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The Grandeur of Hillary Clinton: Untrustworthiness and Social Progress

Why the Democratic presidential nominee’s steadfast nonideological wonkiness is less about her, and more about us

Paul Berman
July 28, 2016
Clinton Presidential Library
Clinton Presidential Library

Hillary Clinton owes her reputation for untrustworthiness to a single large and admirable decision that she made long ago; and to a series of baffled responses that her decision aroused and continues to arouse; and to the hatreds and paranoias that, like weeds or fungi, eventually sprang from the bafflement—a long history. And every new phase in the long history has done her credit, even if some of those phases require too much explanation.

The large and admirable decision was one that she made in the middle 1970s, she and Bill together, in setting out to pursue a joint career. The two of them had attended Northern and Eastern colleges and universities (and, in Bill’s case, Oxford) at a moment when, among the students, political opinions and cultural assumptions tilted sharply and even radically to the left. In 1969, Hillary was a protest leader at Wellesley, and Bill helped organize one of the big anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at Oxford—which means that both of them breathed the left-wing air and thought the thoughts, even if neither of them veered into the extremes. And then, like everyone else who had gotten caught up in the broad, liberal-and-radical, capital-M Movement of those days, they noticed after a while that left-wing breezes from the universities and the countercultural zones were not about to sweep the country. They campaigned for George McGovern. The nature of his defeat did not suggest that similar campaigns, sharply left-wing and confrontational, were a good idea for the future. Only, what was a good idea, in that case? The Clintons came up with a good idea, and it was different from everyone else’s.

Some people with backgrounds like theirs decided to accept the national reality, and shucked off their student ideas altogether, and went about pursuing political careers in a conventional fashion. Other people with backgrounds in the protest movements preferred to retreat to the college towns or the hippie districts, where they could reject the national reality altogether and, even so, pursue agreeably left-wing political careers on a local scale. There was the example of Bernie Sanders of the University of Chicago, five or six years older than the Clintons, with Old Left connections that were never theirs but drawing on the same left-wing university atmosphere—Bernie, who sought out the modest successes that might be achieved in the arcadia of Burlington, Vermont.

But Hillary and Bill settled on something else. They decided to accept the national reality and to plunge into it—and, even so, to retain whatever seemed viable in their grand-scale progressive ideas and their cultural sensibilities. They did this in the boldest way imaginable, too, which was by adopting Bill’s home state of Arkansas as their base—Arkansas, which gave 31 percent of its vote to McGovern. They entered Arkansas politics—Bill as a vote-seeking politician, Hillary as the leader of this or that reform campaign. And they did this with the intention of avoiding McGovern’s fate.

Maybe if the two of them had been theoretically inclined, they would have tried to come up with a new doctrine of American history and economics and political philosophy to explain what they hoped to achieve—some new account of American politics that might allow them to tiptoe past the left-right ideological wars that had proved so fatal to everyone else on the left. They were not political philosophers, though. They were hands-on politicians, and they were policy wonks, and their only prospect for Arkansas success was to maneuver on a basis of politics and wonkery, and nothing else. Politics meant human contact and tiny audiences, a specialty of Bill’s, where highfalutin ideological debates could be avoided. Politics also meant raising cash, which brought them into the murks of Arkansas banking and real estate—a necessity, given that neither of them came from wealthy families. Wonkery meant narrow policy questions and specific details, stripped of grand philosophical themes—a specialty of both of them. They became Ronald Reagan, upside down: all programmatic specifics and no generalities. Policy laundry lists were their poetry. They were masters of the non-ringing phrase—another necessity, given that in the America of the 1970s and ’80s and after, ringing phrases had to be either right-wing or left-wing, and right-wing phrases had no appeal to them, and left-wing phrases meant doom.

Did the world insist on bestowing ideological labels, anyway? The Clintons in Arkansas acquired one from the Democratic Leadership Council, which presented itself as a centrist current within the Democratic Party, different from the liberalism of the North. Bill became the titular leader of the council, which was a good move, politically speaking. The DLC gave him a national stage. Centrism was a misleading label, though. It was true that in order to win his elections, Bill showed a willingness to compromise even on his compromises. Centrism, though, implies a centrist personality, acceptable to everyone across the political and cultural spectrum, and this was not the Clintons. The left-wing generational stamp clung to their personalities—the double-career egalitarian marriage (“Buy one, get one free”), an openness to the world, an air of modernity instead of tradition, a visceral antiracism. And they kept up their friendships from student days with the policy wonks who grew older with them and went on refining their original social-egalitarian progressive ideals. Ideologically, the Clintons were indefinable then—and this, too, was a good move, politically speaking.

II. The Distrust Emerges

Indefinability allowed Bill to win in 1992. He may have squeaked by with 43 percent of the vote, given the three-way election, but winning was winning. His victory broke what had seemed to be a nearly permanent Republican lock on national elections, since 1968. The victory seemed to suggest that back in Arkansas, he and Hillary had perfected the formula for overcoming the ideological tide that had pulled America to the right. Only, they had discovered no such formula; they had merely maneuvered. The Republicans saw it, too, and were bound to feel that something was dishonest about Bill’s campaigns. In Republican eyes, Bill had won his victories because he had deviously presented himself as a bit of a conservative—only to reveal once he had arrived at the White House that he was a liberal.

Then again, a solid strand of liberals likewise began to see in Bill—and in Hillary, too, soon enough—a devious dishonesty. The solid liberals felt that Bill in the 1992 election had presented himself as a liberal, only to behave, once he was in office, like a conservative—a champion of NAFTA, an enemy of the old welfare system. So the liberals and the conservatives joined together, in effect, and launched their accusations against the Clintons in stereophonic harmony from the left and the right, and presented the Clintons as devious people, not at all like the Mondale-and-Dukakis straight arrows of the Democratic Party, and not at all like the straight-arrow Reaganites of the Republicans. And very quickly and fatefully the stereophonic attacks singled out Hillary especially.

That was because, back in Arkansas, Bill had relied on Hillary to lead their campaigns for difficult policy reforms—in rural health care, in education—and he called on her to do the same in the White House. She led a taskforce to work up his principal social reform, which was supposed to be a national health-care system. This was a vast project in every respect—historically, economically, socially—a project to deal a major blow against the inequalities of American life. Hillary proceeded exactly as might have been expected, given their Arkansas experiences. She and her team incorporated into their proposal the fundamental commitment to pursue progressive goals in a nonideological fashion. Into the proposal went any number of market mechanisms and a role for private companies, which Harry Truman would never have abided, and which the Western Europeans and Canadians had never considered. But the Clintons wanted to conciliate the Reaganites and at the same time advance their egalitarian goal. Nor was this only a matter of balancing ideologies. Their health-care proposal was going to reorder some 15 percent of the national economy, and they wanted to minimize the shock to the system.

They proposed the reform. And the right-and-left bafflement over the Clintons’ ideological ambiguities erupted into rage. The right wing thought that Hillary was foisting a Soviet bureaucracy on America while pretending to be doing nothing of the sort. The left wing thought that Hillary was shilling for the insurance companies while pretending to be progressive. Doctors, even liberal-minded ones, felt that Hillary had bypassed them in devising the bill, in token of her authoritarian nature. Around the country, hardly anyone put up a fight on the program’s behalf, which was pathetic, considering how vastly the program would have democratized American life. And the proposal failed, which brought down still more torrents of accusatory nonsense upon Hillary’s head.

That was a catastrophe, politically speaking, and—if my readers will allow me to recall another bit of history—it was followed instantly by a larger catastrophe: a big victory for the Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections, which swept away the Democratic majority. Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House. At the time, these developments were sometimes attributed to a single issue, which was another of Bill’s progressive actions, and the Democratic Party’s: a ban on assault weapons.

But I think, in looking back on those days, that anger over the assault-weapons ban and anger over Hillary’s health-care proposal fatally overlapped, and the overlap was a response to the whole spirit of cultural reform that had come out of the radical 1960s. As long as the Republican Party dominated the White House, the right wing could feel that cultural reforms from the 1960s had remained safely confined to their college-town reservations and the hippie zones. But with the Clintons in power, the right-wing fears grew more intense, and Hillary became their focus. It was because of her leadership role in the health-care proposal. She turned out to be more than a simple wife. She became a symbol of women’s power and of egalitarian marriage—of marvels that had never been seen before on a national scale—or scarcely ever. A substantial public recoiled from the health-care proposal not just because it was a communist plot, but because it was a feminist plot.

As for opposition to the assault weapons, what was that about? It is worth noticing what the champions of gun rights tend to say even in our own time, and not just in the 1990s. They speak about the Second Amendment in a spirit of libertarian concern over the Constitution. But they also conjure an obsessive private concern, which is a husband’s need to defend his home and his wife and children from criminal invasion—to defend his home with a military weapon. This is a preposterous worry, given that a wave of home invasions has not been taking place. But the preposterous worry proposes a romantic image of masculinity—an antique image of patriarchal power from mythic frontier times, when social hierarchies were well-defined, and men were men, and women were women. A masculine nostalgia for a bygone age now under subversive attack by the radicals of the 1960s, as shown by the non-wife, Hillary Clinton—yes, this was at least one of the sentiments expressed by rage against gun control in 1994.

There was something more. Bill and Hillary, by trying to control weapons and expand health care—by dealing wonkishly with discrete issues, one at a time—had unintentionally set off a large and vague cultural crisis, and the crisis took a particular shape, which may be hard to recall. During the entire period from the 1950s into the ’90s, the cultural-reform movements—for black equality, for women’s equality, eventually for gay rights, and so forth—in the eyes of the left appeared to be straightforward reforms, conforming to a modernized appreciation of democratic morality. But, in the eyes of tradition-minded conservatives, the reform movements were never what they claimed to be. They were campaigns for moral collapse. This was certainly how true-blue conservatives began to look upon Hillary and Bill and their various proposals. The true-blue conservatives had hoped to discover in the Clintons a conventional family from Arkansas with conservative values in a Democratic version. But the spectacle, instead, of a modern and egalitarian marriage, evidently animated by the radical cultural ideas from the 1960s, led them to fear the moral collapse. And they responded by looking for what anyone might expect, on the occasion of a moral collapse. This was crime.

III. Crime and Politics

The accusation that corruption lay at the heart of the Clintons’ success got its start in the world of Arkansas politics, where enmities are bitter and the murks, murky. Somehow it was The New York Times that brought the accusations into the national debate. Why did the Times do this? It was on grounds of journalistic responsibility, I am sure. By the mid-’90s, the conservative loathing for the Clintons had become visibly intense. The accusations had taken on a distinctive intensity. And the journalists could only have felt that because their own role ought not to be partisan, they ought to take the accusations seriously enough to conduct at least a small investigation. They conducted one. They discovered that, in Arkansas, corruption was indeed a reality, and some of the people around the Arkansas State House were less than savory, which ought not to have been astonishing to learn. They discovered that, on one occasion, Hillary made a sensational return on a modest investment, which raised eyebrows.

But because the investigators never seemed to turn up anything manifestly illegal, they expanded the small investigation into a larger one, until every square inch of Arkansas politics, banking, and real estate seemed to have been raked over. Still no definitive black mark on the Clintons emerged, which might have suggested that maybe the Clintons had not, in fact, pushed their business dealings beyond the law—or else indicated that Clintonian deviousness, being invisible, was greater even than imagined.

And, in Washington, the Republicans, not to be outdone by the Times, beat a drum for still further investigation, which led to the appointment of Ken Starr as special prosecutor. And Starr ran amok. He never did find a basis to accuse the Clintons of Arkansas corruption (though by that time the state of Arkansas had been rendered into an archeological dig, with investigators turning over every last bit of soil with spoons), nor did he conclude that Hillary Clinton was responsible for the murder of her troubled friend Vince Foster (who had committed suicide). But Starr did discover, at least, that Bill was an erring husband. Starr was Captain Ahab, and he had caught a tadpole. He discovered the dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. He even discovered a way to shine a light of illegality over the affair, which was by trapping Bill into doing what any cornered husband would do, which was to deny everything. Criminality, at last! And at that point, a good half of the American population went out of its mind.

The impeachment campaign against Bill was the largest scandal in American political history. It was scandalous to invade the president’s private life on such a matter. It was scandalous to take the sexual details of his affair and inflict them upon the public at hearings and in official documents. It was scandalous to subject Monica Lewinsky to humiliation. It was scandalous to concoct a constitutional crisis out of nothing—a trial in the Senate, as if Bill had been accused of being (say) in cahoots with Putin. The accusations were not confined merely to Bill. No one had ever seriously taxed Hillary with sexual crimes (though for a while an entire rumor-mill about lesbianism went into action), but even so, she was made to appear to be a participant in underground shadiness of every sort, not an idealist at all, but a corrupt lawyer from Arkansas who had pursued her life of crime in the White House. The accusations were crazy. They expressed the cultural anxieties, though, which amounted to a national nervous breakdown, brought about by feelings of right-wing upset over the cultural reforms of the 1960s and by paranoid bafflement over the Clintons’ effort to overcome the ideological wars.

The impeachment crisis in 1998 was, of course, Bill’s finest hour. It was the finest because throughout the scandal he retained his dignity, which required a massive strength on his part. And he retained his sense of presidential obligation. At exactly the moment of severest pressure during the crisis, al-Qaida launched its campaign against the United States, beginning with bombings of the American embassies in East Africa. Bill calmly dealt with the attacks and went so far as to order a small-scale military retaliation in Sudan and Afghanistan (which, by the way, caused an entire group of left-wing intellectuals to join the Republican campaign for impeachment—such was the insanity of the moment). Here was the origin of the war on terror. The Senate in those days had lost any reasonable sense of national priorities; Joseph Lieberman in particular had lost any reasonable sense: he orated orotundly to the Senate on Bill’s moral decay. But Bill himself remained focused on al-Qaida and a series of other such matters. This was his moment to display character.

A large public was impressed. And a large public began to notice that something had gone wrong with the Republicans. The Republicans had evidently yielded to their own hatreds, and they had ended up drunk, until they had brought the government to a halt in one of Newt Gingrich’s congressional moves, and had very nearly brought the executive branch to a halt by holding a trial of the president. And under those circumstances, a great many people on the left side of the spectrum—the very people who in the past may have harbored their own reservations and suspicions about the Clintons—began to think that perhaps they had been wrong in doing so. Maybe the Clintons had noticed something that everyone else on the left side of the spectrum was slower to observe, which was a dangerous quality in the Republican Party—maybe the Clintons had been right to think that, whatever else might occur, the Democrats had better stop losing elections. The Clintons began to look not so indefinable, after all, under those circumstances. They looked like the Republican Party’s most effective and hardbitten opponents. They looked, finally, progressive, not to mention patriotic.

IV. The Grandeur of Hillary Clinton

But it was Hillary who began to look best. She had not stumbled into the crisis by screwing up her personal life. She was the victim. The attacks against her were disgraceful—attacks on every level, aimed at every possible thing: her political judgment, her personal character, her basic honesty, her friendships, her marriage. And yet, even if her husband had betrayed her, she appeared to be unflappable—never weak or panicky, never wild with rage, never depressed or overwhelmed, never vengeful, always sober, cool, poised, articulate, and determined. She was magnificent. People did notice. One of them was Charles Rangel, the Harlem congressman, who additionally observed that every time Hillary was attacked, which was constantly, a great many people in New York state reacted angrily—not at Hillary, but at her attackers. Rangel proposed her for senate. She went about campaigning in the style that she and Bill had perfected in Arkansas, with small-scale meetings and local studies of economic problems, programmatically imaginative and ideologically unimaginative. She displayed her steely unflappability, and this sufficed to get her elected. Perhaps it will go on sufficing during the next months. It is a powerful trait.

And yet nothing will ever suffice to sweep away the decades of calumny that have come her way. The Republican panic, and sometimes a liberal panic, that she and Bill aroused with their attempt to create a new kind of politics back in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s became a self-generating phenomenon long ago that requires nothing to go on perpetuating itself. Otherwise the scandal over al-Qaida’s success at Benghazi in 2012 would never have been a scandal, nor would there be a scandal over her emails from when she was secretary of state. The real scandal, in the case of the Benghazi attack and the emails both, is Congress’ refusal to fund American diplomacy properly. The diplomats in Benghazi needed a more sophisticated security system and found themselves instead in the position of a great many American diplomats around the world, who have to function on less. The State Department email system has been hopeless from top to bottom—an antiquated system that nobody in the department wants to use, which was hacked by the Russians and by everyone else. At least in the case of Hillary’s private server, we do not know that it was successfully hacked, though possibly it was. Not a single whit of harm to the United States from her unsecured emails has turned up—unlike in the successful hacking by Edward Snowden. In any event, nothing in these matters would have drawn attention to Hillary were it not for the accumulated history of accusations.

What can she do about this history? There are many things I wish she would, in fact, do. I wish she would at last work up a talent for philosophical reflection. I wish she would update the 1970s-’80s style of identity politics that has overwhelmed the Democratic Party. I wish she would come up with something grander than a laundry-list concept of social reform. I wish she would speak frankly to the public about the difficulties and grotesqueries of politics and money in the modern age. I wish she were better at predicting how big-money dealings are bound to look. I wish she had given more careful thought to the fund-raising at the Clinton Foundation. I wish she were shrewder at avoiding political dustups of one sort or another. She is accused of being canny. I wish she were cannier. But I won’t go on.

Nothing that I wish has any chance of bringing to an end the accusations against her and their cumulative effect. The accusations are her destiny—and ours. Ultimately the accusations against Hillary Clinton are a product of the cultural advances of the last half century and more. They are the reactionary detritus of social progress. They are the wake that churns after the ship has passed. The position that she has taken in regard to the accusations is the right one. If she is absolutely obliged to respond to a particular accusation, she will do so. Otherwise, she chooses to ignore the accusations, and she is firm in doing so, and has always been firm, and will always be firm, and this is correct.


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Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.

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