Hillary, Feminism, and Me

I am a baby-boomer. In fact, I am part of the very first cohort of baby-boomers, as is Hillary Clinton. I was born in 1947, almost exactly nine months after my father returned from naval service in WWII. And, like many others born roughly the same time, my life was profoundly affected by both the gender restrictions of the fifties and early sixties and the social revolutions that took place in the late 60’s and early 70’s — especially feminism (which we used to call “women’s liberation.”)

What exactly does this mean? Obviously, it means different things for different people — but with some commonalities. In my case, it meant as a 13 year old I wanted to look like Sandra Dee, put my hair every night in cardboard rollers made from toilet paper rolls, cinched my waist tight, and stuffed my pointy bra with the toilet tissue that I’d taken off the cardboard roll. By the time I was 17, however, I was ironing my hair and envying the girls who were tall, thin, and could play the guitar.

It meant that my first year at college I watched a dorm mate nearly die from a botched illegal abortion.

It meant that when I was sexually harassed by one of my teachers, I had no words to put to the experience, only feelings of shame, anger, and the dismissive words of my male friends, “Oh, Susan, don’t be so sensitive.”

It meant when the administration requested that I give back my scholarship, arguing that it could be used to keep a young man out of Vietnam, I saw nothing wrong with his reasoning. I couldn’t afford to pay for school on my own, so I dropped out and took a job working in a bookstore. I spent my nights sleeping around, looking for the male person who would give meaning to my life.

It meant that when I found the person I thought would save me — a serious, very conventional graduate student in the economics department at the University of Chicago — and moved in with him and his roommates, they all decided that because the “opportunity cost” of their doing the dishes was far greater than mine — they being male grad students with great futures ahead of them and me just a poorly paid drop out girl — it was only rational that I be the household dishwasher.

It meant that when I married the guy — because there didn’t seem to be anything else to do with my life, and I figured it would make my parents and him happy — I walked down the isle like a zombie and within months had a nervous breakdown.

It was 1968, and the country, it seemed, was having one too. For months we had been bombarded on television with horrendous, uncensored images of the war in Vietnam. In March, American soldiers massacred 347 at My Lai. Two weeks later, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, the target of anti-war rage, said he would not seek re-election. In April, Martin Luther King had been assassinated on the balcony of a Memphis Hotel, and the inner cities exploded. Just days later SDS students at Columbia barricaded themselves in the president’s office while black students occupied a separate building. A few weeks later, moments after victory in the California primary, Bobby Kennedy was murdered in the kitchen of a Los Angeles Hotel. A few days before, a marginal member of Andy Warhol’s circle, Valerie Solanas, also founder of SCUM, the Society for Cutting Up Men, shot him in the stomach. Prior to the shooting, she had written a manifesto calling for “systematically fucking up the system, selectively destroying property, and murder.”

In high school, like many of my generation, I had been passionate about the movement for racial equality and justice. But by 1968, I was housebound with a debilitating panic disorder, and could only watch political events on TV, while my husband made appointments with doctors. The first therapist I saw, a Freudian, noting that I was not wearing a bra or make-up — it wasn’t a political statement, I was simply too depressed to bother with all that — immediately zeroed in on what he described as my “inability to accept my feminine role” now that I was married. The second-­ the only woman I saw — took out a pad of paper, on which I was expected to record a full history of my symptoms, then turned to me and flatly asked, “Do you have orgasms?” She seemed frustrated to discover that was not my problem. The third was a psychiatrist; a cold, dark-suited rail of a man who prescribed a regimen of anti-psychotic drugs that made my tongue thick and my brain feel like it was stuffed with cotton.

Eventually, I was lucky enough to find a therapist who asked the right question. When I casually mentioned, one day, that I had always wanted to be a writer, but had been put off by the difficult of supporting myself that way, and shamed by a teacher who had given me a D my first semester in college, because I had gotten “inappropriately personal” and written about my own father in an essay about King Lear, he looked at me and asked: “Would you mind if I read some of your writing?” I don’t remember what I gave him to read, but the session after he read the pieces, he came into the waiting room, took my two hands in his own, and looked into my eyes like a parent about to deliver a lecture to a disobedient but adored child. He said my name two times, shook his head, then: “You’re a writer. We’ve got to get you writing again.”

By then it was June of 1971. The Beatles had broken up. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were dead. 4 students had been slain by national guardsmen at Kent state. And Richard Nixon was president. But Kate Millet had published Sexual Politics. Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch. Shulamith Firestone, Dialectics of Sex, Robin Morgan, Sisterhood is Powerful, Toni Cade, The Black Woman, Maya Angelou, Now I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Nikki Giovanni, Black Talk/Black Judgment. And these writers, along with my therapist, were showing me a way to put my life together again.

Hillary Clinton’s biography, of course, was very different. She was not a dropout, but a highly successful student at Wellesley, remembered by classmates as a campus activist and “a sophisticated coalition builder who provided extremely strong and very sensible leadership” who became the first student to address the graduating class at commencement. Her speech included a quite radical criticism — developed on the spot — of the official speaker, Republican Senator Edward Brooks. It was published, along with her picture in Life magazine, and she was interviewed by the NY Times. Friends were surprised when after law school, she didn’t run for public office, but married Bill Clinton instead. “A lot of us thought Hillary would be the first woman president,” says Wellesley friend Karen Williamson, “I thought if ever in my lifetime there is a woman president, it would be her.”

But alongside her independent achievements, there was pressure to be married — “ring by spring!” was the motto of Wellesley seniors — and stories that echo my own. Like me, Hillary was drawn to but found unable to sustain a life subordinated to the ambitions of a husband. And when she continued to wear her own independence and identity as a lawyer proudly, it came crash bang against cultural expectations. As Gay White, the widow of Frank White, who ran in 1980 against then incumbent Bill Clinton, recalls, “I cannot tell you the number of times [prospective voters] would say to me ‘If your husband wins, are you going to keep his last name? I heard it over and over and over.” Hillary Rodham had never changed her name, and Arkansans saw this as a rejection of the role she was supposed to adopt as first lady, not to mention wife. Bill was already seen as “young and arrogant” and disturbingly “liberal”; that he had a “radical feminist” wife is believed by many as contributing to his loss to White in that election. “How they perceived her,” says Gay White, “was very much a factor.”

It was not Hillary’s first or last encounter with resentment of her seemingly rejecting her “proper place” as a woman. “When I went to take the law-school admission test,” she told Henry Louis Gates, “We had to go in to Harvard to take the test, and we were in a huge room, and there were very few women there, and we sat at these desks waiting for the proctors or whoever to come and all the young men around us started to harass us. They started to say, ‘What do you think you’re doing? If you get into law school, you’re going to take my position. You’ve got no right to do this. Why don’t you go home and get married.”

Later, in an interview with “Humans of New York,” Hillary included more detail: “One of them even said: ‘If you take my spot, I’ll get drafted, and I’ll go to Vietnam, and I’ll die.’ And they weren’t kidding around. It was intense. It got very personal. But I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t afford to get distracted because I didn’t want to mess up the test. So I just kept looking down, hoping that the proctor would walk in the room. I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’ And sometimes I think I come across more in the ‘walled off’ arena…. I don’t view myself as cold or unemotional. And neither do my friends. And neither does my family. But if that sometimes is the perception I create, then I can’t blame people for thinking that.”

This is the classic double bind for women, which Hillary has struggled with all her political life. If a woman is seen as too emotional or vulnerable, she is likely be perceived as too weak or unstable to be a leader. But if she is seen as too controlled or self-contained, she is likely to be perceived as “cold” and “masculine” and therefore repellant. Golda Meir was called “the only man in the cabinet”; Angela Merkel “the iron frau”; Elizabeth I spent her entire reign trying to walk a tightrope balanced precariously between showing her subjects she had “the heart and stomach of a King” while earning their love as the nurturing mother of England. As the ruling monarch, Elizabeth was able to exert some control over how she was represented to the public; Hillary, unfortunately, has largely been at the mercy of the media.

I share both a historical and a cultural context with Hillary Clinton that, despite the significant differences in our biographies, has resulted in a sense of identification with her, and an inclination to understand rather than condemn her choices. It’s not something I have to force — I really do feel I understand and appreciate her and everything she has done in a truly amazing and extremely challenging life of public service. I’ve watched it all in real time, both her achievements and the attacks. The flap over “cookies and tea”, the endless scandals that came to nothing. The complaints about her voice, her lack of charisma, her penchant for privacy, her “inauthenticity” (the implication being that if only she showed us more of her “real” self, be more emotionally expressive — as woman are supposed to be — she would be more “likeable.”).

I have the “theory” to understand why she is perceived as cold and politically calculating by so many, but it still hurts when I read the comments. “She strikes me as so programmed and almost robotic,” says one 49-year-old man, interviewed by writer Michelle Goldberg. “She is disingenuous and she lies blatantly.” (a 31-year-old woman.) “If I could make her a profit she’d be my best friend” (a 49 year old woman) “I think she feels like she’s above the law, and she’s above us peasants.” (a 44-year-old army veteran.) It breaks my heart — that’s not an exaggeration — to read such comments, to see the degree to which she has somehow become the living repository for every disappointment and resentment about “politicians,” the ever-available scapegoat for partisan hatred and gender anxiety, and the handmaid to the media’s voracious hunger for headlines.

The feeling that someone I identify with and cherish is being battered mindlessly and unfairly is not unfamiliar to me. I’ve felt much the same way about many of the feminist authors that were so important to those of us whose feminism developed in the late sixties and early seventies. Many of those writers were real intellectual revolutionaries who changed paradigms for understanding the nature of the political, the effect of cultural expectations on the body, and the social construction of gender. Yet they have been dismissed and discarded by later generations, sneered at for being “essentialist,” “ethnocentric,” and so on, while male writers whose theoretical and political sins have been far greater, continue to be revered and studied — and sometimes, credited with intellectual and political insights that are more properly attributed to feminist writers.

This is some of the background that explains why it was especially painful for me when, way back in February, a crowd of young Bernie supporters booed Hillary Clinton during the Iowa primary when she described herself as a “progressive.” By then, the word had become not very useful descriptively — for of course, one can be progressive in some ways and not so progressive in others, and no politician that I know have has ever struck every “progressive” chord. Rather, it had become more a badge of honor, a signal that you were the right sort — which Clinton was being rudely told, by those “boos,” that she was not. Those boos, not the support for Sanders, infuriated me, and I wrote about my reaction, in a piece for Huffington Post, in which I tried to contribute some information that I thought was, perhaps, lacking in the “booers” knowledge of a history that I had personally experienced. Here is a excerpt of what I wrote:

I am one of those “over 65” women who belong to the faceless, aging “demographic” with a Hillary sign on my front lawn. For weeks I’ve listened, fists clenched, while 19 year-olds and media pundits alike lavish praise on Bernie Sanders for his bold, revolutionary message and scorn Hillary for being “establishment.” He is “heart” and she is “head” — a bitter irony for those of us familiar with the long history of philosophical, religious, and medical diatribes disqualifying women from leadership positions on the basis of our less-disciplined emotions. He is “authentic” in his progressivism while she has only been pushed to the left by political expediency — as though a lifetime of fighting for universal healthcare, for gender equality, for children’s rights don’t pass the litmus tests for “progressive” causes. He is the champion of the working class while her long-standing commitments to child care, paid sick leave, the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, and narrowing the wage-gap between working men and women are apparently evaporated by her accepting highly-paid invitations to speak at Goldman-Sachs.

As I witness Sanders become the gatekeeper of progressivism, while in the interests of his own campaign allowing a generation of twitter-educated kids to swallow a sound-bite generated portrait of Hillary, I am amazed at all that has gotten eclipsed by the terms of the current debate. The continuing virulence of racism in all its forms. The assault on reproductive rights. And, oh yes, that still inflammatory little “ism,” Sexism. Bring it up nowadays and you will get accused of “playing the woman card.” On the other hand, if you suggest that the election of Hillary to the Presidency would be a strike against business-as-usual, you will be reminded that she is not really a woman but one-half of that mythical unity, “The Clintons.” She even gets blamed for Bill’s infidelity — a tactic cooked up by Trump but taken seriously throughout the media, as pundits actually debated whether she should be held accountable for being “an enabler.”

Sexism and Hillary-hating are old comrades. When she was a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2008, the media coverage of the primaries often seemed like a re-run of the relentless punishment she endured for refusing to stay in her place as first lady. Hillary’s early transgressions — requesting a West Wing office, making health care (rather than, say, charity work or refurbishing the White House) her priority, not caring enough about fashion, and seeming to denigrate cooking-baking housewives — had made her “The Lady Macbeth of Arkansas”, “The Yuppie Wife From Hell”; a New York Post cartoon pictured Bill Clinton as a marionette, with a ferocious Hillary pulling the strings. For a time during his presidency, her husband’s bad behavior won her some sympathy, and her productive but low-key (Carl Bernstein called it “deferential”) performance as a senator earned her praise. But then — oops — she started leaning in too much once again, trying for the Presidency, and the “hellish housewife” (as Leon Wieseltier called her) was reincarnated: Hillary was “”Satan” (Don Imus): “Mommy Dearest,” “the debate dominatrix” and “Mistress Hillary “ (Maureen Dowd.) And it wasn’t just the right wing. Chris Matthews (who in 2016 has thankfully changed his tune) saw her as a creature from the bowels of hell: “witchy” and a “she-devil.” He wasn’t the only one. You all remember, don’t you? Don’t you?

If you are a 19 year-old Bernie supporter, you probably don’t; you were 11 years old. But Bernie Sanders remembers, and he remembers, too, that his isn’t the first mass-movement of young people filled with anti-establishment fervor. A lot of us were “socialist” (or some version of it) in those days. But some of us, too, were women. Women who were charged with making coffee while the male politicos speechified. Women who were shouted down and humiliated for daring to bring up the issue of gender inequality during rallies and lefty confabs. Women whose protests were seen as trivial, hormonally inspired, and “counter-revolutionary.” Women who were told, over and over, that in the interests of progressive change, we had to subordinate our demands to “larger” causes. Some of us could see that those “larger” issues were thoroughly entangled with gender; we would ultimately develop ways of understanding the world that couldn’t be reduced to a single “message” but demanded complex analyses (and action) that looked at the intersections of race, gender, and class. In those days, though — before the women’s movement — we often found ourselves simmering and stewing as our boyfriends and husbands defined what was revolutionary, what was worthy, what was “progressive.”

So it’s somewhat déjà vu for me all over again, as a charismatic male politico once again is telling women what issues are and aren’t “progressive.” I can only assume that those of you who booed Hillary at the Iowa caucus when she described herself as a progressive have no idea of either how the women’s movement was born or Clinton’s contributions to it. Ironically, the women’s movement, along the struggle for racial justice, is one of the true revolutions of the 20th century — a revolution that you benefit from every day of your lives, and that is far from fully accomplished. The boo-ers have no idea, I can only assume, of the price Hillary has paid for being openly and vigorously feminist, for daring to fight for health care (yes, it was called “Hillarycare” in those days) before there was a movement to clap for her, for speaking her mind about what she accurately described as “a vast right-wing conspiracy” aimed at her husband (and now at Obama.) Instead, through some perverse and unconscious collusion between the decades-old Hillary-hating of the right, the headline-hunger of the media (which never tires of exploiting the latest faux scandal) and now, cruelest cut of all, the Bernie Movement, you have decided that she is simply “the establishment.”

Believe it or not — this was only February, remember, and the Bernie Bros had yet to make an appearance (at least not that I was aware of) — I was startled to find the blog become a lightening rod for seething hostility. On the one hand, it got 48,000 likes, and was widely circulated among Hillary supporters. But the comments from Sanders supporters were something else. People found me arrogant, condescending, some called me nasty sexist names — including the C-word, and a couple accused me of being paid by the Clintons.

I knew a movement was growing up around Sanders, but I had no idea it involved such virulent hatred of Hillary — and by extension, Hillary-supporters like me. After all, we were all “on the left,” weren’t we? We had been fighting for decades for many of the same things, hadn’t we?

Some of the most hostile comments came from women who identified as feminists, yet who seemed to me to completely misunderstand what I was trying to say. They accused me of supporting Hillary “just because she’s a woman” and resented what seemed to them to be attacks on them because they weren’t willing to do the same. As I said, I was surprised. As writer whose specialization was cultural studies, I felt I was offering critical cultural analysis and historical perspective, not personal attack. And as a teacher, I’d been used to strong feelings of kinship and mutual understanding and respect with my students, despite the age and cultural differences between us. To be seen as the enemy by younger people was not something I was used to — except of course, for my own teenage daughter. And in some ways, the experience was not unlike the shock of realizing that no matter how hard I tried to make what I thought was sympathetic contact with her, to my teenage daughter I was a totally clueless, yet unfairly powerful member of the “establishment.”

Since then, I’ve realized that I made some crucial rhetorical missteps in that piece, and wish I’d said some things a bit differently. “Twitter-educated generation,” for example. I can see now how that could be felt as condescending. And the very title of the piece: “History Lesson for a Young Sanders Supporter” — which my husband had suggested, and which seemed perfectly innocuous to me at the time — was a big mistake. I wish I’d made it clearer that the piece wasn’t directed at all Sanders supporters, but more specifically at those who “booed” when Hillary described herself as progressive. When you know you are saying things that could be taken as insulting or condescending, yet still want to communicate, to bridge to your readers or listeners, you have to relinquish some of your spontaneity in favor of more cautious formulations. I hadn’t realized that I would be taken as condescending, so I wasn’t careful. I said what I felt and thought, and expected people who I assumed to be basically like-minded — that is, on the “left” — to understand. If I had anticipated the response I got, I would have avoided certain phrases, titled the piece differently.
I’m sure Hillary Clinton, when she was roasted over media coals for her famous “cookies and tea” remark, felt much the same way. And I’m equally sure that when she tried to “rewrite” the situation by entering her home-baked cookies in a contest, it was not a cynical political ploy, but the recognition that to communicate effectively to a huge portion of her husband’s constituency, she would have to tamp down the outward expressions of her feminism, ambition, independence. (Notice I said “outward.” She continued to work for the progressive causes that she had always championed.) Earlier, after Bill lost to White, she had made concessions of this sort to the citizens of Arkansas, giving up the Rodham in her name, straightening her hair, abandoning her owlish glasses, and wearing make-up.

Some younger feminists saw Hillary’s makeover as a kind of selling out. Writing in the 2008 book, 30 Ways of Looking at Hillary, Amy Willenz says: “Most of the time, she looks like a Republican. She gives off something between a country-club, golf-playing, hedge-funding vibe, with a whiff of bingo games, Sunday church-going, supermarket aisles, and coffee klatches. Her target is obviously some well-imagined political center.” “I miss the direct, brilliant, ball-busting Hillary who it was once possible to imagine existed,” writes Ariel Levy,”…In her current presidential campaign, Hillary’s speeches have become as cloying and generic as that frigging Celine Dion song she chose by committee.” “I have yet to meet a woman who likes Hillary Clinton,” contributes Katie Roiphe, “She is trying too hard, and the spectacle of all this trying is uncomfortable, embarrassing. One could feel in a palpable way the smart woman’s impersonation of the pretty woman, the career woman’s impersonation of the stay-at-home mom; one could feel a lack of grace.”

Wow. This was 2008. There was as yet no email scandal, no Clinton foundation flap, no Benghazi, no Wall Street speeches. No controversial trade deals, no revelations of comments about “super predators.” There was no particular policy reason for feminists to find Hillary so cringe-worthy. It seemed, rather, that she had begun to remind them of their mothers. And indeed, as I discovered when I looked up the ages of these writers, Hillary could well have been the mother of Roiphe or Levy, born in born in 1968 and 1974 respectively. (Willintz in 1959.) And strikingly, the most sympathetic pieces in the volume come from Katha Pollitt and Deborah Tannen, both born in the 1940’s.

Pollitt and Tannen undoubtedly had been faced with similar dilemmas to those that faced Hillary; I know I have. When I was about to go on the market for my first job, for example, I was advised how to style my hair so it would look less counter-cultural; when I was interviewed for Grad school, the chair of the department asked if I considered myself an “aggressive woman” (how does one deal with that one?); at tenure time, the fact that I wore the tattered, Flashdance-style skirts that were fashionable at the time was actually raised as an argument against my promotion; a bit later, I lost a prestigious job because, as I was told by a confidante, I “waved my hands around too much” and was too intense when I gave my job talk. Over time I learned that to get my most important priorities successfully launched I had to contain some impulses of my more spontaneous, outspoken self. When I was politicking to get our GWS program department status, I schmoozed with the old white guys on various gate-keeping committees and respectfully considered their ridiculous objections. When I find myself provoked by anti-feminist diatribes from students, I make it a point to breathe deeply and strategize my response wisely, even though things are being said that make the feminists in the class roll their eyes.

With my own experiences in mind, I find it incredible that Clinton would be criticized for the notion — revealed in recent Wiki leaks — that ones public position often must diverge from ones private ideas. Evidence of duplicity? What? If all of us, all the time, publicly expressed what we are privately thinking, there would be few friends or colleagues left standing. And little progress would be made on anything we care about. Clinton points to Abraham Lincoln’s careful strategizing for the 13th amendment, but all of us, even in much less formidable positions such my own as I politicked for our Gender Studies Department, often find ourselves in situations in which to say exactly what we think is to sacrifice the goals we are fighting for. In fact, I think this is the correct way to understand any schmoozy or complimentary comments she made to Wall Street in her speeches. End of that particular “controversy,” as far as I’m concerned. Why has no commentator presented this argument?

But then, Hillary-hating has never been about reality, but perception. The 2008 animus of Levy, Wilenz, and Roiphe, for example, suggest that many younger feminists just don’t see the same Hillary that I do. I had a big brain click when I asked one of my graduate students how so-called “millennial” feminists saw Hillary, and she said “a white lady.” She wasn’t referring to the color of Hillary’s skin, or even her racial politics (which I have to say have been badly misrepresented, mostly by white people — older African-Americans being Hillary’s biggest allies) but what is nowadays perceived as her membership in the “dominant class,” all normalized and conventional, aligned with establishment power rather than the forces of resistance, and — here’s where the “lady” part comes in — stylistically emblazoned (in her tightly coiffed hair, her neat, boring pants suits, her circumspection) with her membership in that class. Sort of the way my daughter sees me in relation to her, no matter that my politics are more radical than hers (as yet) or how many stories of my rebellious, rule-breaking past she’s heard.

It’s important to recognize, too, that although younger generations of feminists hardly share the politics of the right-wingers who are now calling Hillary a witch, a devil, a consorter with Satan, worthy of being jailed or burned at the stake, they have nonetheless, as Savannah Barker points out, come to know Hillary Clinton, to form their ideas of who she is, in the shadow of 20 years of relentless personal and politic attacks. Unfortunately, although they are daily bombarded by the results of those attacks, few of them are aware of the “living history” (to borrow Hillary’s phrase) that produced them.

They weren’t around when the GOP, appalled that “liberals” like the Clintons had somehow grabbed political power, began a series of witch-hunts that have never ended. (Hillary was correct — it has been a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” from Ken Starr’s relentless digging into the Clinton’s personal life, to Mitch McConnell’s plotting with other Republicans, the night of Obama’s election, to block every program of his, to Trump’s “birtherism.”) They hadn’t experienced a decade of “culture wars” in which feminists and other “politically correct” types were seen as “closing the American mind” (Alan Bloom) and destroying higher education (Dinesh D’Souza, who has continued his campaign in the fantasy-ridden Hillary’s America.) They don’t know the history of the 1994 crime bill (inherited from Reagan) or the “super-predator” label (not coined by Hillary, despite what is widely believed.)

What is “living history” for younger people is neither the “radical feminist” Hillary who had women of my generation cheering, or the reasons why she tamed her unruly hair and unfiltered speech and became more cautious, but what I have elsewhere described (see my blog “From Anne Boleyn to Hillary Clinton”) as a fictional Hillary, alchemically conjured up out of decades of political harassment and fear of female ambition, aided and abetted by a 24-hour news cycle and “breaking news” hungry commentators ready to fit every bit of questionable speculation into a consumable narrative. That Hillary is unrecognizable to those of us who grew up actually witnessing the process of her creation. But those who only know the headlines may believe her to be the real deal. I can’t blame them, for the media coverage of Hillary has been a massive heap of “optics”, insinuations, and “perceptions” taken as fact. Jonathan Miller has even suggested there are special “Clinton rules” for covering her: (1) Everything, no matter how ludicrous sounding, is worthy of a full investigation by federal agencies, Congress, the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” and mainstream media outlets; (2) Every allegation, no matter how ludicrous, is believable until it can be proven completely and utterly false. And even then, it keeps a life of its own in the conservative media world; (3) The media assumes that Clinton is acting in bad faith until there’s hard evidence otherwise; (4) Everything is newsworthy; (5) Everything she does is fake and calculated for maximum political benefit.

It’s no shocker, then, if your political memory goes back only as far as the last 8–10 years (or less) your brain has probably been saturated with the notion that Hillary Clinton is unworthy of your trust. We hear it virtually every day, not only from her political enemies, but from news commentators on every channel, who simply cannot resist raising the issue of Hillary’s “untrustworthiness” no-matter how irrelevant it is to the main story they are reporting. We hear it in casual comments and jokes told by neighbors, as if it were an accepted scientific fact that needs no proof. We see its influence on her approval numbers in the polls.

Is Hillary actually untrustworthy? The fact-checkers say, unequivocally, no — indeed, she turns out to be the most truthful of all the candidates, even better, than Bernie Sanders’, someone whom the press has never trashed for lying. I wonder, then, where the “American People” got the idea that Clinton can’t be trusted? Could it be that the media’s continual reporting of Clinton’s “honesty problem,” the constant attention to her so-called “trust issues” has had some influence over how people answer those poll questions?

Take Hillary’s recent “health scare” (as the press put it — although neither Hillary herself or her doctors were scared.) Hillary got pneumonia. Like many women, she pushed on despite her doctor’s advice. Then, after she nearly fainted — something that has happened to others standing in the hot sun at long political events — she committed the unpardonable sin of disappearing from the media’s sight for 90 minutes, while she sought calm and cool — and water — in her daughter Chelsea’s apartment. Where was she? What was she hiding? When an video surfaced showing her unsteadily entering her van, supported by the secret service, and the news of her pneumonia was released, reporters were convinced she had been deliberating concealing her illness, revealing it only when she was “caught in the act” of fainting. Hillary’s explanation — which made a lot of sense to me — was that she didn’t announce her illness because she thought she could just push on through, no big deal. And as it turned out John Kerry and others had also suffered pneumonia without announcing it to the world. But for Hillary, the “optics” were suspect. The media played and replayed the visual of her knees buckling — over and over — while the pundits claimed, disingenuously and as they often do, that she had “brought trust problems on herself” by “covering up” her illness.

The problem with this emphasis on appearance and perception is not just that it sidesteps questions of fact but that when repeated enough it creates illusions of fact that stick, even when disputed. Case in point: the August 30 New York Times editorial, recommending that the Clinton Foundation be shut down immediately. It’s a prime example of how Clinton’s “trust problem” is perpetuated through the authority of “optics” rather than facts.

“Does the new batch of previously undisclosed State Department emails prove that big-money donors to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation got special favors from Mrs. Clinton while she was secretary of state?

Not so far, but that the question arises yet again points to a need for major changes at the foundation now, before the November election.”

Not so far. The Times’ answer to the question as to whether this “batch” “proves” that “Big-money donors…got special favors from Mrs. Clinton” is — note carefully — “Not so far.” A simple “No” would have proved sufficient, and would be completely factual. But the Times couldn’t resist adding that loaded, suggestive “so far,” implying that perhaps — indeed, perhaps likely — something suspect will show up later. There’s no reason to suspect this, as nothing has yet shown up of significance. It’s pure insinuation.

Having established (again, through insinuation) that “special favors” may yet be discovered, the Times can then go on to speak as though their own speculation has the weight of proven fact. “That the question arises yet again points to a need…” The grammar of this makes it sound as though the question of special favors arose by itself, crystallizing out of thin air, when in fact, it’s the Times itself that is raising the question! It’s the Times, not the “question” that is doing the “pointing” here.

With this sort of coverage as the favored “narrative” of the media, It may come as a surprise to some that despite a lifelong career of scrutiny and pseudo-scandals, “untrustworthy Hillary” only began to exist after she announced her run for the 2016 presidency. Earlier attacks on Hillary, besides those focused on her feminism and headbands, centered on what was seen as her ostentatious virtue and moral superiority. Rather than a tool of Wall Street, she was seen as overly ambitious in her quest for moral justice and reform. She also has had periods of being extremely popularity. Just prior to declaring her current run for the presidency she had a 66% approval rating, and was virtually uniformly trusted by colleagues on both sides of the aisle and considered one of the most admired women in the world. In fact, when Hillary is actually serving our country — as senator, as secretary of state, and even as first lady (when she wasn’t making provocative comments about cookies and tea) — her approvals ratings have been sky-high. It’s only when she is “leaning in,” as Sheryl Sandberg has put it — when she is seeking to move beyond what many still believe is a woman’s “proper place” — that her numbers start to fall.

It’s ironic that the issues that (in my February Huffington Post piece) I complained were being ignored in the primary — racism and sexism — have hatched out of the mud of the general in such undisguised, blatant form. It is largely due to Trump’s vile behavior — and the enduring support for Hillary from older African-Americans and women of my generation — that Hillary will probably be elected. Such a win, especially if it is a landslide, will be attributed to the far “greater of the two evils” rather than Hillary’s experience, character, or accomplishments. Once again, she won’t have gotten her due. But so be it. I’ll give my thanks to Donald for his first moment of gentlemanly behavior: opening the door to the White House for Hillary Clinton.




Cultural historian, media critic, feminist scholar. Website: bordocrossings.com

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Susan Bordo

Susan Bordo

Cultural historian, media critic, feminist scholar. Website: bordocrossings.com

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