months were typical of the man. He halted a corruption inquiry into BAE in Saudi Arabia. He sacked the head of the committee on standards in public life, for too assiduously pursuing sleaze. He showered peerages on dodgy financiers. Twenty-five of Blair’s 292 peers gave a total of £25m to Labour. Blair seemed to see little wrong in rewarding donors with seats in parliament and was the first serving prime minister to be interviewed by the police, on three occasions. He was exonerated only at the moment of his departure in 2007.

Before he went, Blair passed into the future tense. He had saved and transformed his country. Now he would save the world. His diminished team planned his relaunch as a world statesman. An aide, Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, decided he must reconnect “with the public . . . go with crowds wanting more . . . He should be the star who won’t even play the last encore.” He appeared on Blue Peter and Songs of Praise. Irritatingly, the Queen refused a farewell banquet. Instead, his final visitor was Arnold Schwarzenegger, of Hollywood and California.

Having failed in his attempt to become president of the EU, Blair gets Bush to appoint him to the diplomatic “Quartet”, supposedly to bring peace to the Middle East. The day after leaving Downing Street, he flies to Tel Aviv to get down to serious business. Ostensibly he is to be a diplomat but he combines that with making money.

The final chapters of Tom Bower’s book make for sad reading. Blair and Cherie set up a miasma of charities and companies, enveloped in offshore secrecy and security, while the taxpayer pays millions for Quartet civil servants and police protection. Bower shows how Blair uses his celebrity access for personal enrichment. He consorts with Colonel Gaddafi, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, anyone who will see him and accept a deal for a “consultancy”. He would tell all comers, “We do business and philanthropy,” adding the tired Blairism: “The purpose is not to make money; it is to make a difference.”

Bower recounts one visit after another to dodgy regimes and middlemen, borrowing jets left, right and centre. Blair still enjoys access to David Cameron, inducing him to pay a humiliating visit to Nazarbayev in 2013 as part of some unmentionable deal. By then his stock in the Middle East had plunged because of his ties to Israel’s Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu. He loses first his expenses, then his job, then seemingly his contact with morality: invited to speak for 20 minutes to a famine charity in Stockholm, Blair demands £250,000. The charity desperately suggests £125,000. Blair refuses.

Britain did not go off the rails under Tony Blair. Even if he sowed the seeds of economic woe, many grew rich and many more became less poor. Blair made Labour safe for Thatcherism, which, like it or not, was an achievement. He introduced a minimum wage, advanced gays, half settled Northern Ireland and created a mayor for London. Against his own judgement – and thanks to Brown – Britain stayed out of the euro. But there was no lasting reform of public services, which became the most centralised in Europe. Not one major power station was built. The overall legacy was a mess.

In the final analysis Blair must take responsibility for plunging his country into “wars of choice” that were unnecessary, immoral and hugely expensive, some £40bn in lives and treasure. This was the real hanging offence. Bower interviewed his first three cabinet secretaries, Robin Butler, Richard Wilson and Andrew Turnbull. Each of them broke the customary silence of his office and said he did not regard Blair as “a laudable guardian of the public’s trust”. Bower is surely right to reach the same conclusion.

Tom Bower’s “Broken Vows: Tony Blair – the Tragedy of Power” is published by Faber & Faber

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue