It’s official: Hillary Clinton is history’s first female presidential nominee for a major political party. Many on twitter responded to this historic moment with the remark “wish it was a better candidate”.
It was never going to be.
Charlotte Whitton may have cursed ambitious women everywhere when she said ““Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” Nonsense. It is difficult, and women shouldn’t be expected to achieve greater outcomes to be seen as equal to men. Nonetheless, Whitton’s quote is essentially the story of Hillary Clinton.
It’s easy, in the year 2016, to underestimate just how much of Clinton’s narrative was set in the early 1980s, a less gender-equal time when Hillary Clinton was caught between those who hated her for being too “uppity” and ambitious and those who couldn’t stand her for being too traditional. Clinton is a complex case study as an intelligent, ambitious woman who married a man who couldn’t keep it in his pants. While Bill was governor and president, Hillary was caught in a difficult spot: embracing the reality of what was going on would destroy her family, since she gave up her own aspirations for his, and she had the future of her daughter to think about.
Yes, she attacked Gennifer Flowers, but any other wife could probably be forgiven for being less than kind to the woman who slept with her husband. Hillary hasn’t been, all these years later. And yet she keeps going.
While Bill was president, she was, again, demonized because she wanted to do more than pick out china patterns. Not only was Hillary crucified for “Hillarycare”, but she doesn’t get any credit from many Sanders supporters for her attempts to promote the closest thing to universal healthcare that any US government has attempted. Hillary was also demonized in connection to Bill’s infidelity. Again. There was the Whitewater scandal, Travelgate, Filegate, and Vince Foster’s death. It was a period of a lot of smoke – driven by Republicans – but no fire, and the words “no credible evidence” were spoken a lot. The Lewinsky scandal was the one thing that the Republicans managed to hang on Bill Clinton, because he lied about the affair under oath. It was the one home run in a period where the Republican crucifixion of Clinton struck out a lot.
It was during this period that Hillary Clinton got the reputation for being a liar. Mostly because she was Bill’s biggest character witness. There’s no evidence that Hillary was lying as opposed to repeating the lies she was told, but in politics, people don’t tend to let the truth get in the way of a good story. And yet she keeps going.
Don’t get me wrong, she made some mistakes in this period. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s baffling to me that Hillary Clinton is being blamed for any decisions during this time, however, since she had no official power.
Despite Bill’s disgraceful impeachment, Hillary rebuilt, and her ambitions were on the rise as a senator who was willing to reach across the aisle. However, her admirable Senate record was marred by a single vote – the one in support of the Iraq war. 28 other Democratic Senators – a majority of Democrats in the senate at the time — did the same thing, including Joe Biden, Harry Reid, and John Kerry.
There’s background to this too, however. After 9/11, a Senator from New York was as much expected to be a hawk on any country alleged to be connected to the attack on the World Trade Center, as a Senator from Vermont was expected to be more lax on guns than the average liberal. I also remember the pundit class insisting Clinton had to vote for the war to show “a woman could do it”. Many people today don’t care about these mitigating factors, and that’s sad, since people are products of their times, and there’s only so much a person can do when they’re fighting against bias regarding portions of their identity.
9/11 also made the urban population in America soil their shorts in terror. Time has blunted the emotional impact of that event. The Iraq Resolution was a complete con job by the Bush administration, which used it to authorize a war, then ignored every limitation the resolution was supposed to place on the executive branch.
However, even if you think there was no excuse for Clinton’s support of the second Iraq war, a person must be judged on their successes as well as their failures. That’s not happening. And yet she keeps going.
Another complaint among Clinton haters is her “untrustworthy” record regarding LGBTQ rights, notably marriage equality. As early as 1999, Clinton was offering support for “same-sex unions”, which back then was a way to support gay marriage without offending those of more traditional religious persuasions. That was actually a progressive stance back then.
I was to the left of Clinton at that time. Back then, I was pointing out that there was really no difference between a civil union and a civil marriage, so why not just call it marriage? All marriages done without a religious official involved are civil unions. But since I was there at that time, I also remember how strong the homophobia was. Any politician who would even consider the idea of some sort of legally recognized same-sex-relationships status was extremely important. This idea that Clinton is somehow a secret homophobe is ludicrous, but it’s widespread. We have to question why.
Her opponent for the Democratic nomination in 2008 was no better at that time regarding same-sex marriage. A lot of people were not ready to support marriage equality. Back then, the priority was getting gay couples official recognition as next of kin. In that context, we didn’t give a damn what a politician called it. There were a lot of people opposing the idea that gay couples should have any official status at all. There still are, despite the supreme court decision.
Hillary haters also love to ignore the fact that the 2008 primary was much closer than the tally in 2016. By some accounts, Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote. By any account, the pledged delegate count between Obama and Clinton — 1766.5 to 1639.5 — was actually closer than the gap between Clinton and Sanders — 2205 to 1846. It was a three-way race that year with John Edwards. Back then, it was a big deal that the Democratic party, en masse, revolted against the idea of another Clinton in the White House. They wanted someone more to the left, and they put their thumb on the scale. That practice in the DNC isn’t a new thing, and I’m not sure that it’s going to change.
2008 was another contest the superdelegates decided. There was much less agreement, even among those party insiders, on the outcome. Clinton showed exceptional leadership in defeat, enthusiastically working to unite the party. She gets no credit now for that. And yet she keeps going.
She became a popular and competent Secretary of State. Her greatest achievements weren’t “texts from Hillary” or a cease fire in the Middle East. It was what didn’t happen. The debacles avoided. But once again, one thing went catastrophically wrong: Benghazi.
Benghazi, at first glance, seems like an undeniable cock up. Mistakes were definitely made, and people died. But the Republicans successfully separated Benghazi from a much larger historical context. Firstly, the State Department was dealing with a security budget shortfall of $270 million thanks to Republicans slashing spending in practically every level of government under threat of a government shutdown. Secondly, deadly attacks on US embassies and embassy personnel are not uncommon. During George W. Bush’s administration, 39 attacks occurred, and 20 of those attacks resulted in fatalities. The total number of deaths from these attacks, according to Politifact, was 87 people. These deaths are seen by some as “less important” because they weren’t Americans, and they certainly weren’t American ambassadors. So much for “all lives matter”.
Still, at least 3 US civilians were killed in embassy attacks during Dubya’s tenure. Security breaches are to Hillary what extra-marital affairs are to Bill – plenty of politicians do it, but it’s only a catastrophe if your name is Clinton. That doesn’t excuse sloppy security or adultery. It just indicates that there is, indeed, some element of double standard. This double standard has cost taxpayers millions of dollars in wasted expenditures.
Out of the numerous Benghazi investigations came the private server scandal, and the Republicans finally had an unequivocal mistake on Clinton’s part. If we lived in a logical world, it should have been a minor mistake: not only did both Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell use personal email during their tenures as Secretary of State, but Powell used a very-much-not-secure AOL account. They both sent and received classified information, or at least information that eventually became classified. Dubya just made that totally okay to do via an executive order that said the Secretary of State had the power to classify and declassify any document created by the State Department.
Clinton’s explanation that she thought using private email was okay because others before her had done it actually has an element of plausibility. No one cares.
That wasn’t the mistake. The mistake was thinking that the game was fair. That far into her political career, Hillary Clinton should have been well aware that if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. Especially if your name is Clinton.
All that brings the total of major mistakes Clinton has made since 1979 to a whopping total of twelve unforced errors.
Twelve major mistakes. In 37 years. I wish I had that track record. Hell, Donald Trump screws up twelve times in a month!
But that’s twelve more big mistakes than many people are used to seeing a woman make, because woman having enough power to make such mistakes is a fairly recent phenomenon. Similarly loathed women in history have included Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Julia Gillard, Sarah Palin, and Nancy Reagan. It’s not that these women were free of mistakes. It’s that the criticism of them went beyond the mistakes they actually made into the illogical grey area of “unlikeability”.
Popular male politicians like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton can make some pretty massive mistakes and still have high approval ratings. George W. Bush is still received with respect despite breaking the world. Meanwhile, women in high-ranking political positions are crucified for every stumble.
This isn’t my opinion. This is history. Something is up here.
Clinton’s 2008 concession to Barack Obama gave women everywhere an example of how to fail with grace, and we very much need those examples. Becoming a woman is a ritualized, systematic, hiding of flaws: we conceal facial flaws with makeup, bodily flaws with uncomfortable “support garments”, hair dye for grey hair, plastic surgery for everything else, and a coy smile in place of voiced opinions. Brainy women, at least in my 80s era generation, had an extra layer of mistake-driven terror: we were right a lot, so when we were wrong, everyone around us swarmed like piranhas to laugh and jeer at our failure. Guess we weren’t better than them after all! Guess we weren’t really so smart!
There was a fear, not so long ago, that smart, opinionated women would have trouble attracting husbands. There was no template for where we belonged as women other than Velma from Scooby Doo which… didn’t help. Anne of Green Gables was a somewhat better role model, as was Jo from Little Women, but those books were written in an age where becoming a schoolteacher or a writer was like being a CEO today. These were hardly great examples of career aspirations.
Women like Hillary Clinton, women like me, are still considered “shrews”, “bitches”, “harpies” and other less kind descriptions. There are no equivalent insults leveled at men.
It’s one thing to say that women can be president in the abstract. It’s a different thing entirely to show us how that can be done. Hillary Clinton is doing that, one unsure, paranoid step at a time, with thin ice below her, that cracked glass ceiling above. It’s a precarious place, and even if you hate her, she’s earned your respect.
Respect is what’s left when you don’t really like someone. The media has given us little reason to like Hillary Clinton. However, her persistence, her ability to just keep going and just keep things done… that’s worthy of our respect.
Hillary Clinton’s historic nomination isn’t a major milestone in spite of her mistakes. It’s because of them. She set an example for women everywhere that flaws and failure are not the end.