Raymond Chandler once wrote a great passage about drug addicts, but he might as well have been describing politicians, another group of people who rarely know when to quit without intervention.
The novelist said addicts at first turn to pills and shots just to get over the humps. Only after a while, he wrote, “It gets to be all humps.”
It’s gotten to be all humps for Hillary Clinton. She never really has an audience anymore. Instead, she’s almost always surrounded. That’s a bad place for a politician to be at the start of a grueling two-year popularity contest.
Back in 2008, I wrote a piece comparing Hillary to Richard Nixon, another politician driven by a feeling of being cornered. Back then, the similarities were political.
As Nixon had against Kennedy, Hillary in ’08 was running against a sunny, charismatic candidate who often got a pass from an adoring media. While it took Nixon eight years to find a way forward from that dilemma, Hillary against Barack Obama pivoted mid-race and recalibrated her politics to fit a disaffected, angry voting bloc, one that sympathized with her frustration:
Hillary has basically run exactly Nixon’s 1968 campaign. Her stump speech from the get-go was all about the “invisible Americans,” a nearly word-for-word echo of Nixon’s revolutionary “forgotten Americans” strategy of that year. She was targeting a slice of the electorate that had chosen to stay on the sidelines during a cultural war and secretly yearned for someone in the political center to restore order. It’s no accident that Hillary was on the opposite side of every issue that sent lefties to the streets in the Bush years, from the war to free trade to the Patriot Act.
Odd as it seemed coming from such a career Beltway insider, playing an angry insurgent champion of the little guy somehow fit Hillary like a glove. Coupled with It-Girl candidate Obama’s maladroit mumblings about Middle America bitterly “clinging to guns and religion,” Hillary’s “Invisible Americans” meme was a political gold mine.
But sometime during the course of the primary season, it got a little too personal. Hillary in her speeches began to return over and over again to whatever public attacks she happened to be facing at the time.
I remember one reporter comparing her to a “late-stage Lenny Bruce,” as she increasingly spent stump time pleading her case against her tormentors:
To listen to a Hillary stump speech is to hear a tale of endless confrontations with enemies. At one event I attended in Iowa, she railed against the Republicans who tried to crush her over health care, the Chinese who tried to stifle her over her “women’s rights are human rights” speech, a pharmaceutical industry that bucked when she passed a law requiring that drugs be tested for use on children, and a press that tells lies about her.
Clinton aides seemed pushed to something beyond rage by the Obama campaign, which they saw as a cynical attempt by old enemies in the Democratic establishment to jump Hillary’s place in line and put an unprepared lightweight on the throne.
The lasting memory of Hillary the candidate was that her whole camp was consumed by tilts against a variety of windmills at the end, especially when the race extended beyond the point of mathematical elimination. There was a lot of fighting for the sake of fighting. It was all humps.
Fast-forward to this week. Hillary, not yet officially a candidate again, was forced to address yet another crowd of snarling, fault-seeking reporters, this time over the news about her use of a private e-mail account.
In many ways, she did a good job. The part of her speech talking about her daughter’s wedding and her mother’s funeral arrangements being off limits, that certainly resonated. She absolutely was right when she said, “No one wants their personal e-mails made public.”
But the emotional tenor of the performance was off by just enough to wonder if, after all those years of fighting, Hillary Clinton is ready to come up smiling for another two-year vitriol-storm. Forget Nixon: she’s beginning to rival Bill Belichick in the oozing-contempt department.
Much of her 21-minute address over this e-mail issue recalled the eye-rolling, “I can’t believe I have to answer questions about this horseshit” display Belichick put on in his epic “Mona Lisa Vito” DeflateGate presser, a landmark in the annals of unspoken hostility.
Hillary wasn’t quite as openly contemptuous of her questioners as the legendary coach, who carries around his own bitter media baggage (reporters chased him out of his first head coaching job in Cleveland). But it was close.
Matt Bai put it this way: “It wasn’t that she couldn’t answer the questions coming at her; it was that she didn’t think she should have to.”
Business Insider asked a “body language expert” named Christopher Hagnady to review her performance, and he flunked her across the board. “I don’t know if we have enough to say she is lying or telling the truth,” he said, “but enough to show a high level of discomfort.”
Since the fate of the free world doesn’t depend on football, we can laugh at Belichick’s media-hatred, which is one of the funnier things on television. The Patriot coach has mastered a deadeye stare that says, “The boundless stupidity of your question has just made me physically ill.” When he whips that one out at a guilty sportswriter, he lets it linger, often for many withering seconds.
Hillary’s version of this is a look that says, “Enjoy this patient half-smile for a brief moment while you let sink in the magnanimity of my decision to answer your idiotic question.”
But politicians actually have to answer questions from the public. And the problem with hating the press and your political enemies to the point of thinking they’re scum who don’t deserve the time of day – even when you’re right – is that you won’t be shy about giving them half-baked answers, even to legit questions.
This is what happened with Hillary’s “I just used private e-mails because it was more convenient” story, which was groaningly unconvincing.
Jon Stewart crucified her for that one, noting that another thing that’s “super-inconvenient” is being president:
Did you know that everywhere you go, you not only have to carry a phone but a briefcase filled with nuclear codes? You can’t suddenly go, ‘This briefcase is kind of a hassle to carry; can I just put the codes on my phone? Because halfway through your term you butt-dial a nuclear strike to Mexico.
Hillary’s other explanation was even lazier:
The vast majority of my work e-mails went to government employees at their government addresses, which meant they were captured and preserved immediately on the system at the State Department.
To accept this one, you’d have to believe that because other employees were following the rules and using their state e-mail accounts, Hillary herself not using one was okay. That’s an “I smoked the e-mail rules, but didn’t inhale” kind of answer.
God knows the real reason why Hillary used a private e-mail account. It likely had something to do with not wanting political enemies to rummage through her work history at the State Department in search of a gotcha moment, which is a sensible enough reason, even if what she did was a bad decision.
But she’s not going to admit to something like that, just as she decided not to admit her Iraq War vote was a mistake until six years after her race against Obama. Back then, she figured no one would give her credit for being honest, so why bother?
“I know in our political system you get pummeled either way,” she said last year, before finally admitting that she was “plain wrong” about Iraq.
In that instance, she says, she opted for a strategy of “a lot of rhetorical dancing” about her Iraq vote during the 2008 campaign, instead of just owning her mistake.
And that’s what she’s doing here. Lame as it is, she’s going to go with the convenience excuse, and the “everybody I was e-mailing had a state e-mail account” excuse. And if she’s asked again, she’s going to say it again, and again, until people drop it. As Belichick would say, she’s on to Cincinnati.
Who knows how serious the e-mail scandal really is. If you ask the right-wing press, it’s a 10 out of a 10; everything Hillary-related on Fox is a 10-level outrage, except for the ones that go to 11, like the time the Clintons reportedly took furniture out of the White House or whatever.
In reality, though? Emailgate might be some kind of arcane rule violation, and in a broader sense it’s probably not a good sign, if you’re looking for a president committed to transparency.
Still, until another shoe drops, it doesn’t come close to okaying an extralegal drone assassination program or losing $12 billion in cash during a military occupation or trading votes for lobbyist favors or any of the hundreds of obscenely crooked things politicians in both parties have been caught doing in recent years.
But not thinking the public deserves more than half-assed explanations in times of crisis, even invented crisis, that’s a serious problem.
The Clintons have always been cynics. They invented a brilliant formula for competing with the Republicans in the big-money era of politics. They brought people like Goldman chief Bob Rubin into the tent to implement enough deregulation to score vital fundraising dollars, while electorally, they used welfare reform and remarks about Sister Souljah to triangulate back just enough of those Southern “silent majority” votes (the ones seemingly lost forever in the Nixon days) to rework the electoral map in the Democrats’ favor.
It worked. It was ingenious. But over two decades into our relationship with the Clintons, it’s still really hard to know what motivates them, beyond getting off on being smart politicians.
They’re not idealists. In fact, they were pioneers of a sneering attitude you find everywhere in Washington these days, one that rolls its eyes at “purists” who don’t have the stones to do what it takes to win (like voting for the Iraq war so as not to look “soft on defense”).
They clearly love the game and they love winning. They’re both masters of it, Hillary maybe even more than Bill. But that’s not the same as having a belief system. It might be for a football coach. But a president needs something more, and it’s hard to say what that something is for Hillary.