Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Jazzman's Wife

Sitting alongside her husband in Alabama this week, Hillary Clinton looked small. Diminished.

This is, no doubt, why her strategists have been determined to keep the two apart in public appearances. Not because as the publicly cuckolded and humiliated spouse she must detest him, but because seeing her sitting alongside him evokes so many images––images that do not serve her well.

Hillary is small and diminished next to Bill exactly because he is large, and larger than life. He is a titanic political figure, and as much as she struggles to emit the intellectual grasp that was one aspect of his persona, she has none of his touch of the common man. She lacks any measure of his deeply felt empathy for the individual, whether in Appalachia, the inner ring suburb or the inner city. Sitting there, as much as we might feel her pain, we know that she does not feel ours.

Worse still, sitting next him, one knows that behind all of her pretenses to being the candidate with real experience in the world, she is a one-term Senator––much as Obama and Edwards––and two-term First Lady. Internationally, she is a rock star, but the image of her sitting next to her husband reinforces, visually and viscerally, that she is the first derivative of a powerful political figure, and that her rise to Senator, and any hope she might have of the Presidency, demands that he be at her side. She had no choice to leave him in the wake of his infidelities if she was to achieve her own ambitions.

And that is the other image that strikes the observer, for Bill is nothing if not authentic, while Hillary sits as yin to his yang, the candidate who is packaged and careful and whom one never really believes that one can ever know.

As George W. Bush settles in for his last two years with approval ratings below 30%, and with America’s image in the world lying in tatters at his feet, do we really want another President who is driven to define herself against someone else, or some image of whom people think them to be? The Bush Presidency was undone in the beginning by the President and team’s rejection of all things Clinton. From their rejection of the outgoing administration’s concerns over Al Qaeda to the dismantling of FEMA, decisions early on derived from a compulsion to reject any notion that their hated predecessor––the Slick Willy who continually confounded their best-laid plans––could have gleaned any wisdom about the world during his eight years in office. Then, as Iraq loomed, the Bush Presidency was further damaged by the President’s determination to turn away from his father’s path, and to reject the entreaties of his father’s advisors, from Scowcroft’s plea to stay out of Iraq early on, to the President’s skillful marginalization of Jim Baker and the Iraq Study Group just a few months ago.

Now, Hillary looms as a candidate similarly defined by the struggle to be her own self, even as the world knows that she would never be where she is but for Him. Her struggle against the shadow of the man sitting next to her in Alabama this week was demonstrated by her overreaction to David Geffen’s suggestion that lying comes too easily to the Clintons. Rather than simply suggest that Geffen never disparaged them when he was spending the night in the Lincoln Bedroom, or that his bitterness dated to Bill Clinton’s decision not to pardon American Indian leader and convicted murderer Leonard Pelletier, Hillary lashed out at Geffen and attacked him for engaging in the “politics of personal destruction.”

Of course, it wasn’t about personal destruction. But it was intensely political, as Hillary was stuck––as she often will be as she continues on the long sprint to Iowa and New Hampshire––between her desire to leverage the patina of the Clinton Presidency, while rejecting ties to its more sordid moments. She could not give a straightforward response to Geffen, because it suggest her complicity in the selling of the Lincoln Bedroom for campaign contributions, and worse, the selling of Presidential Pardons to the likes of Billionaire tax cheat Marc Rich.

Hillary’s over-wrought reaction to Geffen, and her subsequent appearance with Bill in Alabama, do not speak well for her ability to navigate her campaign through the long months ahead. Despite an overwhelming advantage in fundraising, name recognition and organization, there is a sense of incipient panic in the Clinton camp, and tetchiness in her public comments. On the fundraising side, the Clinton finance team has threatened that donors must get on board early, or lose any credit later on, and warned them against giving to “both sides.” On the political side, bringing Bill down to Alabama showed an inability to stick to the game plan, and an astonishing lack of confidence in the candidate to deal with the problem at hand.

And the problem, of course, is Barack Obama. For months, the question on the Democratic side was who would emerge as the anti-Clinton, and over the course of 2006, several candidates took their turn in the sun. First there was Gore, then Mark Warner and then John Edwards. Each star rose and then set as the media moved on. Now, it is Obama’s turn, and he has begun to separate himself from the pack. But the Clinton campaign was not content wait to see if he would stumble along the way in the face of public and media scrutiny, perhaps because of the threat he posed to Clinton’s African American base, or perhaps just because he is so comfortable in his own skin and as such looms as such a stark contrast.

The numbers are only just beginning to justify such a strong response on the Clinton side. On Intrade, the online trading site that has emerged as a force in measuring political trends, the odds of a Clinton nomination remains around 50%, though they dropped to 46% in the wake of the Geffen dust-up. However, Obama has emerged as the clear threat, rising to 25% as Edwards odds have dropped from 20% to below 10%, and he has been lapped by resurgent Gore speculation. Polling results, which measure popularity rather than expected outcome, have been worse for Clinton, with some showing the gap narrowing toward 10%, with Obama a growing favorite among Black voters. Clearly, whatever gauge one chooses, the aura of inevitability has been pierced.

Hillary Clinton’s struggles as a candidate are just beginning. As she sat in Alabama next to Bill, the comparison did not serve her will. Unlike Maggie Thatcher, who when shown the Bronze statue of her that was unveiled before Parliament last week, commented that she would have preferred Iron, but Bronze would have to do, Hillary’s problem is that she lacks authenticity, and without authenticity, how can there be trust? When she voted for the war, was it out of conviction, or because she believed that to win the Presidency as a woman she needed to be tough? If she declines to apologize, is it because her original vote was one of conviction, or because as a female candidate she has determined that she must show a steel backbone? When all that she does reeks of strategy and tactics, how does one know who she really is?

Or, as an observer had to wonder as she sat next to Bill this week, did she stay with him because she loves him and forgave him his faults, or because she knew that without him, and the embrace of his success and popularity, she had no chance to win the White House? Is it personal, or is it just politics. Just strategy and tactics, but for which she would just be another one-term Senator with big ambitions, or more likely another Wall Street banker dreaming dreams of what might have been.