In her chosen role as doting public grandmother to both Bill and Hillary Clinton, columnist Mary McGrory is ever on the alert for opportunities to whip from her journalistic handbag her favorite images of those two extraordinary kids. In true grandma-like fashion, she is transfixed by their every utterance and sees their failures as simply an excess of good intentions. Of Bill, she wrote in August—nearly three years after his election—that he had just “made a remarkable discovery. He has found out that he is President.” Ms. McGrory thereby proved the truism that grandmothers delight in behavior others find stupefying.
Mary McGrory’s deepest feelings, however, are reserved for Hillary. Indeed, she feels Mrs. Clinton’s pain, calling the First Lady “poor girl” when the public mistakes for overreaching her energetic willingness to apply herself. After informing all who would listen of young Bill’s winsome discovery of his presidential status, a now-suffering McGrory wrote that as for Hillary, she is in “a post-[’94] election slump,” for which “a return to global splendors might compensate.” Further, “life has not been much fun for the bright, ambitious woman who dreamed of being co-President [so] a little adulation might lift her spirits.” To top it all off for the distressed McGrory, Hillary “writes a column that has not caught on.”
What’s to be said when Grandma goes off the deep end? Blinded by adoration, Ms. McGrory is hopelessly oblivious to the fact that neither Hillary Clinton’s adulation needs nor her fun quotient is high on the list of the citizenry’s concerns. As a professional writer, however, Mary McGrory surely understands why Mrs. Clinton’s column has not “caught on”: it isn’t any good. This single honest observation might, in turn, help Ms. McGrory understand why Hillary’s “bright, ambitious” plan to be co-President never caught on either: it was a really lousy idea.
Having read Hillary Clinton’s columns, along with many of her major speeches of the last three years—having read, that is, her organized premeditations, what she wanted said—I have concluded that for Mrs. Clinton, language, like many other things, possesses no intrinsic beauty or integrity—and therefore imposes no obligations on its use—but is merely a tool to advance a higher cause. It isn’t a means of communication but a vehicle for manipulation.
The First Lady uses language in order to obscure. In her column, whose intended audience is “average” Americans and whose purpose is to “warm” Mrs. Clinton’s image, her use of language obscures the fact that she is saying, essentially, nothing. In her speeches to political and professional groups, her means are the same but her intent is the opposite: words, awkward torrents of them, are used to veil ideas whose meaning is either incoherent or preposterous.
Let us consider first her newspaper column. It is, in a word, awful: shallow, insipid, badly written. Last September, ninth-graders all across the country wrote “summer vacation” essays that were more scintillating than Mrs. Clinton’s offering on the topic. “I will always remember,” she wrote of a magical trip during her college years, “the wonder I felt touring the lake country in England, wandering through Paris and exploring the great monuments and museums in Italy.” Lest her status be forgotten, however, Mrs. Clinton inserted into her vacation reveries of “long games of pinochle, swimming, fishing . . . and walks” a more recent recollection; “I remember once explaining to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl that we were hoping to get a few days off later in the year. He was going to spend a rejuvenating month in the forest.” Were Mrs. Clinton less intent on name-dropping (Look Grandma—global splendors!) and more concerned with communicating, she might realize that the image of Helmut Kohl rejuvenating in the forest is one that many of us would just as soon skip.
Hillary Clinton followed her vacation memories with columns devoted to her conviction that American women should exercise their right to vote; her observation that life in Mongolia is hard; her conclusion that being First Lady is nice but difficult—or difficult but nice. She also wrote a commentary on her belief that the United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing would make the “world a better place by helping women live up to their God-given potential at home, in school, on the job, in their communities and as mothers, wives, learners, workers and citizens”—an extremely large assertion when you think about it, one she repeated several times in different wavs, avoiding each time any explanation of how such a task might be accomplished.
I cannot imagine who would publish Hillary Clinton’s musings were she not First Lady; and I can’t imagine who is interested in them even if she is. And it is this, the column’s complete, almost deliberate lack of quality—more than its patronizing tone, more than its contradictory agenda (Think of me as someone just like you, only special)—that is such an affront. Does she think her readers don’t deserve better? Or is this actually the best this “bright, ambitious” woman can do?
My guess is that it’s actually the best this bright, ambitious, overrated woman can do. Mrs. Clinton’s stated rationale for writing a column is her hope that it will “prompt all of us to think more about the human dimension of our lives.” I have no idea what “the human dimension of our lives” means. But what rankles is that she apparently wrote it without asking—without grasping that she was obliged to ask—if she knows what it means. Like her husband, Mrs. Clinton appears to have spent so many years adapting her personality in the service of political calculation that political calculation has become her personality. Together, the Clintons present America with a relatively new political persona (a legacy of the 1960’s, I think): the authentic phony.
Meaning—her search for it in her life, the search by others for it in her words—is a theme that follows Hillary Clinton, as a reading of her speeches illustrates. (Whether Mrs. Clinton personally writes her speeches, or her newspaper column for that matter, seems irrelevant, because everything that has appeared under her name since she became First Lady has the same lumpish shape, the same I’m-smart-so-I-don’t-have-to-make-sense presumption, the same I-mean-well-therefore-I-do-well tone as the commencement address she delivered to her fellow Wellesley graduates in 1969. Speechwriters or not, these are her choices.)
In her speeches on politics and public policy, one of Mrs. Clinton’s most frequently used words is should, as in “we should insist . . . we should require . . . we should always . . . we should never.” Rarely do any illustrations follow as to how, precisely, “we” can accomplish what should be done. Confusing declarations with revelations, Mrs. Clinton seems to think it enough to state what ought to be, and seems, further, to believe that verbal smog such as “meet challenges,” “do our part,” and “welcome change” is not only original but inspiring.
But the most important thing we should be doing, what Hillary Clinton herself is busy doing always, is remolding, as in “remolding society”; reconstruction, as in “reconstruction of civil society”; and, above all, defining and then redefining. Mrs. Clinton obviously believes that if you keep defining and redefining yourself, your government, your institutions, your responsibilities, and your values, you eventually find, well, meaning. Thus we should all “play a role in redefining what our lives should be.” We must “define our institutional and personal responsibilities in ways that answer [our] lack of meaning.” We should create “a society that fills us up again and makes us feel we are a part of something bigger than ourselves.” And we should “figure out how to make our institutions more responsive to the kinds of human beings we wish to be.”
Busily projecting her problems onto the rest of America (“All of us face a crisis of meaning”), Mrs. Clinton is eluded in her mist of self-generated complexities by the obvious: to the degree that you are free to redefine at will, you lose meaning. Emotionally and philosophically, not to mention practicably, she comes at things backwards. “Society” does not “fill us up” and never has; it doesn’t create a state of individual emptiness or fulfillment, it reflects it. We cannot “make our institutions more responsive to the kinds of human beings we wish to be,” but we can become the kinds of human beings we wish to be and expect our institutions to respond. Wc do not find meaning by redefining; we find it by ceasing to redefine. Hillary Clinton mistakes the means for the ends. She confuses the tools with the task. It’s as if she decided to dig a hole in order to find a shovel. No wonder she isn’t having any “fun.”
Since Mrs. Clinton’s mental methods result in repeated public displays of clumsy intellection, the question becomes, why does she cling so stubbornly to them? Wide deeper into her speeches, and her motive becomes apparent, along with some astonishing conclusions. In her famous “Politics of Meaning” speech, delivered in Austin, Texas, in 1993, she made many remarks that were discussed and analyzed, applauded or ridiculed. One statement that was generally overlooked, the most revealing, it seems to me, and surely the most stunning, was that people in this country must begin to “see other people as they wish to be seen.” I’m not sure whether Mrs. Clinton was saying that we should perceive others in the way we ourselves wish to be perceived, or that we should perceive others in the way they themselves wish to be perceived; but either wav, it is a perversion of the Golden Rule into nothing less than thought control.
This idea—that we have a right to be seen as we want to be seen—runs through Hillary Clinton’s public commentary like an emotional itch, and it doesn’t take much to figure out why. She often expresses frustration verging on resentment over the reality that her view of herself is, well, just one woman’s opinion (not counting Grandma, of course). In her first newspaper column, she wrote, “it is hard even for me to recognize the Hillary Clinton that other people see.” She might have changed “even for me” to “especially for me,” as she obviously considers the mere fact of dissenting opinions to be a transgression.
It has become clear over the past three years that Hillary Clinton’s fixation on definition and redefinition is rooted in a messy mix of personal entitlement and political expediency. Definitions determine rights, and rights result in control. Hence it no doubt seems to her only fair to conclude that it ought to be a matter of public decency that she be understood, and a matter of public policy that she define understanding. The only thing left out of this neat little noose of circular thinking is the incidental issue of what the rest of us get to do.
Mary McGrory and other members of the Hillary Fan Club insult the public and do women a disservice when they blame resistance to Hillary Clinton on “changing roles,” “cultural transition,” or, worst of all, sexism. Hillary Clinton is not unpopular because Americans dislike “strong women”; she is unpopular because she is an imitation of a strong woman. Dressed in the cheesy robes of derivative status, waving the dinky scepter of power-by-proximity, she stands before a free country and tells people what they should do. She insists on controlling the rules of debate and the definition of terms. Then she reproaches her audience for dimness—or, when she’s really cranked up, for “cynicism”—when they conclude that her behavior is arrogant and her ideas nonsensical. She isn’t a victim of sexism. She’s an illustration of psychological denial.
What strikes me first and most about both Clintons is their failure at personal collectedness, their absence of psychic composure. All effort shows, always. Hillary Clinton has taken on, in sweaty liberal fashion, no less a task than the redefinition of human nature, and has done it for no greater reason than to increase her comfort level in the world. And all she needs in return for her efforts is (back to Ms. McGrory) “a little adulation.” From a behavioral as well as philosophical standpoint, this is an unattractive spectacle. From a political perspective, however, it is the equivalent of poking the electorate in the eye, then blaming the wounded for screaming ouch. Their anger twice justified, their outrage compounded, they dare you to poke them again. And before you know it, they go into a voting booth and say, “Redefine this.” Better brace yourself. Grandma.
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