I’ve followed the Clintons closely for about fifteen years now. Really closely, you could say.
By really closely, I mean I’ve read well over forty books about them, as well as every press account and journalistic chin-puller I could get my hands on. Written a novel about Bill Clinton, and reviews of each of their very bad autobiographies.
Finally, while I was writing The X President, a friend donated money to the Clinton Library in my name, which means that somewhere in Little Rock there is a small hunk of granite engraved with the words, “Philip Baruth — Burlington, Vermont.”
Not necessarily proud of any of this. But it is a fact: I know something about the Clintons.
And any student of the couple knows what will happen to Hillary during the 2008 cycle. Four words: She will be humiliated.
That last word, humiliated, I choose very carefully. Because the story of Hillary’s public life, especially as it intertwined with her husband’s career, has been one of prodigious success and promise, dashed by periodic, meditated cruelty on the part of the press and the voting public.
It is a psychological dynamic that has far more to say about America than about Hillary Clinton, but it is real, and it hasn’t diminished in force since she left the White House.
Far from it.
In Little Rock, Hillary was always perceived as Bill Clinton’s pushy-lawyer wife. And so, following Clinton’s first-term repudiation as Governor, he convinced Hillary to adopt the Clinton name for the re-election bid.
There were many other factors, from registration taxes to chicken sewage, but the “Taming of Hillary” was a key part of the “Shaming of Bill” narrative Arkansas voters ratified when they returned Clinton to the Governor’s mansion.
Precisely the same dynamic marks Clinton’s first two years in office. Hillary assumes a historic position as head of the Health Care effort; she wows Congress with her know-how. And the country absolutely revels in seeing it rejected, and the Clintons humbled in 1994.
As per the Arkansas make-over, Hillary comes back tamed, and Bill comes back shamed, and they win in 1996.
The interesting blip in this cycle is, of course, the public’s reaction to the Lewinsky scandal. They supported Clinton throughout, by a two-thirds majority, but only because the GOP under Gingrich represented such an unsavory alternative.
Still, they wanted Clinton shamed, and impeachment (minus conviction) provided that, in historic terms. But what to do with Hillary? She was the Faithful Wife, and Clinton had already humiliated her.
Short answer: reward her with a Senate seat. That condenses and simplifies a very complex psychological and electoral process, but the statement is correct in the meat of it. Hillary’s abilities had never been in doubt, only the extent of her pride.
With her humility assured, New York voters felt comfortable elevating her — in her own right — to a position of great political power.
But if and when Hillary pulls the switch on a Presidential run, the original dynamic will reassert itself, and in spades: Hillary’s greatest ambition will need to be balanced by her greatest humiliation to date.
The Humiliation (let’s go ahead and capitalize) will be of an order exceeding Dean’s death-by-a-thousand-screams. And the events themselves will be shaped by the logic of the public’s need for that humiliation.
For instance, will Hillary flame-out in the primaries, or during the general election cycle? Answer? Whichever would be more humiliating.
Right. Hillary will go down in the primary cycle, at the hands of activist Democrats themselves, her people, her base. This the press will read as deep and thrilling Greek tragedy. (You can already see this in the breathless press accounts of the way in which Obama might steal Hillary’s African-American constituency out from under her.)
Do I believe this? Yes. Am I happy about it? No. Because the serial hunting of Hillary is an expression of the worst American impulses, our obsession with personalities and the childish cruelty built into our current journalistic institutions.
Disturbed children run over rabbits with lawn mowers, and pour gasoline on the family cat. And we are disturbed children in America, a good part of the time, sitting in dark rooms with our sugary drinks, watching and cheering as the thing on the screen suffers.
In short, if Hillary flies, we will torture her and pull off her wings. It’s who we still are.