Hillary’s Nixon Problem

I know women who spend a significant amount of time analyzing Hillary’s plastic surgery. They trace the growth of her chin from Wellesley and Yale, where it is recessed and quavering, to the Senate race, where it is out there and strong. They insist there’s been substantial realignment of the axial balance, too: the breaking of the jawbone, the peeling-back of the skin and rearranging of the muscles, which creates a finer symmetry.

I have no idea if Hillary has had such facial surgery. But the truth doesn’t matter (nor does it matter that lots of over-50 politicians have had a little work). Any conjecture, allegation, or accusation about Hillary becomes, if not the truth, a working metaphor. What is the most wrenching, painful, shameful thing she could have done (or had done to her) to have gotten this far? She would have done it (or endured it), don’t you agree?

Not since Richard Nixon has the essential humanity (does she think what we think, feel what we feel, bleed what we bleed?) of a politician been so much the underlying issue. And, as with Nixon, I think it is fair to assume that with every step Hillary takes in her new political career, the debate over her relative goodness or essential evil (or amorality) will grow.

In some sense, if you are interested in politics as drama, as ongoing story line, as grand sport, this is good news (Nixon’s career is the centerpiece of the great age of American politics, and politics paled without him). Hillary is big enough for the stage. Our conflicts can play out in her. She is a potentially heroic or tragic figure.

But she is a comic figure too.

Indeed, part of Hillary’s problem in the Senate race, reflecting her own Nixon-like physical discomfort (has she ever looked relaxed in her clothes?), is that she’s way too big for it (Nixon was too big when he tried to become governor of California). Certainly the visceral reaction she provokes – from the anybody-but-Hillary anger on the part of her antagonists to the unease or embarrassment on the part of many of her supporters – is much larger, and more complex, than a mere Senate race deserves. It is just another aspect of her dissonance, her imperviousness, her tone-deafness that she, possibly the most famous woman in the world, massively rich in the kind of personal-brand media-minded equity that really makes a power base in this age, is running for the Senate, a comparatively low-level, and trivial, job.

The question becomes, as it so often has over the past eight years, not “What can she do for us?” but rather “What are we going to do with her?”

She really doesn’t know her place.

Now, there is an amount of you-go-girl credit she gets for that – her ladyship standing for the house of commons. Equally, there is a lot of resentment she earns for her you-go-girlness – certainly to the degree that it is perceived as entitlement (she has the right to fix health care). But the more complex sense she leaves probably derives less from her strength or arrogance than from her flat-footedness – her interpersonal naïveté or incompetence. She can’t fit in. She can’t mingle. (Nor, like Margaret Thatcher, can she make this a virtue.) She’s vibe-resistant. She really doesn’t seem to get that people have mighty weird and nasty feelings about her (at all times, we are wondering and thinking the worst about her honesty, her ambition, and her marriage; Tim Russert might as well have asked: When was the last time you and Bill had sex?). She won’t – or can’t bear to – acknowledge her weirdness, either. When Russert evoked the Lewinsky troubles in her first Senate debate, she seemed genuinely surprised (prompting the question, what do she and Bill talk about in private?).

So the issue of who she is or isn’t just sits there in the middle of the table. It’s left as some Midwest, Wasp, uncomfortable thing, which, because we’re not going to talk about it, she can’t use or defuse.

Again, this is Nixon stuff, the stiff pretense, the denial, the literalness, the humorlessness.

She is awfully lucky to be running against Rick Lazio, who also has interpersonal problems (but of a different sort: She’s hidden; he’s callow). They are both uncharismatic and dweeby. They, in their awkwardness, stick out like sore thumbs. The issue then is, are you awkward and good (the naïf) or awkward and dark (Nixon)?

She is for the Democrats, as Nixon was for the Republicans, ideologically dependable (she’s much more dependable than Bill; she’s a left-of-center mensch). And that may well be her biggest strength in New York – point for point, the issues are hers.

What’s more, like Nixon, she has gotten herself so woven into the game, into the power structure, into the headlines of our time that we end up accepting this as a big and obvious advantage (which it probably is) – she is inextricable.

Obviously, she’s smart (at least she’s a detail person, whereas Lazio, I say without any evidence whatsoever, probably is not). Or, anyway, she’s a grind. (Here’s a trick well known to human-resources departments: Always hire the Wellesley girls; they’re precise and indefatigable. Here’s another trick: Stay away from Vassar boys, like Rick; they’re precious and need quite a bit of pampering.)

God knows she’s had the experience – more experience on a real political, national, and international level than Lazio will probably ever see in his career, no matter how well it goes.

And certainly she has a voice that will be heard clearly among a hundred others.

In fact, she’s fucking perfect, and she knows it. Which is also part of the problem: She gives success a bad name. Nixon did, too.

It comes down to the calculation – it’s all so visibly about her getting what she wants. Her view of the world is a careerist’s view, an upwardly mobile view, a media-conscious view.

Now, that is, necessarily, the view of every halfway-ambitious person in America. But as with your sex life, you want to keep your strategies of personal advancement and aggrandizement a bit in the closet. Hillary, strangely more guileless and more literal than most, has never taken the proper steps to mask her desires and methods.

It’s not just her moving opportunistically to New York; it’s the broader theme of going wherever the winds of ambition blow (Nixon also suffered for his lack of a hearth – suspicious Key Biscayne beachfront property doesn’t count) that makes people turn up their I’m-rooted-in-this-community noses, even though few are so rooted. Who doesn’t believe that she’s gone from Westchester in a New York minute if she loses? Who doesn’t think that if she wins, she’ll be sleeping in Manhattan?

Lazio’s running home to his family on Long Island has cushioned his ambition. His professed attachment to the mundaneness and banality of Long Island (note: He spends two thirds of his life away from Brightwaters) must mean he is not so power-hungry. Go-anyplace, do-anything Hillary, still standing after all the punches she’s taken, still coming back for more, obviously is. Must be. She’s insatiable.

Could it be that she represents the secret unhappiness of my generation? All this striving, all this work, all this planning, and she hasn’t found love, or respect, or even a home. Just like Nixon.

We project. There’s a part of the nation that is deeply resentful and fearful of the new new thing, the ambitious, mobile, lawyerly, work-till-you-drop, info-media-society, power-breakfast thing (ironically, you could argue that politics, compared with the financial-engineering new economy, is a kind of haimish profession), and in its mind’s eye, Hillary has become a symbol of this new, frightening power elite. And then there is the part of the nation that is wholly wrapped up in this grasping, achieving, careerist new new business culture, and we put our guilt on Hillary. She’s our dark side. Our own caricature.

She’s everyone’s yuppie.

Achievement for achievement’s sake – that’s what she stands for.

The fact that she has done all she’s done and endured all she’s endured and accomplished all she’s accomplished and banked nothing for it makes her all the more suspect. Why does she do this? What is the reward?

It’s out of whack. It’s neurotic.

She is, however unwittingly, at the center of our ambivalence about the lives we’ve made and the priorities we’ve chosen. “How could she have stayed with him?” is a question only partly about sexual humiliation. It’s also about the whole bloody cost of trying to be more than we were probably meant to be. We all want too much, and no one wants it more than Hillary.

This is why she gets such sympathy when she fails. When she is publicly humiliated. Hung out to dry. Instead of turning away in shame and horror (as we did with Nixon), we relate. We’ve all been there – or expect to be. She is humbled for our sins. Losing the Senate race may be good for her career. I can see a Churchill thing.

But Hill, of course, is a winner (and fair refutation of the notion that everybody loves one).

so what is the lasting effect of being regarded like this? Hated, scorned, resented, and occasionally elevated as an object of pity?

Such popular antipathy drove Nixon, again and again, back into the force of the storm. Endurance became the rebuttal. And in the end, the paranoia that must inevitably come from the reality of being hounded drove him a little mad.

Surely, Hillary is our most defensive, press-hating, me-against-them politician since Nixon.

She is entirely armored (on the campaign trail, this is called managing the negatives). The difficulty of reading her, of seeing anything recognizable in her, that opacity – which is also a look you get from too much plastic surgery – comes from her fear and suspicion of us (oddly, her best chance of acceptance was probably in New York, the place where she would most be deconstructed and pulled apart). She knows she must keep us as far from her as she can. This has helped her run a pretty good campaign – it’s been all about control.

But can she ever go back to being what she probably is: a paragon of diligence, a reasonably impassioned voice of good works, a pretty good inside power player – in other words, exactly what we think (or tell pollsters) we want in a senator?

That’s certainly her campaign message: She’ll be a saintly sort of senator.

Nixon, similarly, with all appearances to the contrary, wrapped himself with such sanctimony.

But I’m not sure it isn’t quite the opposite of this that holds our attention and is at the root of our Hillary interest or obsession. The Hillary who goes too far, grabs too much, and who is then, you can count on it, exposed, humiliated, and broken back down is a powerful thing to watch. This is a big-league struggle. This is morality-play stuff. She’s wrestling with our demons. One way or the other, we’ll learn something from her fight.

From Lazio, we know, we’d learn little. He is neither hero nor antihero. He is not worth our attention.

Hillary is worthy. This story has a long way to go.

Hillary’s Nixon Problem