Sunday, April 12, 2015

Ready for Hillary... or Not

So, in news that surprised absolutely no-one, Hillary Clinton announced she is running for president.  Compared to other such announcements, hers was comparatively low-key.  There was no arena speech, no press conference, no staged event.  Rather, she relied on the internet-- on YouTube and social media-- to launch her campaign.  And at the end of the beautifully-produced two-minute and eighteen second campaign video, Hillary asserted that she was running because "everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion."

There isn't much I can say about Hillary that hasn't been said before.  Like George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Dick Cheney, and Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton is an enormously polarizing figure.  Those who like her really, really like her.  And those who don't like her believe she is contemptible.  There seems to be no middle ground where she is concerned.  In fact, the intensity of the "Hillary haters" has always puzzled me-- and their negative feelings are not new.  Hillary haters can be found as far back as the 1970s, when she married Bill Clinton and decided to keep her name.  It was a time when many professional women (myself included) kept their name, but Bill had been elected governor of Arkansas, and traditionalists were horrified that she wanted to be known as Hillary Rodham rather than Mrs. Bill Clinton. 

And so it began.  People said she was too selfish, too ambitious, a political liability for her husband.  They criticized her hairstyle, her glasses, her outspokenness. In Arkansas, as in many other states, the wife of a politician was expected to know her place; and being a fiercely independent woman was controversial.  Bill Clinton's Republican opponents sensed an opportunity:  they tried to use Hillary's unpopularity to their advantage, manufacturing accusations of corruption and scandal that were supposedly linked to her.

Contrary to what her detractors believed (and still believe), none of the accusations ever proved to be true; but that didn't stop the media from covering the accusations relentlessly.  Nor did it stop talk show hosts later on from listing the supposed litany of evil deeds that Hillary had done.  Rightly or wrongly, Hillary came to regard the press as her enemy, part of what she called in 1998 a "vast right wing conspiracy" determined to destroy her and her husband.   In Arkansas, she ultimately did take her husband's name and tried to accept her role as a political wife.  But when she tried to focus on issues that a First Lady was supposed to care about, those who disliked her continued to be scornful, accusing her of being insincere. Then as now, people either liked her or hated her.  (An interesting article about that period of her life, which quotes friends who knew her in Arkansas, can be found here:

I'm not writing this blog post to defend Hillary Clinton, and I don't even know if I'll vote for her, assuming she gets the nomination.  Yes, as a second-wave feminist, of course I'd like to see a woman president in my lifetime.  And yes, I believe she has the qualifications and the experience; she was, after all, the first former First Lady to become a US senator or serve as Secretary of State.  And while I don't agree with every vote she cast or every policy she supported, I really do want to like her.  But I need to see her run a better campaign this time around than she did in 2008.  I need to know where she stands on a number of the issues I care about, and what her plan is for moving this country forward.  In other words, I need her to do what she pledged to do in her campaign video-- I need her to earn my vote, to tell me why voting for her is the right decision. 

But I also need the media, including the pundits and commentators, to do a better job of covering the electoral process.  Even today, much of the scrutiny aimed at female candidates (no matter what their political party) tends to be harsher and more judgmental than what is directed towards male candidates; too often, the coverage focuses on trivial things rather than on issues of substance.  I frankly don't care whether Hillary has wrinkles, or that she has an unusual laugh; the fact that she likes pantsuits rather than skirts is fine with me.  And I truly don't want to hear about Bill's infidelities all over again (as if somehow this was her fault).  Her detractors will haul out the same tired old accusations that began in the 1970s, and use the same distorted quotes.  I've heard that stuff already, as I've heard how she has "baggage"-- but so does just about every politician, so why does that even matter in 2015?  What I want to know, and I assume other voters feel the same, is what's her vision for our country's future, and how would she implement that vision.  More importantly, I want to know what she believes she can do better than Ted Cruz or Rand Paul or whoever else on the Republican side.

Things have improved greatly for women in politics:  it is no longer unusual for women to run successfully for congress, or become mayors and governors.  But not everything has changed.  To cite one example, First Ladies still have problems carving out their own identity: even in our modern age, the public's expectations of what a First Lady should do are quite traditional.  Much like it was in the 1950s, even a woman like Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama (or Laura Bush, for that matter), a college graduate who had a successful career before her husband became president, is expected to give up her career and focus on being a wife and mother, as well as finding a "cause" or a charity to occupy her time.   Much of the outrage Hillary evoked in some quarters when she was First Lady in the 1990s resulted from her wanting to participate in policy decisions, rather than accepting the more traditional role.  And now, she is running for president, the ultimate position of power.  Has America changed enough to give her candidacy (or that of any other qualified woman) a fair chance?  I don't know if America is "ready for Hillary"-- I'd like to believe we are, but it's so hard to predict the mood of the American public.  In the next few months, as her campaign progresses, I'll weigh in with further comments.

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