What TV Tells Us About The Clintons
Or: What We Never Talk About When We Talk About Hillary
Two notes: I was originally planning to write this article after I finished watching Impeachment on FX but as I still haven’t finished the series and I think the views haven’t changed, I’m writing it now.
Second: This article will be a lot more political than almost I’ve written for this column and it’s probably going to have something to piss off everybody. That’s a sign I’m doing something right. Buckle up.
A few months I had a conversation with my parents, dyed in the wool democrats where I talked about Impeachment with them and my views on the Clintons, mainly to test to see if their opinions might have some flexibility after thirty years.
I really didn’t get any. When I mentioned that watching the series showed just how much of a victim Paula Jones was, my mother more or less scoffed. “She went up to a hotel room with the President. What did she think was going to happen?” My mom’s always been blunt, but this kind of stunned me. Similarly when I mentioned how horribly the world had treated Monica Lewinsky, she waved it off by saying: “Well, she’s doing okay now.”
I don’t think I’ve ever been this disappointed in my mother. I have no intention of raising this issue with my friends on the right, who no doubt still think Clinton should have gone to jail for having an affair. But I think this does express the futility of any kind of reflection on just how badly we treated the victims of Bill Clinton at the time and probably now. And the thing is there are still ramifications that we don’t want to admit too.
Which brings me to Hillary. Now I live in New York. I’m a registered Democrat. Which means in one form or another Hillary Clinton was on the ballot in my state seven times, either for senator, a Presidential primary, or for President. It was only the last time that I cast a vote for her. (I’m actually going to get to that one in a moment.)
I never voted for Hillary either for Senator or in a primary, not because I was anti-feminist, or because I didn’t think she was a good Democrat, or because I thought she was a corporate stooge. I didn’t vote for her because I considered her an opportunist, pure and simple — someone who had decided to market herself as something other than a politician but was as cold and calculating a political animal as any of the Republican’s who made her their target for nearly a quarter of a century.
Those of you who read my earlier blog on the Clinton scandal must recall the level of humiliation that Hillary was forced to go through virtually every night. We all remember her loyalty to her husband, which was supposed to be strength. (Impeachment titled the Hillary-centric episode ‘Stand by Your Man’.) I never saw it that way. As soon as Hillary announced her run for Senate, it was crystal clear the person she was. She wanted power, and was willing to undergo whatever personal humiliation her husband had put her through to get it. And this was a measured decision — if she had divorced her husband at any point after January 20, 2001 I would have had no problem voting for her. The fact she never has made it very clear that she considered the Clinton name more important politically than anything it might do to her reputation. That’s the reason I could never bring myself to vote for her on six consecutive ballots.
In the aftermath of the Clinton presidency, there have been several series where a political marriage is at the center. I could bring up examples of the Underwoods in House of Cards or the Grants in Scandal (indeed the latter features a first lady who is willing to do just about everything to cement her husband’s career so she can handle her own). But I think the most pertinent example can be found in The Good Wife.
For those who might have forgotten, the story centers on Alicia Florrick (expertly portrayed by Juliana Margulies) as the wife of a Cook County Attorney whose husband is forced to resign because of being caught with a prostitute in the Pilot. Throughout the series she builds up the reputation of ‘Saint Alicia’ for standing by her husband through his dark time even though it becomes increasingly clear as the series unfolds that he is completely unworthy of her affection.
Now to be clear, Alicia’s motives are purer than Hillary’s were — she has to support her children who still love and trust her father, and while she is willing to be a political wife — despite the hostility of her brother and mother — she does everything in her power to stay out of the spotlight and be supportive. But in retrospect, it seems very clear that the media did a similar spotlighting of Hillary’s political career. She didn’t introduce any particular legislation of note, she stayed in favor of the Second Gulf War until it was no longer politically viable to do so, and she never took any strong position when she was running for office. Yet so much of the media in both her Presidential campaigns considered her inevitable not because she was extraordinary qualified, but at least partially because of whom she was.
And there are clear parallels between the Florrick marriage and what we suspect is going on behind closed doors with the Clintons. Peter is found guilty of multiple infidelities (one with one of Alicia’s few friends) and eventually Alicia makes it clear this is a marriage in name only. (They spend much of the last two seasons only in the same room for political occasions.) Then there is the fact that in the sixth season Alicia is drafted to run for her husband’s old office — and it’s nearly a disaster from start to finish.
It should be noted that her run is pretty much arranged by her husband’s political manager Eli (the masterful Alan Cumming). Though Eli is basically a friend to her, he is loyal to Peter first and will utterly destroy his enemies and manipulate anyone to benefit Peter. The only reason he gets Alicia to run is because it will force an opponent of Peter’s out of the race; he no doubt thinks she can be controlled.
Everything that makes Alicia a good human being — her trust for other people, her compassion — makes her a bad candidate. She misread a commentator’s approach, does a bad interview, and then thinks the worst when she runs against her. She uses every trick in the book to win, including turning against her husband in the final days of the campaign. When she manages to win (after Peter manipulates the final turnout) her character is assassination, and then she is accused of election fraud. The machine which supported her now casts her aside in order to protect the legislative they have. Finally Alicia loses her position at the firm because she’s now considered political poison by a top client. Alicia goes into a depressive funk that she doesn’t come out of until the series is nearly over. In the final season, as her husband campaigns for President she can barely work up the patience to go through the motions
And that’s the truth about Hillary. She was a bad campaigner. She never seemed natural or real in any political debate or rally I saw her at. She lost the nomination in 2008 in part because her campaign believed in her own aura. She only got the nomination in 2016 because there were no credible opponents. (BTW, Bernie fans, Sanders did well in 2016 not because he was the voice of the masses but because he was the anti-Hillary vote. If someone more viable — a Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren or even Jerry Brown — had been in the race, Sanders would have been gone by South Carolina.) Hillary may have been a good Secretary of State but she was never a good politician. There’s a reason so many people thought she was going to win; it was the nature of the opposition.]
This actually gets me to a point of my first article. At the second Presidential Debate, everybody was infuriated when Trump — just a few days removed from the Access Hollywood recording — brought three women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault as his guests. It was a dirty trick and a horrible thing to do. It also brought forth the question no one in the media has ever been willing to ask.
Impeachment portrays Bill Clinton as nothing short of an angry sexual predator. When the Supreme Court rules unanimously that executive privilege doesn’t hold for him, he calls the worst decision they’ve ever made and when an aide gently brings up Dred Scott he tears him a new one. When an article runs in Time accusing him of being a sexual predator, he castigates them about JFK’s behavior (I’ve been through this before) and when someone brings up it’s a different time, he lists his female appointments to the cabinet and judiciary and has the gall to say: “No President has done more for women than me.” He honestly doesn’t see the hypocrisy in his behavior. And the thing is, neither have many Democrats or the media.
I once wondered why no one poll during the Republican Primary ever asked if Trump’s being on television affected why primary voters for him. Similarly, I wonder why no one during either of Hillary’s campaigns ever asked whether Bill Clinton’s presence was an asset or a hindrance, particularly among female voters. Just as in the former case, I don’t know if it would have mattered but I do know the question should have been asked and never was.
This actually brings me to an interesting side note. Immediately after Trump’s inaugurations, there have been scores of women’s marches and an outcry against sexual harassment in general throughout America — #MeToo and #Time’sUp. Would we have seen similar outrage if Clinton had been elected? Indeed, the follow up series of The Good Wife, The Good Fight actually asked that question in the Season 4 premiere. Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) wakes up in a world where Hilary won the 2016 election. Considering all the chaos that she has been living through the last three seasons (the series has made it abundantly clear how broken the world is) it seems positively utopian. Then the firm she works for announces a meeting with their new client — Harvey Weinstein.
That’s the thing about our country. We only care about outrages when our people who’ve been shortchanged. We all yell now at the hypocrisy of the GOP every time the party of family values has a sexual predator in elected office. What did we expect them to learn when a man who clearly was one not only was acquitted of the crime but we spent the next twenty years essentially blaming the victims? If they’re a Christine Ford, they must be believed. If they’re Paula Jones, well, what did she think was going to happen when she went into a room with him?
For the record, I voted for Hillary in 2016 more out of obligation than any enthusiasm. Given by own druthers, I would have rather have voted for Gary Johnson. I admit, her Presidency would have been better for the country internationally and on almost every other front, but if you really think it would have been transformational, you’ve forgotten what the country was like during the Obama Presidency. And why would have been special? Hilary wasn’t a saint or a great legislator or executive. She was just another opportunistic politician. All of them are to an extent. They may not all be monsters but they’re not saints.