Hillary Clinton: a mystery after all these years

Crosscut archive image.

Sen. Hillary Clinton in Seattle (2008) (Orin O'Neill / Crosscut Flickr pool)

Over my many decades' observation and involvement in national politics, Hillary Clinton just plain has me stumped.

Is she ambition-driven, entitled and arrogant?  Is she committed to public service, intelligent and possessed of good human qualities? Well, yes.

Her Tuesday press conference, dealing with her e-mails as Secretary of State — which, it turns out, went through a private server in her home rather than through a secure government server — provided us with the most recent reason for perplexity. Her answers, given with assurance and a bit of condescension, simply raised fresh questions which will continue right into the 2016 electoral cycle. That is unfortunate for her and for Democrats, since she is her party's clear front runner for its presidential nomination next year.

What to make of Hillary?

I first became aware of her during the late 1960s, early 1970s when I was actively trying to stop the Vietnam War. She was among a bright, highly visible group of just-out-of-college leaders who were both against the war and  politically ambitious. From a Chicago North Shore family, Hillary Rodham was a Goldwater volunteer as a teenager. She went on to Wellesley and then to Yale Law School, where she met classmate Bill Clinton, an Arkansan of charm and similar ambition.

In 1971, helping Sen. George McGovern start his long-shot presidential campaign, I interviewed and hired Bill Clinton

as an organizer. He had been recommended by Rick Stearns, a fellow Rhodes Scholar with Clinton, who was the campaign's most able staff member (and who later would become a federal judge).

Most of his politically ambitious peers, unlike Clinton, were signing up at the time for the campaign of Sen. Ed Muskie, considered then a sure thing for the nomination. Most of the McGovern campaign staff was committed to stopping the war and thus backing anti-war candidate McGovern. They were the opposite of front runners.

Yet a friend of Clinton's, after he joined the campaign, told me that Clinton signed up with McGovern "because he thought it was the best place to advance his political career." Clinton was among the few McGovern supporters who spoke Southern so we sent him to Texas where, it would turn out, he spent as much time political networking on his own behalf as he did on behalf of McGovern. In the end it made little difference since McGovern never had a chance of carrying Texas in any circumstance. Hillary Rodham also worked in the campaign, although I was unaware of her at the time.

Afterward, Bill went home to Arkansas to launch a political career, which began with an unsuccessful run for a congressional seat.  Hillary remained in Washington, D.C. to work for a congressional committee investigating President Nixon's Watergate involvements. During that time she rented a room from another McGovern campaigner, a woman of great empathy and humor, who later would join the Clinton White House staff. One day, Hillary packed up and declared that she "was going to Arkansas to marry Bill Clinton."

"Does Bill know this?" her friend asked her. "No," Hillary replied, "but he soon will." Knowing of Clinton's womanizing reputation, her friend tried to dissuade Hillary from heading to Arkansas where, she thought, Hillary might be letting herself in for heartbreak. But she would not be deterred.

We know the ensuing story well. In time Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham did marry. They had a daughter, Chelsea. Hillary's parents moved from Chicago to Little Rock to be near their daughter and granddaughter. Gov. Clinton did continue his indiscriminate womanizing. But, in the governorship, he gave Hillary sufficient responsibilities so that, in voting for him, "you get two for the price of one," as he put it. Hillary took on responsibility for reform of the state's educational system. She also became a partner in the Rose Law Firm, the most politically connected in Little Rock. Between them, they also became involved in some of the enterprises which often characterize border-state politics: mysterious commodity-trading profits from one of the state's major businesses; investments in a land-development scheme; and, in Gov. Clinton's case, campaign contributions from people associated with drug trafficking.

Those Arkansas matters followed the Clintons to the presidency but would have gone away had not new issues arisen in the White House: a well-publicized attempted purge of the White House travel office by Hillary; the suicide of White House lawyer Vince Foster, Hillary's friend and former Little Rock law partner, and the sealing of his files by Hillary; Hillary's late discovery of subpoenaed legal documents she said she had found in her sewing basket; the conviction and sentencing of Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell, another former Little Rock law partner, for falsely billing Rose Law Firm clients; the solicitation of slush fund monies on Hubbell's behalf; massive Chinese contributions to Clinton political committees; Monica Lewinsky; Clinton's perjury before a grand jury; a flood of last-minute pardons and commutations for, among others, big campaign contributors and drug-law violators. The Clintons' principal political tactic, through all, was to attack and impugn the motives of all who questioned them. The Clintons, Hillary said, were victims of "a vast right-wing conspiracy" against them.

On the policy side, the Clinton presidency deserves good marks, in particular, for its stewardship of the economy and management of the Asian financial and Mexican peso crises, which could have brought down the global financial system. It was less successful in sponsoring financial deregulation which, later, led to the 2008 financial crisis. Its most notable failure probably was its health-care reform initiative, led and designed by Hillary, which had to be withdrawn in 1994 after it failed to gain either Republican or Democratic congressional support. The health-care debacle led directly that fall to the first GOP takeover of the House of Representatives in 40 years.

In her subsequent Senate career, representing New York, Hillary gained the respect of her colleagues for diligence and for doing her homework. She, like fellow Sen. John Kerry, voted for the Iraq intervention during the George W. Bush administration, on the basis that Saddam Hussein was continuing to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons which threatened the region. (I agreed with their votes; only later did we learn that the special-weapons programs had long since been discontinued.) She entered 2008 as the odds-on favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination.

In 2008 I was an enthusiastic supporter of Sen. Barack Obama. I thought he offered the best chance for a fresh start for the party and country. I had a sobering discussion, however, early that year in Washington, D.C. with an old friend and political professional. My friend was supporting Hillary, he said, because "Obama is a good talker but has no experience, knows little, and knows almost no one with whom he might form a government." We both had supported a similar candidate, Jimmy Carter, in 1976 and seen him flounder after he reached the White House.

I conceded Obama's relative lack of experience but also detected within the Democratic Party a general Clinton Fatigue. Obama's success that year, I thought, was partly due to the reluctance of many Democrats, including Democratic women, to back Hillary Clinton as their nominee. As it turned out, Hillary would have won the nomination anyway except for her campaign's strange strategy of concentrating only on major primary states while neglecting mid-size and smaller states. Her campaign won the big primary states but the Obama campaign, under the radar, swept the others and thus narrowly won the nomination: a stunning tactical blunder by someone so experienced in national politics as Hillary Clinton.

As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton traveled constantly. She had no notable successes or failures, the sole exception being her insistence on a U.S. military operation in Libya, avidly opposed by Secretary of Defense Bob Gates. In the aftermath Libya has become a failed state and, also, the site of the tragic Benghazi massacre of the U.S. ambassador and some staff. But no one would deny that her years of service there — after experience in Arkansas, the White House, and U.S. Senate — have provided her with deeper credentials than almost any recent presidential candidate. She also has the support of millions of women voters, in particular, who want to see the first woman president.

Why, then, the hesitations among so many who would like reasons to give her enthusiastic support?

One goes to her style. Way back in the 1980s, when Hillary was still First Lady of Arkansas, I helped as a consultant the Children's Defense Fund, which she then chaired, in building a better research capacity. I found that Defense Fund's staff admired their president, Marian Wright Edelman, but found Hillary to be imperious and unpalatable. (Later Marian Edelman and her husband, Peter Edelman, would break with the Clintons over their support of welfare reform legislation.)

Another irritant over the years has been the conduct of her key staff and supporters. They appear to tolerate only 110 percent support and strike back quickly at anyone who questions Hillary on any basis. Even constructive criticism is characterized as darkly motivated — as in the "vast right-wing conspiracy" formulations of the Clinton presidency.

Why, you wonder, would someone so experienced and seasoned be so reflexively defensive and on-the-attack? Staffs invariably reflect the characters and operating styles of their leaders. Where is the generosity or sense of good will toward even those who disagree?

I respect highly a number of people who have worked with and swear by Hillary. They would not commit to her casually. I have seen the love and loyalty she displayed toward her late mother and her daughter. I admire her ability to endure and weather the betrayals and embarrassments her husband has brought to her over the years.

We never know how presidents will perform once they finally assume office. Abraham Lincoln was much derided and mocked before he took office. Franklin Roosevelt, our most admired modern president, was regarded as a charming intellectual lightweight before he won the presidency yet showed greatness in dealing with Depression and World War II. Woodrow Wilson, a former Princeton University president, looked good on paper but foolishly drew us into World War I and afterward impinged seriously on civil liberties. His Wilsonian foreign policy has drawn us into subsequent wars. Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush and Barack Obama proved in their presidencies that prior inexperience in foreign or domestic policy should not be dismissed as a predictor of presidential success.

No one in recent history has approached a presidential election year with a stronger resume than Hillary Clinton. Yet I, for one, continue to be stumped by her. At times she can seem obtuse and her own worst enemy, lacking political instinct or intuitive human knowledge. At others I see her as the smartest kid in class, a bit clumsy but trying hard all the time and brimming with potential for higher service.

I often wonder: Who would Hillary be if still Hillary Rodham, liberated and herself, and not carrying the accumulated good and bad baggage of her marriage to Bill Clinton? Maybe she would be clearer to all of us.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.