'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Sunday, January 27, 2008


Turns out that Hillary Clinton supporters take offense at describing her and her husband as Billary. Today, it has turned up in the context of this column by Frank Rich in today's New York Times. It's a right wing meme, they say, and, of course, it's implicitly misogynistic, Hillary is the candidate, not Bill.

Oh, really? Apparently, they missed the South Carolina primary, where Hillary skeedadled out of the state after Monday's debate, calling upon her husband to protect her against the awful black man. So, while Hillary spent time within the comfortable confines of Harlem in her home state of New York, safe and secure from having to confront the trauma of a dealing with the self-assured Obama in a state with numerous African American admirers, Bill, her chivalrous husband, traveled around South Carolina lecturing reporters while trying to solidify the white vote behind his wife. He was even gentlemanly enough to make her concession speech for her.

It brought tears to the eyes, truly, and reminded me of how Ashley Wilkes and his friends rode to Scarlett's rescue in Gone With the Wind. Unfortunately, there was no happy ending for Hillary. Her decision to delegate South Carolina to her husband, apparently in the belief that Bill was more popular, contributed to an overwhelming defeat. Criticizing Obama for being friendly with a slumlord named Rezko, after the Clintons graciously had their picture taken with him while in the White House, didn't help, either. It wasn't much of a surprise, after all, if Rezko is that sleazy, it makes perfect sense that he crossed paths with the Clintons, whose history with ethically challenged fundraisers is notorious.

But, then, maybe, you can't play in the big leagues of US politics without associating with people who accumulate money in the most unsavory of ways. Even the straight talker himself, John McCain, took a lot of money from a corrupt savings and loan operator named Charles Keating. No, the most interesting aspect of Bill's appearances in South Carolina as a surrogate for his wife is the extent to which it raises paradoxical questions about Hillary as the feminist candidate, the woman on the verge of breaking the ultimate glass ceiling by becoming the President of the United States.

Hillary is an extraordinarily talented individual, a skilled attorney, among other things, who might, if she had never married Bill, become a Federal Circuit Court of Appeals justice, or even a justice of the United States Supreme Court. During an earlier reincarnation, before welfare reform and the war in Iraq, she was a dogged children's advocate who may have become a Secretary of Health and Human Services, or served in a similar capacity internationally. But even the most cursory exposure to her political persona reveals that it is doubtful that she would have progressed far in electoral politics without Bill.

She is elitist, condescending and petty when challenged, as are a lot of politicians, except that she can't avoid displaying these qualities publicly. Campaigning is not second nature to her, a term that is frequently applied to baseball and basketball players who have attempted to learn new skills as professionals is apt here: one might say, as sportswriters of say of them, that she is mechanical. Her response to being confronted with the Rezko photograph was classic Hillary: we don't know the guy she said, we've taken pictures with thousands of people.

Now, that last part is undoubtedly true, except that Hillary, in her typical dismissive style, made sure to underscore that, boy, taking those pictures with all those nobodies sure was a chore. It was reminscent of the Lou Reed/John Cale song about Andy Warhol's contempt for his fans in later years, Nobody But You. Most people don't get far in electoral politics by expressing such obvious disinterest in the people that they purportedly want to represent, unless, of course, you have a partner whose personal qualities of charm and charisma compensate for it.

It is, however, a gross exaggeration to claim, as Chris Matthews did, I believe, that Hillary would be nowhere without Bill, as if Bill handed everything over to her. It is more accurate to say that Bill's presidency created the opportunity for her to become a Senator from New York, an opportunity that she seized through hard work and her trademark political toughness. Furthermore, Bill and Hillary were, in many ways, a team, the Clinton presidency was a joint project, even if Bill was the managing partner, so Hillary did participate in the achievements that lead to her election to the Senate in her own right. Hillary may have made a lot of mistakes (health care, Zoe Baird, anyone?), but separating Bill from any culpability as well can be fairly said to reflect a resentment towards a woman in a position of power.

South Carolina revealed that, when Hillary gets in trouble, she turns to Bill to salvage the situation. Not exactly a paragon of feminist self-reliance. Perhaps, though, the fact that it failed so miserably will induce Hillary to further assert her independence from Bill, and those other practical men around her, like her campaign manager, Mark Penn. It may well be the only way for her to become the next President, although her lack of magnamity towards Obama after his victory remains troubling. Meanwhile, it might be a good idea for her supporters to become less thin skinned, and embrace the more complex aspects of her political relationship with her husband. Yes, they might just admit, Bill Clinton played an indispensable role in the emergence of Hillary as a major political figure in the country, and what's wrong with that? If you want to describe that relationship as Billary, go ahead, we're proud of it.


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