Last Year’s Role Model
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. Not long after that, she told us she didn’t make cookies. At that remark I thought I heard the cheering of nonbaking working women everywhere, but apparently I was wrong, and quickly we the people were favored with Mrs. Clinton’s own contrite cookie recipe, which I have not yet had time to try.
A decade-and-a-half later, however, working women were back watching Mrs. Clinton in a New Hampshire diner: they saw her eyes well up in what looked like self-pity but what was to those women recognizably the teary, unbidden mist of exhaustion. Sympathy burst forth, even from Barack Obama (he, too, was tired).
Still, though we are in the midst of an awful presidency, we should not be taken in by the rosy haze that gets cast over the Clinton White House; they were not years of great accomplishment. Baghdad was strafed and embargoed; Waco was gassed and burned; in all these events, children (Mrs. Clinton’s key policy focus) were appallingly killed.
While polar ice caps began to melt, Al Gore was left to do who-knows-what, only to regale us later in cineplexes with the consequences of those melting caps, rendering us panicked in our powerlessness. Nafta was signed and the World Trade Organization was created, national health care went nowhere, and by the second term’s close, the administration’s hope of getting things done had been hijacked by Kenneth Starr and the party dress he had confiscated from someone named Monica Lewinsky.
So here comes another Clinton.
Does her being a woman make her a special case? Does gender confer meaning on her candidacy? In my opinion, it is a little late in the day to become sentimental about a woman running for president. The political moment for feminine role models, arguably, has passed us by. The children who are suffering in this country, who are having trouble in school, and for whom the murder and suicide rates and economic dropout rates are high, are boys — especially boys of color, for whom the whole educational system, starting in kindergarten, often feels a form of exile, a system designed by and for white girls.
In the progressive Midwestern city where I live, the high school dropout rate for these alienated and written-off boys is alarmingly high. Some are even middle-class, but many are just hanging on, their families torn apart by harsh economics and a merciless criminal justice system. Why does it seem to be the Republicans who are more vocal about reforming our drug laws? Why has no one in the Democratic Party campaigned to have felons who have served their time made full citizens again? Their continued disenfranchisement is a foolhardy strike against these men and their families.
Perfect historical timing has always been something of a magic trick — finite and swift. The train moves out of the station. The time to capture the imagination of middle-class white girls, the group Hillary Clinton represents, was long ago. Such girls have now managed on their own (given that in this economy only the rich are doing well). They have their teachers and many other professionals to admire, as well as a fierce 67-year-old babe as speaker of the House, several governors and a Supreme Court justice. The landscape is not bare.
Boys are faring worse — and the time for symbols and leaders they can connect with beneficially should be now and should be theirs. Hillary Clinton’s gender does not rescue society from that — instead she serves as a kind of nostalgia for a time when it might have. Only her policies are what matter now, and here — despite some squabbling and bad advice that has caused her to “go negative” — the Democrats largely agree. But inspiration is essential for living, and Mr. Obama holds the greater fascination for our children.
Mr. Obama came of age as a black man in America. He does not need (as he has done) to invoke his grandfather’s life in colonial Kenya to prove or authenticate his understanding of race. His sturdiness is equal to Mrs. Clinton’s, his plans as precise and humane. But unlike her, he is original and of the moment. He embodies, at the deepest levels, the bringing together of separate worlds. The sexes have always lived together, but the races have not. His candidacy is minted profoundly in that expropriated word “change.”
Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton’s scripted air of expectation might make one welcome any zeitgeisty parvenu. Her “35 years of experience” puzzle in their math. Like Rudolph Giuliani, who wants to keep voters safe from terrorism though his own mayoral bunker was beneath the World Trade Center, Mrs. Clinton wants kudos for the disaster of her failed national health plan. She counts heavily her eight years in the White House. Well, then, she’s already been there! Good for her. Next?