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June 23, 2008

Betraying Hillary


So, after being bitchy about Michelle Obama last week, I finally sat down and watched Hillary's whole Obama endorsement speech. I'd been avoiding it without noticing that I was actively avoiding it. This is how out of touch with my own feelings I am: the moment Hillary walked onto the stage in the video, I literally burst into tears and continued sobbing sporadically throughout the entire speech. I completely surprised myself.

It's been a long campaign already.

It was what I wrote earlier about my experience of Hillary that triggered it. See, Hillary is my Hillary. She came onto the scene in a big way in early 1992, which was when I was getting ready to graduate from college and go out into the world and ... do what? We'd drained our already compromised coffers with a pointless war, added immeasurably to the national debt, and the economy was in the toilet. There were no jobs for kids fresh out of college.

Plus, we'd been at war barely a year before. The frenzy of that time and its immediate aftermath, the protests, the car-horn fights on the streets over bumper stickers, wondering if my friends were really going to be drafted, feeling utterly betrayed by my leaders in a very visceral and immediate way ... all of that exhausted the part of me that engaged in public life.

The war was a capper on a very long 12 years of incredibly damaging, nation-changing Republican rule. I'd been brought up at constant odds with the culture around me. My entire adolescence and young adulthood had been about being politically and even morally under the public gun. I couldn't bear thinking about entering adulthood in that atmosphere of hostility to everything that was important to me.

Does any of this sound familiar to you young Obama supporters out there?

By 1992 I didn't care anymore, and, in fact, left the country four days before the election. (I voted early, of course.) I didn't come back for six years.

But something else that happened in 1992 was that I got to meet Hillary. My parents are heavily involved Dems in their Midwestern town, so when Hillary did a charter plane tour of the Midwest to visit local party stalwarts, my folks got an invite. They brought me along.

The deal was that the local Dems would bring out the folks to the lobby of the chartered plane terminal at the local airport--usually a prettied up hangar--get their name tags on, entertain them with refreshments and local politicians (this was the first time I was ever glad-handed and it freaked me out), and then line them up along the wall when Hillary's plane landed. Hillary would step off the plane, go into the lobby, walk around the rectangle of people, shaking hands, get back on the plane, and go to the next town. She could hit five or six towns a day, if not more.

And the whole thing went off without a hitch. I got smarmed by local candidates, I ate some kraft cheeze on crackers, and then stood against the wall. Hillary appeared, short and smart in her pastel suit, headband in place (remember the headband, ladeez?) and started her circumlocution. She was good at it. When she got to me she managed to get my name without appearing to look at my name tab. "Hello, Claire," she said, and shook my hand, looking me right in the eye.

Hillary's the only politician I ever fell in love with, so I have nothing to compare it to. Of course, it's not like falling in love, but the only language we have for our intensely personal feelings for a public figure is the language of love and seduction. She "seduced" us with her charisma---and folks, let there be no doubt about it, the woman is dripping with charisma. It takes a charismabomb like Obama to make her look bloodless by comparison. Remember, she even held her own standing next to Bill Clinton, and that man radiates from a distance of a football field. It's why she sets so many men's teeth on edge: that's how you feel about a person you hate, whose charisma is unavoidable.

And anybody who wants to say that in 1992 Hillary was touring the country by herself as a wife and not a politician in her own right can go fuck themselves with a chainsaw. That was why Hillary was so profoundly hated by men from the git-go: because she and Bill offered her as a co-politician, not a wife. She helped get Bill into office and then was resented for doing so.

But more than her qualities as a politician (charisma and the ability to command loyalty, interest and collaboration among her colleagues, which, let's face it, she has in spades) it was the fact that she was outspokenly feminist at at time when the backlash against the women's movement in the 70's hadn't quite died down yet. She changed the paradigm of the First Lady. She drew attention to her own career and skillsets. She wasn't a helpmeet; she was a partner, at a moment in history when our culture was struggling to find a term for "life partner" that could apply to both women and men, both married and unmarried couples. She was a partner in every sense of the word. And she was the first First Lady who was a Ms.

Let's remember how important language and naming were in the Clintons' campaign. Hillary insisted on being called "Hillary Rodham Clinton," making it clear on a sub-verbal level that the "Clinton" part was the compromise, not the "Rodham" part. This is why she became "Hillary" to the nation at large--both to her supporters and her detractors: she was using language and naming protocols still too new in the mainstream culture for people to be comfortable with, so they stuck to her first name. Even this was a triumph: she did an end-run around people's feelings and got them on a first-name-basis with her out of sheer discomfort. From there on out, even the most vitriolic attack had a slight ring of familiarity, of affection, to it.

I can't tell you how profound having Hillary center mainstream was for me. I was just 22 when Bill secured the nomination and Hillary declared her cookielessness. The female-empowerment I was raised with was turning into a feminism that I didn't quite know what to do with. I was discovering that while I shared the concerns of my male friends--concerns that didn't always affect me directly--they were not sharing my concerns, even those that DID affect them directly, like reproductive rights.

I had no public leadership in these concerns. Don't get me wrong: there were the Gloria Steinems and the Camille Paglias (I love that she's so passé now; she wasn' t then), but they were considered either tokens from the margin, or special interest leaders. Hillary was the first outspoken feminist at the center. She was also the first Baby Boomer at the center, not a coincidence. To have my opinions and concerns reflected back at me for the first time in my life from the campaign stump---to see a person on the stump who "looked like me" in a profound way, who respected and shared my beliefs about myself---created a revolution in my thinking about politics, my nation and its possibilities, and even about who I was in the world.

I was a young woman in 1992 looking for a place in a world that had changed a great deal, but hadn't yet finished changing to accommodate me. And Hillary's leadership changed my view of how the world could work.

Does any of this sound familiar to you young Obama supporters out there?

If I was 22 now, I might well be feeling the same way about Obama. But I'm 38 now, and I don't believe that I'm young enough in mind to ever feel that way about a politician again. That so many of my male cohorts DO feel this way about Obama saddens me. It tells me that they never got to fall in political love when they were young enough to do it. They've had to wait too long. Their love is now tinged with an ugly bitterness: they couldn't, perhaps were not allowed to, love Hillary when they were young, and now hate her for trying to interfere with their overripe love for Obama.

I never realized that Hillary was a wedge driven between me and my male cohorts back then, because wedges start out in a tiny crack. It isn't until the wood splits that you can even really see the division. I can't ever care about Obama as much as I care about Hillary because Hillary has been with me for sixteen years. She's been a light on the political landscape for sixteen years. She's been my Hillary for all my adult life. Obama made a speech three and half years ago, two years ago started scrabbling at the position that my Hillary has been earning for two decades, and suddenly, I'm supposed to love him?

But I don't think men of my generation or older can love Obama as much as they hate Hillary, and for the same reason. They've been threatened by her for sixteen years. Part of Obama's appeal during this campaign has been that he has a chance of defeating a very strong Hillary. They'll never admit it, these men who have been living with Hillary, as I have, for sixteen years, but their votes until now have been as much a not-Hillary vote as they are an Obama vote.

My anger is the anger of someone who has looked around her and seen that her peers, her partners in the world, the men of her cohort, do NOT share her values ... not really. (I'm not talking about the fringe that constitutes my social circle. We're all freaks here.) But my sadness is all directed at myself. I did not acknowledge, did not even realize, how much Hillary meant to me personally until it was too late. I was intimidated by the loathing men I used to respect unleashed in public. Even while I saw how wrong it was, I allowed myself to be mealy-mouthed in supporting Hillary.

And I allowed the people of color who supported Obama, both men and women, to intimidate me with their covert and overt accusations of racism directed at all Clinton supporters. (Again, not necessarily those of my freakish fringe.) I have always refused to tacitly support the idea that a person's argument is only as good as their identity by refusing to present my credentials before I speak. But I've allowed myself to be afraid in this debate that my identity and my decade of full-time anti-racism work would not be enough. And I did not speak out clearly enough that this woman of color supported and loved Hillary.

My male liberal cohorts did not betray Hillary. They've always been clear about hating her. They betrayed ME, but that's almost another story. My sadness is that I'm the one who betrayed Hillary ... because all of this hatred--all of this hatred from liberals towards a successful, strong liberal ALLY--hurt and intimidated me and succeeded in making me less effective than I know I can be. I let it go too much, and I suspect I'm not the only one who did. And perhaps my failure in strong advocacy is what made the tiny percentage point differences that lost Hillary the nomination.

Feminists intimidated by male hatred into advocating their cause less strongly. Is there a more powerful argument for the continuing effectiveness of misogyny than that?

So last week, I mourned Hillary's lost chance, and my lost chance, the way I should have celebrated it while it was still alive. And I'm writing about it this week so that I can put it away in time to get the Obama campaign on the clue train. Yeah, that's right, I'm not asking if they want me ... I'm not asking at all. I'm there and they're going to listen to what I have to say about gender issues and what the fuck have they been thinking for the past year and half.

I might even write them an open letter. We'll see.

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Yay you.

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