Six Characters in Search of a Blogger


1.6 Hillary Clinton in Purgatory

When I was six, I learned about purgatory from my first grade teacher, Sister Kathleen.  For those of you without the privilege of a Catholic upbringing, purgatory, is, of course, that place between heaven and hell where people’s souls go when they didn’t entirely suck during their lives, but who weren’t good enough to pass St. Peter’s inspection at the Pearly Gates, either.  So instead, they went to purgatory, where they had to wait for redemption–for their souls to become clean–before they could be allowed into heaven.  And that waiting could last for a long, long time.  Sort of like the checkout line at Costco on the day after Thanksgiving.  Like, forever.

Now, for some reason, at six, I had a rather difficult time with the concept of a “soul.”  There were never any pictures of souls anywhere, no points of reference for me to refer to.  When Sister Kathleen said they were deep down inside of us, I turned to a classmate, and asked “where?”  And he, with an air of very pronounced solemnity, poked me in the belly and said, “in there.”  And since the only thing for sure I knew I had inside of me was bones (I’d had an xray of my ankle once), I assumed that my soul was a bone.  Yes, my soul was a bone, deep inside my belly.

So when Sister Kathleen told my class that sins were black marks on our souls, I started to picture people walking around with polka dot bones in their abdomen.   And the bones could be really, really clean for good people with only teeny, tiny dark dots on them–they were the ones that went to heaven. Or some really bad people (like the girl who stole 75 cents and a bag of jelly candies out of my locker one time) could have bones that looked mostly black, with only little specks of white peeking out here and there.  They were the ones that went to hell.  

But it was the in-between soul bones, the ones that looked a bit like the skin of a Dalmatian, that would go to purgatory.  And since purgatory was a place for the souls to become clean again, I imagined a great laundromat in the sky, with a long line of bones waiting their turn for a wash and dry cycle.  And once they had been made squeaky clean again, the bones would receive a pair of wings, with which they would fly up to heaven.  There they would do whatever happy bones do.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

But what, exactly, does this have to do with Hillary Clinton, you may ask?  Well, I’ve been thinking about Hillary quite a bit lately–not simply since the speculations emerged about her being appointed Secretary of State, but really since she suspended her campaign in May.  For since then–despite her graceful performance at the DNC, and all of the speeches she gave on Obama’s behalf in the weeks leading up to the election–she has been in a political purgatory of sorts.  Neither here, nor there.  Not exactly in hell, but not in the White House, either.  Still repaying millions in debt from an unsuccessful campaign.  And slowly making her way back to the Senate, where she is not one of the voices of authority, and where she must passively wait for whatever is next.

So, as conjecture spins in the wider world about her political fate, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a look at Hillary’s political “soul bone,” to see what earned her this place in purgatory, and consider some reasons why her candidacy may have failed.  For no discussion about women during the campaign of 2008 would be complete without the woman who made 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling.  Here are some of her sins–some with which she was politically “born”, some she earned, and some which she had thrust upon her:

• Her legacy from the Clinton years. There was, of course the “original sin” she had incurred during the Clinton Administration.  Many Democrats feared the baggage Hillary brought to her candidacy:  namely, her role as such a polarizing figure while she was First Lady.  You may remember how much resentment there was toward her because of her active involvement in policy decisions during the Clinton years, most pronouncedly on the part of the Republicans, who thought she had overstepped her bounds politically.  This was most crucially seen when she spearheaded health care reform effort during the first two years of the Clinton administration, which ended in the “Hillarycare” debacle of 1994.  When the bill failed, it proved so unpopular that it had a sizeable impact on the midterm elections that year, in which Democrats lost their majority in both the House and Senate (they lost 52 House seats and 8 in the Senate.)

• She hired the wrong people. It has been suggested by some that she chose her campaign staff based on their loyalty, and not necessarily on how well they played the campaign game.  This was particularly true of Patti Solis Doyle, who served as Clinton’s campaign chairwoman until February ’08, when she was asked to step down from her position. Many have noted that Solis Doyle lacked important credentials for the position she was given beyond her role as Hillary’s “alter ego” (see The Atlantic February 2008); she also had never run a campaign or venture on that scale before.  And then, of course, there was Mark Penn, who was Clinton’s chief political strategist through April of 2008.  Penn was dubbed the “Karl Rove” of the Clinton campaign, in a year when the Rovian brand of politics was proven ineffective.  Penn designed the “big state” strategy that some think ultimately cost her the election.

• She played by old rules.  Clinton, with Mark Penn’s advice, bet it all on Big Blue–capturing high-delegate and high-profile states and primaries.  But it has been suggested that if she had focused more on caucus states initially that she may have been the nominee–if Obama hadn’t won Iowa, it is entirely conceivable that he might not now be our President-elect.  (And let’s not forget that Hillary came in third in that contest, behind Obama and John Edwards.)  Another old rule from the Clinton playbook of the 90s that proved unhelpful to Hillary: she fundraised the same way her husband did almost 20 years ago, at cocktail parties and by courting big donors.  Despite the hint from the 2004 Dean campaign that something quite powerful was possible at the grassroots level, she and her staff never saw the juggernaut of Obama’s internet fundraising campaign coming.  

• She went “there.” Some have said that the roughness of Hillary’s campaign made Obama the tough competitor that he had to be against McCain.  This is certainly true; but it must be acknowledged that she was quite ready to employ negative tactics whenever necessary—think of her use of the Tony Rezko scandal, accusations about plagiarism in the Obama camp, and even voter suppression efforts in places like Nevada (with the Culinary Workers Union).  And in a year where voters were looking for inspiration more than fistfights, Obama was rubber, she was glue.  It’s as simple as that.

• Bill, Bill, Bill.  How do you solve a problem like “Bill Clinton?”  How do you take a cloud and pin it down?  How do you find a word that says “Bill Clinton?”  A flibbertijibbet, a will o’ the wisp, a clown?  Many a thing you know you’d like to tell him.  Many a thing he ought to understand.  But how do you make him stay?  And listen to what you say?  How do you keep a wave upon the sand?  Oh, how do you solve a problem like Bill Clinton?  How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand? 

Yes, Bill Clinton could teach Sarah Palin a thing or two about “going rogue.”  

• She wasn’t different enough.  Even though she was the first viable woman candidate ever to have a realistic shot at becoming President of the United States, in this historic election, that just wasn’t good enough.  Hillary counted on her record of experience to help her ride a rising movement of change in the country.  Unfortunately, even though her name was Clinton (and, as she had noted, Clintons are good at cleaning up messes caused by the Bush family), it was a name that had too many associations with the past.  And more unfortunately, she voted for the Iraq war, which was one of the major rhetorical points Obama had against her.  It was hard to argue that she was a “change” candidate when she had voted the wrong way on one of the most crucial issues of the decade.

But despite this perceived error in judgement, President-Elect Obama, we are told, is seriously considering Hillary for the position of Secretary of State.  Will she be asked?  If asked, will she accept?  It all remains to be seen in the coming days.  But with the prospect of a long, quiet political purgatory before her, perhaps she will surprise us by joining the team of her once political rival.  Perhaps she’ll get her new political lease on life by washing herself of past associations, expectations, disappointments.

She might get her wings much sooner than we think.

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