Last summer my wife and I decided to take our two boys to the New York City Pride Parade, where I was stunned to look up and see Mayor Bill de Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Al Sharpton, all standing maybe twelve feet in front of us. We were posted up by a coffee shop near the parade’s beginning, and the politicians were just getting ready to march. I pointed out de Blasio to my older son and told him, “See that tall guy? That’s the mayor of New York!”
The next day, when I recounted all of this to a friend, my wife added, “And Hillary Clinton.”
“Hillary Clinton. And we saw Hillary, too.”
“We did? Where?”
She looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “At the parade!”
“I didn’t—where was she? All I saw was de Blasio, Sharpton, and the other guy—Cuomo.”
Exasperated, incredulous, my wife replied, “She was standing right next to them.”
I checked some news sites and, of course, it was true. The real Hillary Clinton had been standing right in front of me, her trademark pantsuit a striking eggshell blue, and I hadn’t even seen her.
According to Susan Bordo’s recently published apologia of the unsuccessful Clinton campaign, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, my experience was just one literal instance of a more figurative and patterned condition afflicting a large swath of the American electorate last year. The difference was, whereas I saw no Hillary Clinton at all, Bordo argues that too many Americans perceived a false Hillary Clinton, a misleading fiction caused by a long and pernicious list of overlapping attacks and mischaracterizations.
Said list: 1.) “Bernie Sanders branding Hillary as the enemy of progressive politics,” specifically by misleading scores of millennial voters about Clinton’s relationship with Wall Street investment bankers and “establishment” politics; 2.) The longstanding and “vast right-wing conspiracy” against the Clintons, one that frequently conflates Hillary’s identity with Bill’s, the chief message of which is that the couple are irredeemably opportunistic, deceitful, and dangerous; 3.) The allegedly neutral FBI Director James Comey’s astonishingly reckless public interference (twice) with the campaign, his tongue-lashing unnecessary, unprecedented, and full of unredressed falsehoods; 4.) Donald Trump’s shameless and baseless assaults on Clinton’s sex, character, and record; 5.) Vladimir Putin tilting the balance of the election toward his preferred outcome by using shadowy online operators and WikiLeaks to disseminate kompromat and negative opinion pieces; 6.) Systemic sexism, normalized misogyny, and gendered double standards; and 7.) Media complicity in literally all of the above.
Bordo’s thesis, in a nutshell: “The Hillary Clinton who was ‘defeated’ in the 2016 election was, indeed, not a real person at all, but a caricature forged out of the stew of unexamined sexism, unprincipled partisanship, irresponsible politics, and a mass media too absorbed in ‘optics’ to pay enough attention to separating facts from rumors, lies, and speculation.”
And yes, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton is indeed an apologia, and not yet another post-election post-mortem. Bordo does not explain what went wrong so much as describe what Clinton was up against. For a complete autopsy report, one may prefer Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen’s Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, which faults Clinton with a tragic lack of self-awareness—though, like Bordo, they admit that Clinton was held to a higher bar than any of her serious competitors.
Destruction is not for policy wonks, or anyone who is hardcore into strategy and arcane political sightlines. Bordo’s book reads more like a semi-comprehensive and very well organized recapitulation of every exculpatory and clarifying news item and op-ed that proliferated online during an unprecedentedly outrageous campaign. The book reads less like long-form journalism than one writer’s attempt to verify her sanity in a world gone positively nuts. (This is not a criticism; this quality is among the book’s pleasures.)
For example, neither John Podesta nor Robby Mook are referenced, quoted, or described in Bordo’s book—though Jeff Weaver, Steven Bannon, and Kellyanne Conway do make the cut.
None of this is to say Bordo’s argument is untenable. I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with her multi-pronged thesis, although I am inclined* to take issue with some of her evidence, specifically in regard the Sanders campaign, as well as a stylistic choice that becomes so pervasive it threatens to define the work, and finally her broad and somewhat ontological diagnosis of this moment in American politics.
* “Inclined” by the nature of this assignment; for a reviewer of Bordo’s book, ROAR specifically sought a writer who supported Sanders in the Democratic Party’s primary, which I did.
In 2016, a competent, intelligent woman with vast experience and a lifelong commitment to public service—in myriad forms—a woman Barack Obama described as possibly the most qualified person ever to run for the American presidency—lost to a foul-mouthed, inexperienced, unread, petulant, and scandal-prone real estate developer cum TV personality who has publicly joked about murdering journalists. These events are less confusing after Bordo makes a veritably forensic argument for what exactly happened, and why it was deeply shocking, and troubling, though not exactly surprising.
That list, again:
1.) Bernie’s Mischaracterizations
2.) The Vast Right-wing Conspiracy
3.) Comey’s Interference
4.) Trump’s Assaults
5.) Putin’s Interference
6.) Systemic Sexism / Overt Misogyny
7.) Media Complicity
As far as items 2-7, there can’t be very much argument to the contrary. There is ample, objectively damning evidence in support these assertions, and Bordo does excellent work presenting her case. The author also presents an interesting sub-argument on how Hillary Clinton was frequently and conveniently punished by Bill Clinton’s actions and statements, and also illustrates what she sees as a frustrating generational conflict between Second- and Third-wave feminists. These alone are almost worth the price of admission. However, when making the argument that Bernie Sanders and his supporters are complicit in Clinton’s eventual loss, Bordo says too little and omits too much.
President Trump recently said to a class of Coast Guard graduates, “Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media … no politician in history—and I say this with great surety—has been treated worse or more unfairly.” The next morning he tweeted, in response to the appointment of a special counsel to investigate his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russian fixers, “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.” If you have read The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, you will understand, too well, why these comments must make Clinton want to howl. You’ll want to howl with her.
Bordo makes a large quantity of salient points and trenchant observations, to such an extent that this book will retain value, decades from now, for students and scholars who want to know what it was like to be an observant follower of this campaign.
Some quotations I underlined:
“throughout Hillary’s career [the gender factor] has made her a living Rorschach test of people’s nightmare images of female power. It’s no surprise that as she came closer to the most powerful position in the world, the misogyny directed toward her became increasingly vicious.”
“…from June 7 to November 8, Clinton only led over Trump in quantity of media coverage four times: once was when she had pneumonia, once during the DNC, [and] during and right after James Comey’s announcements.”
“…Trump is a perfect example of a straightforward liar, while Hillary has, after decades of concocted scandals, contributed to her ‘honesty problem’ precisely because she has learned to speak the truth so cautiously that it seems phony.”
These details matter, and should be preserved as this election cycle rapidly becomes American history.
Bordo’s critique of Sanders is problematic from the start, as she tightrope-walks an argument that Clinton is an eminently experienced and qualified politician, yet not the “establishment” candidate Sanders and his supporters made her out to be. This argument—that Clinton was just as anti-establishment as Sanders, or alternately, that Sanders was just as establishment as Clinton—was among the more ludicrous assertions lobbed out by Clinton supporters ahead of the Democratic primary. Clinton’s wealth, relationships, experience, and tremendous influence put her in a markedly different category than a man who has spent much of his career as the token crank and oddball socialist from a semi-relevant region of the country. There has been some debate as to whether or not Sanders will leave the senate as a de facto millionaire, once you consider his retirement savings.
Bordo laments that Sanders’ appeal overshadowed Clinton’s Progressivist accomplishments, and that he “had been claiming sole ownership of revolutionary politics.” Lines like these made me wonder if she somehow missed that Clinton was precisely the foil who made him seem so revolutionary. However, this is unlikely. Here’s Bordo quoting Jonathan Cohn: “Take Sanders out of the equation, and suddenly Clinton looks an awful lot like a mainstream progressive.”
The only true howler in Bordo’s book is her pat paraphrasing of Clinton’s relationship with the financial industry. Bordo seems almost genuinely incredulous that Clinton “was accused of having … influenced Wall Street through the spell of a few polite remarks in public speeches.” This seems like an egregiously brief and breezy depiction of a keystone talking point of the Sanders campaign. And also … that’s it. Those words are nearly Bordo’s entire exegesis on the secretive practice of fundraising and outreach that absolutely plagued Clinton. There is no explication, no attempt to offer or reiterate preexisting exculpations.
Lloyd Blankfein is another central figure entirely (and confoundingly) absent from Destruction.
Another controversy magnet never mentioned or quoted by Bordo is Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Ditto for Donna Brazile. Omissions this big cannot help but imply their own counter-arguments.
Clinton’s transcript debacle resurrected the specter of Mitt Romney’s most devastating setback, late in the 2012 campaign—while polling only three points behind Obama and trying to reboot his message—when he was surreptitiously recorded telling a group of wealthy donors (at a private, closed-door event): “… There are 47% of the people who will vote for [Barack Obama] no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.” Romney added that it wasn’t his job to worry about those people: “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” He went on to explain that his strategy was to target the “5-10% in the center” of the electorate, meaning the more independently-minded voters capable of voting either way, even if his basis of persuasion would be one of “emotion, [i.e.] whether they like [Obama] or not.” Factual inaccuracies and misleading portrayals aside, this was a cynical statement for any politician to make, one Romney never would have uttered if he knew he was being recorded. And while it would be difficult to imagine Hillary Clinton saying anything as disparaging and tactless, she did too little to combat the worst assumptions.
And Bordo can’t know that what Clinton said was only “a few polite remarks.” All Bordo knows is as much as almost anyone else, which is not a lot. Unless you were there, all you have to go on is the excerpts that were stolen and leaked. These remarks, according to Todd Heisler of The New York Times, “displayed an easy comfort with titans of business, embraced unfettered international trade and praised a budget-balancing plan that would have required cuts to Social Security.” And Clinton apparently said “she dreamed of ‘open trade and open borders’ throughout the Western Hemisphere.” And so it would follow that Clinton didn’t release those transcripts at least in part because the content would run counter to her desire to portray herself as progressive and anti-establishment as You-Know-Who.
Overall, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton is highly readable. Bordo’s only questionable stylistic choice is her practice of using scare quotes to the degree that it exceeds distraction. Throughout the book she assiduously micro-quotes one- and two-word terms. One sentence, chosen at random:
“…poll results, gaffes, ‘optics,’ and concocted ‘scandals’ were immediately turned into high-voltage headlines and endlessly repeated, organizing people’s perceptions into yet-to-be-analyzed ‘narratives’ of dubious factual status.”
Sentences like this are legion. The problem is, these scare quotes over one- and two-word phrases aren’t actually quotations in that they are meaningfully extracted from source material. The only meaning the quotation marks add or change is that we get to imagine Bordo air-quoting to underscore her disdain and dismissal.
Bordo scare-quotes one- and two-word phrases hundreds of times over 186 pages. Subtract her actual quotations, and other inserts, and you get the hooked fingers, on average, two or three times per full page of text. The result is sarcasm fatigue, and a suspicion that at one stage of development the manuscript was heavily revised by Chris Farley’s finger-quoting Bennett Brauer.
The heading for chapter three even puts the word “millennials” in scare quotes, though nothing follows to explain this ironic frame for a term describing a meaningful demographic in a very close election. Is Bordo dismissing the accuracy of the term, or its usage in some context? Is she questioning the significance of the demographic, or Sanders’ relationship to that demographic? Or is she just micro-quoting again, and not intending much irony? Either you can’t tell, or you can’t tell and you don’t care. Sarcasm generally connotes more than it conveys.
There is perhaps no word framed by Bordo’s go-to sardonicism more frequently than “optics”—by which she means, in American public relations jargon, the semiotic considerations—a priori or post hoc—of the relationship between a reproducible image and its interpretation by an audience via mass media. Bordo uses some version of “optics” (including “bad optics”) about a dozen times in Destruction, micro- or square-quoting these words most of the time. One fears that this ironic scare-quoting is Bordo’s semi-subtextual way of expressing her disapproval of the attention we pay to optics (or “optics”). Because it doesn’t matter if optics should matter; optics do matter.
Over the last thirty years, every single Democratic campaign catastrophe is conceptually shackled to an indelible print or TV image:
Gary Hart embracing Donna Rice while wearing his “Monkey Business” t-shirt
Michael Dukakis popping, prairie-dog like, out of a tank
Al Gore canoeing in what turned out to be water wastefully, ironically released from a dam specifically for that pro-environment photo op
Howard Dean screaming “Yeeah!”
John Kerry windsurfing; John Kerry in a “bunny suit” at Cape Canaveral
2008 Hillary Clinton’s gelastic “shot and a beer” moment in a Pittsburgh bar
2016 Hillary Clinton apparently mesmerized by falling balloons
We read these images like thousand-word texts; they have outsized significance. It would be inadvisable to spend too much time and ink on how this should not be the case, rather than figuring out how best to use optics to your advantage.
Bernie Sanders was buoyed by optics at several points in his campaign. He kind of flubbed his extemporaneous remarks when a small bird landed on the lectern as he was speaking to a large audience in Oregon, but it couldn’t have mattered less. The image was so powerful that his words were irrelevant. Sanders’ image was bolstered further by the emergence of film and photographs of him being forcibly arrested at a protest in the 1960s.
In August 2015, two female Black Lives Matter protesters forced Sanders off the dais at a Seattle commemoration for social security. Sanders didn’t come off so well, but he and his organizers eventually, begrudgingly ceded the microphone. Not long after this Sanders made some comments vaguely sympathetic with BLM, then left for a fundraiser. On video he looks frustrated, defeated. There was even verbal hostility from some in attendance, and some bickering between the protestors and the organizer. But optically, if you didn’t look too deeply, what happened was: Bernie gives up microphone to BLM protestors.
About six months later, a lone BLM protester named Ashley Williams interrupted Clinton as she was speaking at small fundraising event in Charleston. Williams held up a handmade sign that quoted Clinton’s 1996 “super-predator” speech: “We have to bring them to heel.” When you watch the video, you see Clinton scroll rapidly through styles of response: ignoring Williams, talking over her—“Do you want to hear the facts, or do you just want to talk?”—talking around and through her, then, as Williams is finally escorted off the premises, dismissing her: “You know what? Nobody’s ever asked me before. You’re the first person to do that.”
Clinton is sabotaged, caught off guard, ambushed. It would not be fair to expect her to deliver a powerful response with grace and tact. But we definitely do not see the Clinton Bordo assures us is in there, beneath her awkward veneer or fictive public persona. We don’t see the Clinton who met with the black community to “discuss issues of ‘kitchen-table’ importance.” In retrospect, Sanders got a gift when the Seattle BLM protestors took over his microphone, because Clinton held onto hers and all she proved was that she could lock horns. Sanders, defeated, kind of wins; Clinton, victorious, kind of loses. This at least is not a double-standard, not when one candidate knows which battles to lose and the other candidate simply doesn’t possess those instincts.
Optics matter because they become the narrative. Writing for Salon, Patrice Waite described the Charleston blunder thusly: “Hillary has a race problem.”
Forget “The Colbert Bump”—a few days before I was assigned to review Destruction, Bordo got the kind of free publicity many writers would die for: bona fide international rock star (and one of the more famous Clinton supporters) Katy Perry Instagrammed a picture of herself beach-reading The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, with the caption, “@CNN don’t judge a book by it’s [sic] cover.”
But hang on: Is Perry’s caption in reference to herself, or Clinton? Is she referring to CNN’s enabling of attacks on Clinton, which is described in the book, or is this post in response to CNN jumping on Perry for her inelegant Obama/black hair joke? Is the message on her hat (“Start me up”) her sympathetic response to Bordo’s arguments? Or is Perry implying support for a Clinton run in 2020? OMG—IS CLINTON GOING TO RUN AGAIN?!
Yes. Of course Hillary Clinton is running again. Necessity prevents her from disclosing her (probably still-forming) intentions, but from my side of the screen she is definitely considering at least trying. And a 2020 bid is not exactly unthinkable, as a.) She very nearly won, b.) Had she won, she’d have had to run for reelection in 2020 anyway, and c.) Persistence is perhaps Clinton’s keystone virtue. And it won’t be too hard to raise money after, you know, winning the popular vote.
While the precise text of Katy Perry’s Instagram post is murky, the optics couldn’t be more clear: Perry has, again, framed herself as in-touch, astute, and unapologetic. And while no politician male or female can expect to play by the same rules as a rock star, some have successfully cribbed pages from that book. Paul Ryan might look like a moron in his weightlifting photo shoot, but he is at present the third-most powerful person in the American government, in a role his colleagues begged him to assume. The point is, a contentious politician dismisses the sink-or-swim significance of “optics” at their own peril, with or without air quotes. Though I doubt it, I very much hope Clinton either hired or solicited Perry to post a picture of herself reading Bordo’s book. This would be a positive indication of an improved messaging strategy.
The above makes The Destruction of Hillary Clinton sound like propaganda. It isn’t, not really—though if there is a 2020 bid for Clinton, Bordo’s book may take on that function.
There is a frustrating moment in the back half of Destruction where Bordo shifts into fireside chat mode, and incants a back-in-my-day elegy for the certainty afforded by the love of factuality, noting how we are finally becoming aware of the “dangers of a ‘post-fact’ culture” and a “‘post-fact’ society,” full of “‘alternative facts’” and “disdain for fact.” I can’t help but hear a resonance with similar statements made by Peter Wehner, a Christian conservative and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who describes a great moral fracturing in society. He believes that certain attitudes and events “have caused a kind of moral confusion [in society] … [including] a rather sustained assault on truth, [a] kind of postmodernism.”
In an interview for NPR’s Morning Edition, Wehner said,
“I think what’s happened is that [the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth] has now spread to the wider society and including political society. And I think when you lose that, you lose the ability to reason together. And that kind of thing is really problematic in a society. And we’re seeing a kind of paranoia and conspiracy mongering in politics that is unusual and, I think, worrisome. And I think a lot of that comes back to this point about the idea that there just isn’t a truth that we can agree on or accept.”
He added, almost chillingly, “We have to have fidelity to truth.”
Wehner calls the symptoms postmodern, Bordo sees post-structuralism. Wehner avows that the problem arose within the university, Bordo specifically states it brewed outside the halls of academia. Regardless, what you have are two people nostalgically lamenting the loss of a foundationalist certitude that can be built alternately on faith-based truth or observable facts. Wehner’s truth (spoiler alert) is ultimately grounded in God and the Bible. Bordo’s wistful yet justifiable yearning for certainty harkens back to the three-channel, evening news era of Murrow and Cronkite. This truth vs. fact binary is the dialectic of our moment, and it is precisely this chasm and conflict that Roger Ailes exploited for stupendous gain, conflating informed opinion with responsible journalism, then wrapping the whole thing up in a flag.
In 1985 there was a hole in ozone layer, but in 2017 climate change is somehow contingent on the impression that it feels or seems cold outside. In January there’s a heavy snowfall in Brooklyn. In late April in Alameda, California, the afternoon is a breezy 61º F. It is absurd that this information inexplicably becomes evidence against an argument unconcerned with lone instances. And yet this elevation of the subjectively-experienced yet authoritative, individual event is how Donald Trump won in 2016. Specifically, by propounding grand narratives—Make America Great Again!—while simultaneously undercutting the entire notion of grand narratives, like when Kellyanne Conway said, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.” Trump’s team won because they staple-gunned classical American idealism to ordinary loathing and skepticism. Ultimately, the only truth you can arrive at is whatever you can sense or suss out for yourself. All news is fake news.
Bordo’s implication is that we as consumers of media should recognize the superior discourse of print- or text-based journalism, and that we should demand the divorce of information and entertainment. However, just because a prescription against sating our lower appetites is perfectly reasonable, it does not necessarily mean we are obligated to enshrine superior modes with an articulation of obligation (See: Dostoyevsky). Progressive liberals would do well to sidestep the sticky is-ought circus that pretty much defines the reactionary conservative message in the age of FOX News.
We serve our best interests when we are wary of introducing such “should”-based notions into our personal ideologies and cultural prognostications. I readily admit that this comes from my own fairly reductionist view of the Right-Left binary. In my mind, the split works like this: Conservatives develop a nostalgic ideology of “shoulds”—whom entitlements should help, what a woman should do after an unplanned pregnancy, which immigrants should be moved “to the back of the line,” that fluent English should be spoken by all Americans, etc.—whereas American liberalism, at its best, tries to look at issues as they are and ask, “What is the best way, if any, that government can fulfill its social obligation to its own people—to either remove or ameliorate these recurring problems and undue hardships?”
Just because Donald Trump has dragged the American Right into The Twilight Zone does not mean that the Left is not also in crisis. Whoever wins the Democratic nomination for president in 2020 will almost certainly win the presidency. They will also own their party’s crisis and will forever become its figurehead, for good or bad. This is one of the big-picture realities that one can be blinded to if one dismisses (or categorizes, or ignores) why—and how easily, and how quickly—Bernie Sanders was able to build a sizeable base.
None of this is to pretend the Sanders camp has no soul-searching to do, and nothing to reckon with. It has been argued that only 77,744 voters in three states (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan) decided the election in favor of Donald Trump. This is a razor-thin margin, even in a race with only about 126 million ballots, which was a 20-year low. Surely large numbers of conservatives sat out the election, but it’s just as likely that a great many Sanders supporters also failed to turn out, hold their nose, and do the thing. Another known unknown is just how many Bernie Bros felt that monkey-wrenching the Oval Office by sending an anti-establishment candidate was their ultimate priority, and therefore switched their allegiance from Sanders to Trump.
Two days before the election, Olivia Nuzzi said, “I think there are some Trump supporters—a lot of Trump supporters—who really want to watch the world burn.” It was a line voiced by other writers and pundits as well, but I think if you soften it a tad, the sentiment does indeed apply, and quite broadly, because bipartisanship has been murdered by party loyalty. Gerrymandering has resurrected taxation without representation. The most inspiring and popular Democrat President in my lifetime saw his aspirations almost immediately reduced by a general order of non serviam in the GOP. All of this is happening while the economy just sucks. The formerly middle class of my generation is hitting our forties and fifties with the realization that we cannot find the kind of income our parents earned—and even they were struggling to afford a high quality of life. In the 1980s we lamented losing jobs to Asia, but now we’ve turned on ourselves, creating a new servant class of workers to shop and drive for the more stable, turning careers into contract positions with no benefits, adjunctifying university faculties, and demonizing the undocumented workers who are simply the economic refugees working-class Americans may become by the end of this century.
A lot of criticism has been sprayed on the “regular” people who lumped themselves in with racist, sexist, nationalistic deplorables in order to vote against Clinton and the dysfunctional, inhumane establishment she represents to them. But there you have it: democracy. You will never be asked to love the Axe-scented, woman-hating, coal-rolling moron in line behind you at the Publix, but we do need to go to bed at night totally okay with the fact that his vote equals anyone else’s, and that it’s okay to consider him when you’re in a contest decided by most-vote-getting.
I remember being enamored with H. Ross Perot, who was like a faster-talking version of my blue-blooded Texas grandmother. I remember voting for Nader in 2000. I may not have voted in 2004; I can’t even recall how I felt about John Kerry at the time. However I do clearly remember covering the Obama-Clinton debate in 2008 as a cub reporter for a now-defunct Gothamist spinoff. The most indelible image in my mind is of the hundreds of Ron Paul supporters holding an enormous banner outside the University of Texas Rec Center. They had nothing to gain but a modicum of visibility, yet showed up in force regardless. For decades, this country has been itching—or crying, or screaming—for a Door Number Three. Libertarianism has gained credibility while the Tea Party Movement threatened to cleave the GOP in half. It doesn’t discredit the arguments that racism and misogynistic vilification played a substantial role in Clinton’s loss to also include that she was damaged by the same out-with-the-old zeitgeist that murdered Jeb(!) Bush’s chances. 2016 was not the year of the sensible, moderate, experienced, nuanced, mainstream candidate—a role Clinton has spent her life doggedly pursuing. In one sense, 2016 was unpredictable. In another, it was the story of clashing inevitabilities.
For all of the eye-rolling that mentions of the Wall-Street transcripts induced among Clinton supporters, the quickest way for a Sanders supporter to make a Clinton supporter’s blood boil was to say, “I’m not against her because she’s a woman. I’d vote for the right woman. If Elizabeth Warr—” and that’s about as far as you’d get before you’d find yourself socked in the eye, wearing your drink on your head, or sitting across the table from an empty chair. Bordo asserts that Warren would raise the same specter of the shrill, “hectoring schoolmarm” were she to run for president. That she would be deflated—vilified, destroyed—by the same double-standards that ultimately frustrated Clinton. Except that Warren owned some of the anti-establishment credibility that was out of Clinton’s reach, and she is positively galvanizing on camera, as evidenced by her appearances on late-night TV. Warren, like Bill Clinton and Lindsey Graham, can make talking points sound like unforced, organic conversation.
In defense of hectoring schoolmarms: Clinton was at her absolute best in 2013 at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Benghazi consulate attack. She shouted, she resisted mischaracterization, she smirked, she glowered. She laughed at the absurdity of her accusers. She did not conform very tightly to gendered expectations—she wasn’t “brassy,” she didn’t show “moxie”; she was unrepentant, muscular, and impatient (“What difference does it make?”). She was persuasive and poised in the lion’s den. She literally pounded her fists. She did so well that the Breitbart news machine decided its best response was to say the whole thing was scripted.
Bordo does not humanize Clinton so much as explain why Clinton-as-candidate is difficult to humanize—something Clinton herself allows, frequently dusting off the old chestnut that she has always found the “service” part of public service far less difficult than the “public” part. Which is why I has happy to see Bordo include an excerpt from Clinton’s Humans of New York featurette—in which, to me, Clinton came off more relatable and more winsome than she had in any of her speeches, debate performances, or paid spots. But it’s a different HONY caption I want to quote here, in full:
“I’m not Barack Obama. I’m not Bill Clinton. Both of them carry themselves with a naturalness that is very appealing to audiences. But I’m married to one and I’ve worked for the other, so I know how hard they work at being natural. It’s not something they just dial in. They work and they practice what they’re going to say. It’s not that they’re trying to be somebody else. But it’s hard work to present yourself in the best possible way. You have to communicate in a way that people say: ‘OK, I get her.’ And that can be more difficult for a woman. Because who are your models? If you want to run for the Senate, or run for the Presidency, most of your role models are going to be men. And what works for them won’t work for you. Women are seen through a different lens. It’s not bad. It’s just a fact. It’s really quite funny. I’ll go to these events and there will be men speaking before me, and they’ll be pounding the message, and screaming about how we need to win the election. And people will love it. And I want to do the same thing. Because I care about this stuff. But I’ve learned that I can’t be quite so passionate in my presentation. I love to wave my arms, but apparently that’s a little bit scary to people. And I can’t yell too much. It comes across as ‘too loud’ or ‘too shrill’ or ‘too this’ or ‘too that.’ Which is funny, because I’m always convinced that the people in the front row are loving it.”
The more Susan Bordo laments Clinton’s suitability for the presidency, and the galling injustice of her vilification, the more the reader wonders if Clinton’s central tragedy is that by the time she finally arrived at the general election, she was too late to be served by her intelligence, statecraft, and lifetime of experience. Put differently, a lifetime of adapting to sexist double-standards never created an insurmountable setback for her—not until the United States veered suddenly and wildly into an anti-establishment, obstructionist mood, one with a delectation for ugliness and cruelty, when some of our country’s most dreadful monsters could finally unmask themselves.
If no Barack Obama 2.0 comes along, and if she stays healthy, and the poll numbers look good early in 2019, Clinton may have one chance left. Win or lose, the story will be the stuff of Hollywood. She’ll be four years older, but still younger than the (presumptive) incumbent. And if Bordo’s narrative in The Destruction of Hillary Clinton spreads and takes hold, 2020 may be her best chance yet.
Ben Reed is a writer and college instructor in Central Texas. His recent essay on the campus carry movement for The Texas Review can be read online at Medium. Reed also writes fiction, and recently won the Texas Observer‘s Short Story Prize, judged by Amelia Gray. He has flash fictions and micro-essays up on Ghost Parachute and the Tin House blog, The Open Bar, with more on the way over at Meridian.