In his classic study, In Defence of Politics, Bernard Crick argued the case for a messy but flexible political discourse underpinned by ethical beliefs. The art of politics maintains both social order and personal freedom, standing guard against those ideologues who seek to pervert the process. One can only wonder what Crick, who died in 2008, would make of American politics today.
Nanette Burstein’s 4-part series, Hillary, screening on SBS On Demand, is a rollicking overview of just how messy politics can get, as seen through the story of one of the most prominent female politicians of our time. Each episode includes part of a long interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton; behind-the-scenes footage of the 2016 Presidential campaign, and a progressive account of a life lived in the public eye.
When most pundits are asked to explain the election debacle that saw an obnoxious reality TV star take over the highest office in the land, they usually fall back on the idea that people just hated Hillary Clinton. This may be true, but the question remains: “Why did people hate Hillary?” This series looks at the case for and against, albeit from a position that’s largely sympathetic to the failed candidate. It shows how Hillary has always stirred up strong emotions, being idolised or reviled in a way that seems excessive when measured against the facts. She has been viewed as a dangerous feminist radical, and a corrupt defender of Wall Street kleptocrats; a menace to the fabric of American life, and a tool of the Establishment. Her popularity hit record highs when she stuck with husband Bill through the Monica Lewinsky affair, only to see this fidelity transformed into a political liability.
As we watch the Clintons riding the roller-coaster of political life it’s impossible to avoid comparisons to the current incumbent. Things that turned into massive, long-running scandals for the Clintons would hardly be worth mentioning if Trump were the culprit. Trump could ferment half a dozen scandals before breakfast that were bigger than Whitewater, and get away with it. For the Clintons, every misstep seemed to lead to a media frenzy that would last for years and go nowhere.
Even Bill Clinton’s affair with an intern seems rather pathetic when one considers that Trump paid hush money to a porn star in violation of campaign regulations, and is still facing multiple lawsuits from women who claim he molested or even raped them. Moral opprobrium aside, Bill Clinton’s biggest problem was that he lied about the episode and was forced to come clean on national television. It was the lie that led to impeachment proceedings, not the sex.
One watches this series with a growing sense of anticipation as the great scandals loom. In their candid, first-person recollections the Clintons are barely able to contain their resentment and frustration over the Whitewater case, which revolved around a failed property venture when Bill was governor of Arkansas and Hillary both the first lady of the state and partner at a local law firm. It was an extraordinary political beat-up that would see them accused of everything from financial skullduggery to influence peddling to murder. The story would rage in the press from 1992 to 2000, but not a single charge would ever be substantiated.
The Lewinsky affair of 1998 was even more damaging, as it sparked a constitutional crisis orchestrated by a Republican-controlled Congress and Senate. After seven months of governmental paralysis that ended in acquittal, the only result was a vast increase in public exasperation with America’s political leaders.
These two episodes would define Hillary Clinton’s political profile no less dramatically than her husband’s. From the time they met as law students at Yale, Hillary and Bill had worked as a team. For Hillary this meant not being satisfed with the ceremonial duties entrusted to a great man’s wife. With her husband’s blessing she continued her legal career, took an active role in framing policy, and fought on behalf of the causes in which she believed.
Her unwillingness to call herself “Mrs Clinton”, and her overt feminism may have helped bring about Bill’s defeat after his first term as Arkansas governor. This led to a major image revolution, as Hillary embraced her married identity and took on a respectably feminine appearance when Bill was re-elected. By now she also had Chelsea and could claim extra credibility as a mother.
What didn’t change was the strength of the partnership. Hillary was a player in the style of Eleanor Roosevelt. When Bill became President she acted as a key advisor and brought in a group of talented women to staff her own office. That early stage of the Clinton presidency would confirm her popularity as a progressive feminist icon and earn her the enmity of old-school Republicans who felt women were better suited to be homemakers.
One major faux pas came in 1992 when she responded to reporters suggesting that her work as a lawyer in Arkansas entailed a conflict of interests. She defended herself by saying: “I suppose I could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas.” At a stroke she had alienated the housewives of America that Phyllis Schlafly had been able to mobilise as opponents of the Equal Rights Amendement.
This was the real Hillary speaking, and no amount of feel-good photo sessions as she shopped at supermarkets and hung out with housewives, could heal the rift that had opened up between her and those women devoted to home and hearth. Hillary’s chief ambition was to reform the American healthcare system – a task that no politician has ever properly managed. It’s here we see her residual steak of idealism, believing the American people would embrace reforms that materially improved their quality of life. No chance. Even today, huge numbers of dirt-poor Americans seem to believe that Obama’s frail reforms are tantamount to a communist plot. Never in history has there been a nation in which so many people have been ready to rise up in violent opposition to their own best interests.
Hillary’s hard-fought but unsuccessful preselection tussle with Barack Obama in 2008, exposed a flaw she has never been able to eradicate. In contrast to Obama, and even to her husband, Hillary has never projected a relaxed, charismatic image. On the podium she always looks as if she is smiling because she has been told to smile. The more she beams at the audience the more disconcerting it seems. The real Hillary is business-like, serious-minded, an intellectual who doesn’t suffer fools. The on-stage persona smiles through clenched teeth and tries to keep her comments big and cheesy. It doesn’t come naturally.
As a woman determined to make it in a man’s world, Hillary learnt there’s no percentage in appearing soft and emotional. And yet there is a widespread publc antipathy for the female politician who appears to deny or betray her ‘feminine’ side. It’s a contradiction that hardly permits of a solution, as Julia Gillard and others have found. It may be profoundly unfair but it’s a stumbling block in the way of women in political life. As the 2020 election campaign heads into its final apocalyptic weeks it will be Kamala Harris’s turn to feel the heat.
Like the Gillard misogyny speech, Hillary also has one truly memorable address to her credit: her speech to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, where she fearlessly announced that “women’s rights are human rights” – a rallying cry that would be heard around the world. She was just as brave as Obama’s Secretary of State when she set herself in vocal opposition to Vladimir Putin – a stance that would make her the target of Russian hackers in the 2016 election.
As the series surges towards its inevitable conclusion we watch the countdown to election night, the debates with an oafish Trump, and the continuing hostility Hillary inspired in a large cross-section of the public. When the curtain finally comes down, she says it was “like a death”.
Poring over the wreckage of the campaign we compare the woman who’s been speaking to us with such directness, humour and intelligence, with the smiling politician stumping for votes; the young radical devoted to social reforms; the passionate, arrogant woman who was never prepared to be ‘just’ the wife. There are as many Hillarys as there were hairstyles – and the hairstyles are incalculable – but the private person was rarely on public view.
With the Clintons we see a couple whose entire life together has been dictated by the logic of politics as Bernard Crick might have understood it: strategies, policies, compromises, campaigns, seductions and betrayals. Hillary played by the rules but met her nemesis in the form of an anti-politician for whom no rules seem to apply. She recognises she might have acted differently on some crucial occasions, perhaps by confronting problems head on rather than sweeping them to one side. But she also knows the constant repetition of smears and slanders have taken a toll.
To many Americans the Clintons will be forever tainted although no-one can identify an actual crime they have committed. In a country in love with conspiracy theories the lack of a conviction only proves how good they were at covering their tracks, how well they’ve managed to cheat and intimidate the forces of justice. The fact that Hillary stayed with Bill after the Lewinsky scandal was no longer viewed as a sign of character, but of a cold, calculating nature that put political interests ahead of personal pain. Her tilt at the White House was soured by accusations of blind ambition – a charge never levelled at a male politician. It’s probably true to see her as a trailblazer who has beaten a path for the female politicians of the future.
No matter what one feels about the Clintons it’s impossible to watch this series and not feel you are looking at people who have been through the wringer, not once but time and again. If they’ve pursued their goals with ruthless determination it has not been for purely egocentric reasons. There is, in Hillary Clinton, a person undeniably devoted to an ideal of public service; to the belief that her country and the world could be made a better place. She is a politician with moral convictions about right and wrong. None of that applies to an anti-politician such as Donald Trump, for whom power is not a responsibility but a licence to to do whatever he likes. This series, which ends with the Trump ascendency, feels like an elegy for a quaint, old-fashioned political model. Even if the Democrats win back power in November there’s no reason to believe that politics will ever be the same again.
Written & directed by Nanette Burstein
Starring Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Jennifer Palmieri, Amy Chozick, Peter Baker, Robby Mook, Jake Sullivan, Nancy Gertner, Nick Merrill, Mandy Grunwald, Joe Klein, Paul Begala, Chelsea Clinton, Minyon Moore
USA, rated ?, (4 episodes, 252 mins in total)
Streaming on SBS On Demand from Wed. 16 September
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 12 September, 2020