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3 March 2016

Hillary Clinton’s haters and the glass ceiling of American politics

Whatever you think of Clinton as a politician, it's undeniable that she has been castigated for her ambition in a way her male rival has not.

By Sarah Churchwell

It used to be said that the Americas were conquered by the triumvirate forces of God, gold and glory. The US is currently being unsettled by the most volatile election season in decades and, while religion has by no means left the field, God is gradually receding into the background as gold and glory take centre stage. Celebrity politicians – and political celebrities – front the show, taking the glory and as much of the gold as they can.

The Kennedys, the Reagans, Arnold Sch­warzenegger (and his ex-wife, a Kennedy), the Clintons, the Obamas: the roll call reminds us that the politics of left and right means far less than the politics of media culture – and the accusations of corruption, fraudulence and selling out that accompany it. For decades, these allegations have trailed the Clintons in particular. But, with the rise of Donald Trump, the old guard has been caught off guard: how do you accuse a grinning billionaire huckster of selling out?

It is probably fitting, then, that amid all the noisy mayhem that Trump is creating, the candidate who is held most to symbolise establishment, old-school, business-as-usual transactional politics – Hillary Rodham Clinton – is the one whose celebrity has produced, like a small flatus, a burst of mostly unremarkable books. These seem like the last, sad gasp of a dying political medium in an election that is being driven by the sideshow barker currently luring throngs into his three-ring circus of news cycle, debate and social media, all of which he plays as pure entertainment. Trump, as of writing, seems poised to snatch the Republican nomination out of the hands of the “Grand Old Party”, which is looking less grand and older as each day passes.

But this election has been nothing if not unpredictable, so there will be no prognostication here, in part because the hope that these books might provide some augury has proved idle. Something may happen to unseat Trump but the missile he has launched could still explode in America’s face. At the moment, he’s riding it like Slim Pickens at the end of Dr Strangelove, a-whoopin’ and a-hollerin’ all the way to apocalypse.

If Clinton wins the Democratic nomination – which pundits think is increasingly likely, given the commanding lead she holds after major victories on Super Tuesday – and ends up being Trump’s opponent in the presidential election, it is hard to know whether she has the weapons, despite her intelligence and seriousness, to counter him effectively. Many would say that this is because she is just as corrupt as he is. But more likely it is because she isn’t corrupt enough. In order to be qualified to run for president, Clinton became the first first lady to run for and hold political office, became secretary of state and travelled to over 100 countries. Some would have us believe that this experience now makes her too much of an insider to be qualified for president. This is when dismissing Clinton as a uniquely entrenched establishment figure (Trump is the only one of her opponents who isn’t a career politician) begins to stick in the craw of some women voters.

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Not all women feel this way. Young women are currently overwhelmingly voting along economic lines and choosing Sanders. Many older women are convinced that where there are decades of smoke, there’s a pretty big fire, and are left with serious doubts about Clinton’s probity, even though the flames have been fanned for decades by the media and Republicans.

Regardless of whether Clinton turns out to be guilty of anything more than greed and poor judgement (neither of which is illegal, although both are undesirable in a president, if not as undesirable as putting an outright swindler in office), she has been the subject of witch-hunts. In the 1990s, the billionaire conservative donor Richard Mellon Scaife spent $2m to find dirt on the Clintons. The special counsel Ken Starr spent more than three years during Bill Clinton’s presidency, as Karen Blumenthal notes in Hillary, the most serviceable of the biographies published to capitalise on the current campaign, trying, in effect, to link Bill or Hillary to illegal behaviour. He extensively investigated their financial accounts and property deals, their relationship to a failed savings and loan association in Arkansas and the suicide of their friend and adviser Vince Foster. All Starr found was that the president had exploited political office for sexual advantage, launching America into a scandal and impeachment trial from which no one emerged unscathed.

Republican prosecutors eventually spent $30m over four years and the only evidence of wrongdoing they could find was on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress and in the president’s subsequent, reprehensible effort to cover it up. At the time, Hillary was widely admired for “standing by her man” (despite the rancour she inspired by insisting that she was not “some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette”) but now many observers raise questions about whether she helped to suppress these and other stories about her husband’s sexual misconduct.

Given that she is now running in part on women’s issues, these are not unreasonable questions to ask. It is indicative of these books’ superficiality that not one asks them. Instead, they each recycle familiar stories, including the scandals and allegations that have continued to shadow the Clintons. Many of these circle around conflicts of interest: possibly questionable donations accepted by the Clinton Foundation; Hillary’s knowledge of the 2012 attacks on the US embassy in Benghazi; her refusal to release her emails as secretary of state; her astronomical speaking fees (asked why she accepted $675,000 to speak to Goldman Sachs, she responded, “That’s what they offered,” and Republicans were shocked – shocked! – to discover that free-market capitalism might raise ethical questions).

Other than the basic facts of her life, the one thing that all four books about Clinton share is the familiar trope summed up in Doug Henwood’s My Turn (crudely partisan, it comes graced with a cover cartoon of a vigilante Hillary pointing a gun at the viewer): the idea that the Clintons consider it Hillary’s turn, that this election is supposed to be a coronation. Only Ellen Fitzpatrick’s engaging The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency implicitly questions the assumption that any rational woman could seriously believe that the White House was hers for the asking, by telling the entertaining, if ultimately depressing, stories of some women in the past who have failed.

The rest build the idea of entitlement into their titles. Ready for Hillary? Portrait of a President in Waiting is by Robin Renwick, the former British ambassador to the United States. The book’s jacket reveals that Bill Clinton called him “a good friend and ally” and Renwick’s friendship and his diplomacy keep him from saying very much; it is mostly a whistle-stop tour of her foreign policy experiences, with a few anecdotes thrown in. Hillary Rising, by James D Boys, is another British take, offering potted American history as he tells, like the rest, of a stable 1950s childhood in suburban Illinois with exacting parents, an upbringing that previous biographies claimed was more difficult than Clinton likes to admit. This more painful version is to be found only in Henwood’s unapologetically negative portrait and only as evidence of what he considers Clinton’s chronic dishonesty. As she noted after her election to the Senate in 2000, “One of the odd advantages I had was that everyone already thought they knew everything about me, good or bad.” For most Americans, that remains the case.

Grudgingly Henwood admits that perhaps one should “forgive Hillary’s reticence about sharing the unpleasantries of her childhood”, before adding that her upbringing was more like the “world of Thomas Hobbes” – nasty and brutish (if not especially short) – “than that of 1950s TV”. This seems less like forgiving and more like blaming her for her childhood. The worst that Henwood can offer, however, is a previous biographer calling Clinton’s father “emotionally abusive” and a claim that her parents’ fighting distressed her. Hobbes, one suspects, would be unimpressed.

Hillary Diane Rodham had a hard-working, studious but not unsociable adolescence, followed by admission on a scholarship to the elite Wellesley College, in 1965, where she became the first commencement speaker. Shaped by her father’s politics, at first she was a dedicated Republican, a self-proclaimed Goldwater girl. But as the 1960s made their mark on her generation, she turned to civil rights, later declaring that her turning point was the thinly veiled racism of the Republicans she encountered.

By any rational standard, this makes her a true centrist and some would argue that this is precisely what the US needs: a pragmatist who can begin the long, difficult task of reconciling a savagely polarised country. Instead, she is faulted by liberals for being insufficiently progressive, by conservatives for being too liberal and by all of them for being dishonest. She might be. The system definitely is.

Hillary entered Yale Law School in 1969, one of only 36 women in a class of 237. There she met a returning Rhodes scholar named William Jefferson Clinton. The rest, as they say, is history. Henwood takes a few of the Clintons’ statements reflecting their youthful and obviously genuine political idealism and uses them to twist the knife: “Who knew that under all that duplicity and ambition, they’re just a pair of romantics?” This is having it both ways: she is as to blame for her idealism as for having let it be degraded. The concept of an idealist corrupted by a deformed political system, however, is hardly unfamiliar.

Henwood does not allow that what he deems “vulgar identity politics” should play any part in Hillary’s candidacy, despite the reality that every other imaginable social category in the US is expected and encouraged to vote along lines of identification: evangelicals vote for evangelical candidates, Latinos for Latino candidates. Black people voted for Obama for a very good reason – and that many are still happy he is in office is clear to anyone who has seen the 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin, who was born in 1909 to sharecroppers, jubilantly dancing with the Obamas in the White House in February. But when it comes to women voting for a woman – in part because they recognise the symbolic glory that would come from a woman in the White House – this is dismissed as “vulgar”, as evidenced by the extremely vulgar phrase used to repudiate the idea: namely that it constitutes “voting with vaginas”.

But this is all just the latest permutation of the double-bind that helped trap Clinton in the 2008 primary. Her ambition has always been held against her, although it is unclear how someone is supposed to get to the White House without ambition. She was called “Lady Macbeth in a black preppy headband”, a “feminazi”, a “ball-buster”, a “bunny boiler”, a “gold-digger”, a “bitch”, a “boss from hell”, a “witch”, a “f***ing whore”, a “nagging wife” and a “PMS victim” – and those are merely the phrases used by the professional American media, before the explosion of social media created a Petri dish for amateurs to grow their own reactionary toxins. When women tried to call out the misogyny, pundits such as Tucker Carlson demanded, “If she’s so strong, then why is she whining about sexism?”

In her commencement speech at Wellesley College in 1969, Clinton declared, “The challenge now is to practise politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.” She has spent the past five decades doing just that. Most recently, she became the first woman in history to win the Iowa caucus – and the silence that greeted this fact is itself a remarkable fact. She has been the Gallup poll’s most admired woman in America 19 times in 22 years and on more covers of Time magazine than any other woman in history. It is just possible that the virulent rancour targeted at her relates, at least tangentially, to her catalogue of achievements.

As Fitzpatrick points out in The Highest Glass Ceiling, women running for president have always been held to higher standards than men. When Victoria Woodhull, a stockbroker, spiritualist and advocate of free love ran on the platform of the Equal Rights Party in 1872, one newspaper wrote:

“It is not enough that she be a public advocate of all moral, social, political and scientific reforms, it is not enough that she has written a book on the art of government and the principles of legislation, but she herself, at the same time, must be a paragon of propriety, if she would secure the feminine vote of the country in support of her political ambition.”

Fitzpatrick does not make the connection to Hillary Clinton explicit but it is hard to imagine that she didn’t choose the quotation for its echo.

Woodhull was, as it happens, the daughter of a snake-oil salesman. Confidence tricksters are never far from the story, because you can’t run for president without raising a lot of money and it is almost impossible to raise the amount of money necessary without compromising something. A few have managed with grass-roots support to start but even Obama’s social media campaign soon led to Wall Street. It had to. And, as Fitzpatrick notes, it was money, above all, that brought down most of Clinton’s female predecessors:

“For most women, and most men for that matter, financing remained the insurmountable hurdle to a presidential run . . . Doubts that they could ever prevail in a general election made this obstacle especially difficult for female candidates. Donors often considered them a poor bet.”

As Fitzpatrick observes, Elizabeth Dole, who ran against George W Bush and Steve Forbes in the 2000 Republican primary, found that they had a “75:1, or 80:1 cash advantage”.

When she conceded to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries, Clinton said that her supporters had made “18 million cracks” in the glass ceiling. The election of 2016 is currently cracking a lot more than ceilings. Indeed, even his most horrified observers should have the honesty to admit that Trump is revealing to America how it has tried and failed to paper over the cracks. The nation seems to be splintering and it would be ironic, to say the least, if the one barrier that held firmest was the glass ceiling.

Unlike Trump, Hillary Clinton is a serious person. If she has been corrupted, at least she had a soul to corrupt. Trump is the inevitable consequence of the cult of personality, obsession with celebrity and worship of wealth that have defined American culture for a century or more. Although what he says is often profoundly stupid, he clearly is not; and he is utterly unscrupulous in his tactics. For all the accusations of duplicity that have been hurled at Clinton, she has nothing like his swindler’s flexibility, anchored as she remains to foundational concepts such as reality. If she is a liar, she is the old-fashioned kind, seeking merely to conceal an inconvenient truth. It seems that Trump, by contrast, will say anything to get elected, however deranged it might be. The jury is out as to whether or not he has swallowed his own snake oil and believes any of the things he is saying. Either way, many commentators doubt Clinton’s ability to parry his tactics effectively.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has never been entitled to the presidency, certainly not by virtue of marriage or gender, and although she is more than qualified by virtue of experience, many will continue to feel that she is disqualified by the unvirtuous nature of some of those experiences. That is their right. But it will be telling if the woman who has so long been accused of a shameful pursuit of gold and glory is trumped in the end by someone whose pursuit of it is simply shameless.

Hillary: A Biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton by Karen Blumenthal is published by Bloomsbury (448pp, £12.99). Hillary Rising: The Politics, Persona and Policies of a New American Dynasty by James D Boys is published by Biteback (336pp, £14.99). Ready For Hillary?: Portrait of a President in Waiting by Robin Renwick is published by Biteback (256pp, £17.99). My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency by Doug Henwood is published by OR Books (200pp, £10). The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency by Ellen Fitzpatrick is published by Harvard University Press (336pp, £19.95).

Sarah Churchwell is the chair of public understanding of the humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London

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This article appears in the 02 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis