Her perseverance often awes me. Her arrogance sometimes galls me. And her particular braid of high-mindedness and high-handedness almost always leaves me puzzled and exhausted.
But what I’ve been feeling for and about Hillary Clinton over the past week is sadness. Does she have even a smidgen of privacy left? Can she utter a syllable or think a thought with any assurance that it won’t be exposed, analyzed, ridiculed?
When she was talking decades ago with Diane Blair, whose journals are part of "The Hillary Papers," she no doubt assumed an audience of one: her dear friend. Her best friend. But this corner of Hillary’s life, like every other, has now been put on public display. Get as close as you like. Gawk. Judge.
I’m not suggesting that The Washington Free Beacon, the news site that presented "The Hillary Papers," did anything unusual or wrong. By recognizing that an archive of documents at the University of Arkansas hadn’t received much scrutiny and going through it, The Free Beacon provided candid, intimate glimpses of the Clintons that hadn’t existed before. This was indeed a scoop, one that many other media organizations would have been happy to trumpet.
But to absorb it in the context of the endless drip-drip-drip about Hillary over the years was to worry that we’ve lost sight of any boundaries and limits — that maybe even Hillary herself has stopped hoping for anything kinder. When the archive was opened to the public in 2010, she gave a tribute to Blair, who died in 2000.
Details in the documents were fresh. Most of the truths they fleshed out weren’t. We already knew that Hillary had found tortured rationales for Bill’s infidelities. We already knew that her compromised brand of feminism accommodated the vilification of women who dared to threaten the couple’s purchase on power.
What’s at least as interesting is what the documents say about the political arena the Clintons inhabit: the toll it takes, the cynics it makes. Early in her White House years, Hillary’s guard has already gone up. Blair chats with Janet Reno, Bill Clinton’s attorney general, and writes, in April 1993, that while "Janet wants to connect" with Hillary, she "finds HC a ‘mask.’"
This is even before the fever pitch of impeachment and the Starr Report in all its lurid detail and the sustained analysis of every provisional hairstyle and the millions of pages by authors determined to turn her into a symbol of this, that or the other. She has been called a Rorschach, but as I read "The Hillary Papers," I couldn’t stop thinking of her as a carcass. With a tireless zest, we pick her clean.
The latest book about her, "HRC," by the journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, was published last week. It focuses on recent years, and it is flattering: The Hillary here is resourceful and diligent and has enough guile and grace to win over the people whom she sets out to.
She’s also obsessed with loyalty, which governs her decisions, leading to bad ones. That’s perhaps inevitable when you’ve been so thoroughly peered and poked at. You do your damnedest to carve out a safe space.
Blair was surely supposed to be that, and it’s not clear why she was taking notes or what she intended to do with them. It’s also not clear that the Hillary in those notes is the truest one. With our friends, yes, we bare our souls. But we also let off steam, allowing ourselves a theatricality and sloppiness that exaggerate our emotions.
Blair’s journals are the kind of material from which biographies and histories have long been woven. But it doesn’t always surface so soon, and it is now augmented by the eavesdropping and tattling of Cabinet secretaries (see "Duty," by Robert Gates) and political allies and handlers eager to make themselves look better, even at a benefactor’s expense (see "Game Change" and the robust genre to which it belongs).
Frenzied media feed on this, to a degree that arguably goes beyond our obligation to keep politicians honest, and it’s troubling in two regards. How many decent, gifted people who contemplate public office look at what someone like Hillary endures and step away? And the people who aren’t scared off: How cold and hard are they, or how cold and hard do they become?
"HRC" recalls that just after the 2008 presidential election, a photo came to light of one of Barack Obama’s speechwriters, Jon Favreau, pretending to cup the breast of a cardboard cutout of Hillary. The image is shocking, but then again not. For a good long while, we’ve done with Hillary as we pleased, frequently looking past her humanity, routinely running roughshod over her secrets. She has gained so much — tremendous influence, significant riches — but lost so much, too. Was that the bargain she expected? Has she made peace with it?
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