Disclosure: From roughly 2000 through 2008, half or more of my household income came from my wife’s direct employment with Bill or Hillary Clinton. Toward the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency, she worked at the White House Domestic Policy Council; after that, she became a legislative aide working on health policy in the newly opened office of Hillary Clinton in the Senate; finally she worked for the Clinton Foundation, establishing its HIV/AIDS program in China.
This has influenced my outlook on Bill and Hillary Clinton, and on politics in general. This influence has been both positive and negative. Mostly, it means that the terms of discussion can often seem alien to me.
One crude and obvious example, relevant to the current election cycle, is that my understanding of Hillary Clinton is that she is basically a decent human being, who has a kind and parental personal character. That belief, based on close secondhand exposure, is at odds with many people’s strongly held opinions about Hillary Clinton’s personal character, based on their readings of her public character.
This is what we do with public figures, and I might draw similar conclusions myself, given the same set of evidence. It’s not at all unreasonable. But in this case, it strikes me as hollow and overconfident.
Bernie Sanders is, to my considerably more distant secondhand understanding, a likable and principled legislator. I have trouble seeing the contest between the former Senate colleagues in Manichean terms.
My ideas of Bill Clinton were solidly formed at a distance. I despised Bill Clinton from the moment I first saw him, on television in 1988, giving a brutally dull, long, and self-promoting speech to the Democratic National Convention that effectively began the slow suffocation of the Michael Dukakis campaign. Four years later, in my first opportunity to vote for president, I cast my ballot against him in the Democratic primary. My best recollection is that I voted for Paul Tsongas.
From that day till this one, I have yet to vote for the eventual nominee in any contested Democratic presidential primary. Unable to vote against Bill Clinton, I voted against Al Gore. I’m not sure who I voted for in 2004. I’d meant to vote for Howard Dean, but looking back, I see he was already out. It might have been John Edwards; I had a theory about how trial lawyers could represent a politically promising confluence of the American urge to get rich quick and the yearning for justice. It wasn’t John Kerry.
In 2008, I didn’t vote in the primary, because I was living abroad and getting the ballot was a hassle, but mostly because I basically liked both candidates and didn’t feel like choosing. I guessed that Hillary Clinton would get off to a more effective start before getting eventually mired in adversity and scandal, while Barack Obama would struggle for a while before he got rid of the idealist-careerists around him and hit his stride. That wasn’t exactly how things worked out, but I didn’t regret it.
Getting closer to Bill Clinton did not fundamentally alter my view that Bill Clinton is a monster. Monsters are what our political system is built to produce, and he is one. The most persuasive particulars in the case against Hillary Clinton are largely carried over from the case against Bill Clinton—except her vote for the invasion of Iraq, and it’s impossible to doubt which way Bill Clinton would have voted on that one, had he been in a position to vote. Watching the Iraq invasion become a fait accompli was exactly like watching welfare reform go through, or seeing Lani Guinier hung out to dry: cowardice doing business as principle, and possibly even believing itself to be principle.
The mere demographic fact of Bill Clinton was offensive. He embodied the doctrine that an urban, coastal, ethnically and racially diverse political coalition could only survive if it were represented by blockheaded Southern men, its least talented subgroup. His politics followed from that, a smarmy self-styled centrism designed to systematically drain hope from the political left, to forestall the very idea of substantive change or even a choice among competing options. Cancel out the distinguishing vectors of politics and you have the Third Way.
None of this really involves any special knowledge. If you read the news you are aware that Bill Clinton is a starfucker, top and bottom. Bill Clinton has a weakness of personality that leads him to say yes to everyone, and he says yes to bad people, and he appears to have said yes to bad people at a high enough rate to suggest that he is biased toward associating with bad people or encouraging them to ask him for favors.
Yet he was the president, and good people worked for him, because they wanted to do good things. The world around the Clintons has plenty of good people involved in it. In Michelle Goldberg’s Slate essay about why she is supporting Hillary Clinton, despite a long and agonizing list of reasons not to, she wrote, fairly far down the piece, “Her overall voting record in the Senate was to the left of both Obama and Joe Biden.”
This aspect of the Clinton experience almost certainly carries more weight with me than it does with most political observers. When Hillary Clinton talks about incremental programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, while Bernie Sanders calls for universal single payer coverage, I’m conscious of what a tremendous grind went into building and expanding CHIP. When scandal stories came out about the Clinton Foundation spending lots of money on salaries and travel, I understood that salaries and travel would have included things like hiring doctors and flying them to deep rural China to treat AIDS patients.
I’m not always sure which way exposure to the totality of the Clintons biases me. Knowing that Mark Penn and Doug Band were people doing daily work can’t help but have its effect. In the event that Ted Cruz places his hand on the Bible next January and pledges to destroy everything decent that America has accomplished in the past 100 years, even as I contemplate with horror the vicious and broken world my children will inherit, some small part of me will be warmed by the knowledge that certain people who had high hopes for their role in a new Clinton presidency are eating shit.
In either event, my wife has contributed money to the Hillary Clinton campaign, and she took our children to the Clinton campaign kickoff event on Roosevelt Island. She has no designs, however, on any job in a new administration. We prefer living in New York to living in Washington D.C., and we prefer the hours and conditions of our current jobs to the hours and conditions of political work. (Her current employer is Rutgers, which makes her a New Jersey state employee. Here I note that Chris Christie’s mismanagement of the state budget has made her benefits much worse, and at one point nearly cost her several thousand dollars in research funding. Christie’s decision to pilfer federal tunnel-construction dollars also guarantees her commute will be difficult. I am personally biased against Chris Christie because he is a lousy executive and he has made our lives worse.)
Those are my connections. Here was my experience of meeting Bill Clinton: I had gone with my wife to a White House holiday party—the eggnog was the best eggnog I have ever had in my life—and the President and First Lady were shaking hands with the guests, so I shook his hand. His hand was smooth but the overwhelming impression I had was that looking Bill Clinton in the face was exactly like looking at a big photograph of Bill Clinton. There had been a portrait of him in a magazine, I believe by Martin Schoeller in the New Yorker, with the president’s face filling an entire page, and all I could think was that it was just like that.
Then I went on to greet the First Lady and a small but memorable thing occurred, quite by accident. Hillary Rodham Clinton had been shaking hand after hand, like her husband, and as I moved along the line I had been aware of her politely repeating the same friendly platitude to each, Thank you for coming, or Happy holidays, something forgettable. The moment I reached her happened to be the moment that she had hit her limit with that particular utterance, through boredom or semantic fatigue. Like a swimmer making a turn at the wall, she paused and briefly broke the surface. Her eyes ceased the performance of eye contact and focused, and she said something different—It’s nice to meet you, maybe. It sounded, that once, like an ordinary person speaking. I moved on, and she repeated it to the next person, back in rhythm.