IN 2007 AND 2008, I wrote a couple of pieces on Hillary Clinton. The first one began: “When most of us first laid eyes on Hillary Clinton, it was during ‘60 Minutes,’ and she was sitting by her man saying she was not one of those women who would stand by him.” The second piece divided her 2008 supporters into four camps: the no-illusions camp (“You shouldn’t vote with too much hope in your heart”); the camp of wounded projection, which includes a lot of women who sacrificed for their husbands too; the “I need a woman president in my lifetime” camp — no matter who she is; the camp of conflicted macho men seeking redemption.
The pieces, which now seem a little OBE, were very much of their time and steeped in the details of the 2008 Democratic primary, during which I was campaigning (in Wisconsin and Indiana) for Barack Obama, who seemed a much more significant and useful figure — historically, sociologically, and temperamentally. Because of her marital leg-up (no mischievous innuendo there — don’t search!), I didn’t find Clinton a deeply feminist choice. I didn’t see her as representing any systemic change. I did think, on the other hand, that she was smart and quick and had more “charisma” (why this word?) than the press gave her credit for — both she and Obama could get wonky and dull on the trail when tired; nothing wrong with that — she had a big laugh and real warmth and sometimes the heat of a beautiful villainess, like the aging queen in Snow White, everyone’s favorite character in the Disney film. She was a centrist and a hawk and sometimes dodgy; she publicly recounted dodging fictional sniper fire in a Ronald Reagan–style mind-movie set in the former Yugoslavia. She also had a hand in one of the biggest foreign policy catastrophes of our time. This, despite the fearsome Clinton Machine, doomed her in a campaign against a younger, less-established online community organizer of hopeful, peace-loving dwarves (our young people).
When she inevitably ran again in 2016, this time as the Democratic nominee, I at long last voted for a Clinton. Had to for the Supreme Court. She was strong on Roe v. Wade. She seemed strong on tightening gun laws. She was adamant about Citizens United. These things, for a change, did not seem to have a waffle in them. One had to put aside Iraq, NAFTA, the demise of HillaryCare, the crime bill, the welfare bill, Waco, the Goldman Sachs speeches, and other dubious maneuvers with which Clinton and her husband were associated; one had to hope for the best. Environmental concern was clearly not a priority for either nominee and this seemed mind-boggling. We seemed to have two frackers as our major party candidates. Still I assumed — based on very little, apparently — a landslide for her.
But then I noticed that she was not stumping much with Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin. There seemed to be no Clinton headquarters in Wisconsin that had an actual phone number. The mayor of Madison subsequently complained in The New York Times that he did not ever get a call from Hillary. In the summertime, elsewhere, she made mention of putting Bill in charge of the economy. Why? Bill did not even know to stay off the attorney general’s portion of the tarmac and, as a result, gave us Comey and his variously damaging email announcements. Hillary confidently and happily said she might reserve for herself the task of picking out the new White House china. Not only was she getting ahead of herself, she was talking about dishes, not Beijing. She pivoted overconfidently toward suburban female Republicans, alienating the young. She seemed to have trouble getting traction anywhere outside the party base. When she should have been campaigning for Midwesterners, at a fundraiser she suggested a lot of them were a basket of deplorables. Why, why, why? I returned to my wish that the Clintons had gotten out of the way and let someone such as Elizabeth Warren run, with her truth-to-power stance and dedication to the working class. That so many people voted for a septuagenarian Socialist proved there was hunger for an alternative. Sanders had won the Wisconsin primary, which should have concerned the Clinton campaign but apparently didn’t. In a state full of government workers who use email, her personal server issue was a problem. And in a state that is not shy about third parties, third party candidates could determine outcomes. (And did.)
Meanwhile, Scott Walker and Paul Ryan and Ron Johnson were out and about in Badgerland energetically derailing Russ Feingold’s campaign as well as Clinton’s. Johnson boasted charmingly on TV ads that he was one of the few non-lawyers in the Senate and this had great appeal statewide, especially in a year when a businessman who had never held public office was hypnotizing not just the media but the land. Ted Cruz had won the GOP primary, and Wisconsin Republicans and evangelicals knew (eventually) to get behind Trump. The draconian and quietly petulant Paul Ryan came around big time. But the Democrats were asleep at the wheel, letting insiders pose as outsiders. Although both parties were doing that.
Clinton’s popular vote lead of almost three million votes — meaning almost three million people were disenfranchised — is a depressing thing to contemplate. Would we not plot regime change for a country with a similar sham democracy? Well, Clinton was playing a board game and she knew the byzantine rules and all the answers to the questions on the cards, but she forgot to move her markers around the board.
Will she be missed? Clinton, like Trump, and better than she knows, can cast a spell. Watching her throughout 2016, I noticed how attractive and savvy she could be. I watched her every debate. She was in a man’s game, and fiercely and mostly unflappably she took it on. I noticed how good-looking she was when she was having fun. It was hard to take your eyes off her. I studied her outfits and statement necklaces. (Let’s be real: The clothing of women in public life is fair game for passing commentary since it is so various and arduously assembled and deliberately chosen — see, Melania’s pussy bow.) I liked what Clinton was wearing in June, when she was in Columbus, Ohio, speaking against Trump and (too briefly) for the economy. I loved what she wore during Benghazi-gate, even if her attitude looked callous. I admired that mustard-gold jacket at her town hall in New Hampshire, a state she should have won just based on that town hall, during which she was excellent, compassionate, and in charge. She looked striking in dark, forest-blue-green jackets, but it was that yellow one in New Hampshire that impressed me most with its “backward in heels” quality. Okay, I joined thousands of other women looking for similar attire on eBay. Her jackets became an online shopping subcategory on Google and her pantsuits the theme of a fantastic, exuberant flashdance in Washington Square Park. Were we not all a little obsessed with her, even as she cooperated with the national Trump fascination by reducing her campaign to a referendum on him? She and Trump sometimes seemed to be a squabbling couple: Big Loner Papa and Working Mom. Working Mom tends to lose in that game. And she lost by 107,000 even while winning by three million.
And so she leaves a blank spot in the landscape — or will we see her in public life doing good works, as we saw with the Carters and will surely see with the Obamas? Did she only want to be president for herself?
Trump, meanwhile, traveled around the country wearing those baseball caps, which only sometimes hid his “defiantly ridiculous coiffure” as Mark Danner wrote in The New York Review of Books. Trump and his faux-guru campaign of “I’m with you,” inverting Clinton’s more point-of-view-challenged “I’m with Her,” waded recklessly in and out of various coded channels of white identity politics. Disco Sucks, All Lives Matter, Law and Order, Make America Great Again. His theme song was “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Running for president seemed mostly to be one of those things on his bucket list, like being on America’s Got Talent. Actually winning the office did not seem to be on the list and visibly stunned him. Less a businessman than a show-business man — part Crazy Eddie, part Henry VIII, part AWOL Andrew Jackson — like the reality show participant he was and the reality show producer he is, he seems in it for the adventure and applause. The actual White House has already proved to be a bit frumpy for his taste and governing will surely be more complicated and tedious than he expected. He is a barker for the American carousel — “of course it takes talent to do that well,” wrote Oscar Hammerstein with a pitying wink. In the same song, Hammerstein also wrote, “But he wouldn’t be President unless he wanted to be!” — and maybe Trump will walk off the job to tend to his golf courses and hotels, leaving the White House to Pence, which the GOP would no doubt prefer anyway. Trump has already dispensed with the daily intelligence briefings. Too repetitive! Mercurial is a word that only begins to describe him. But if he walks away, perhaps the word beautiful will be returned to us. It would be nice to get it back.
Meanwhile, we will see what’s on Hillary’s bucket list. She has admitted to having no hobbies. (What working woman has hobbies?) After she gave her gracious concession speech on November 9, she stepped away from the podium and plunged almost suicidally down into the crowd. Several alarmed secret service agents dove in after her. We’ll watch how she resurfaces.