Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

11.1 Secretary of State William Seward, the Hillary Clinton of His Time


The Hillary Clinton of his day, William Seward

The Hillary Clinton of his day, William Seward

It could be said that William Seward should have been our 16th President of the United States, instead of Abraham Lincoln.

It could also be said that he was the Hillary Clinton of his day;  here’s why.

Seward, a prominent member of the Whig party before it dissolved, and one of the stars of the Republican Party when it was first formed in 1854, was actually the popular frontrunner for his party’s nomination in 1860 (sound familiar?)  But on the advice of his friend and political advisor Thurlow Weed, overly confident about his future, and cautious about making any controversial statements before the nomination process, Seward left the country for an 8 month tour of Europe instead.  He returned shortly before the vote to find that a relative (and very underestimated) newcomer to the national political scene, Abraham Lincoln, had been campaigning vigorously during his absence, lining up support within the party’s leadership.  Despite the fact that he had been a heavy favorite for the Republican title, Seward lost the nomination.

Seward had many more credentials for the Presidency than Lincoln.  In 1860, he was a second term Senator from the state of New York, and had also served two 2-year terms as Governor of the state.  Known for his fierce resistance to slavery, he opposed the Compromise of 1850 (which defined certain territories such as California and Texas as being either “free” states or slavery states), as well as the Fugitive Slave Law, which required citizens of free states to return runaway slaves to their owners.

A lawyer by profession, Seward defended a number of fugitive slaves in court to gain them safe haven in free states.  In the 1846, he also gained fame for his defense of two prominent murder suspects in New York.  The first, a white man, was accused of killing a cellmate in prison; the second, a black man, was accused of breaking into a home and killing 4 people there.  Seward, well aware that both defendants suffered from mental illness and abuse, was one of the first lawyers in the country to employ the insanity defense.  Not surprisingly, he was a firm believer in prison reform and in better care standards for the insane.

When he lost his party’s nomination in 1860, he fell in with the party line and became a supporter of Lincoln, going so far as to campaign for his rival (again, the echoes of Clinton are clear.)  Once Lincoln was elected, he appointed Seward as his Secretary of State, in which Seward served from 1861-1869 (he continued in the role after Lincoln’s assassination and during Andrew Johnson’s Presidency.)

The office that Clinton is inheriting is, of course, in some ways vastly more complex than the one that Seward did.  There were not the pervasive external threats–in the form of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism–to American security in Seward’s time that there are now.  However, Seward’s challenges were formidable;  we were embroiled in a costly and vicious Civil War that required delicate diplomacy with countries such as Great Britain, who had a separate relationship with Confederate leaders.  Seward’s legacy also includes his dedication to westward expansion–he was keen on extending the United States’ sphere of influence into the Pacific, and it was under his leadership in 1867 that the United States purchased the vast wilderness that was the Alaska territory (afterwards known as “Sewards Folly.”  And just think:  they didn’t even know about Sarah Palin yet.)

Many people may have forgotten that the night of Lincoln’s assassination, Seward was also targeted.  John Wilkes Booth’s associate Lewis Powell broke into Seward’s home on that tragic night (April 14, 1865), where he attacked two of Seward’s sons before stabbing Seward multiple times in the face and neck.  Seward survived, but his wife died two months later from shock; a year later, Seward’s daughter died of tuberculosis.

He spent his years after office traveling the world, and died at his home in Auburn, New York in 1872.  His last message to his children was reported to have been “love one another,” fitting words for a man who had seen the ravages of war tear his country apart.

It’s also a fitting message for our new Secretary of State, as she begins her very critical work around the world.

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.

1.5 Living la vida Oprah
November 14, 2008, 10:29 am
Filed under: Women of Campaign 2008 | Tags: , , ,

I’ve been writing a lot about imaginary places and things this week:  Never-Never-Land, Oz, time machines–even Disney World, which is really just a giant theme park about imaginary places.  

But I have saved the most magical place of all for now.  (Please bow your heads in reverence.)  Ladies and gentlemen, we are now going to enter the realm of Oprah.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey

Yes, Oprah is magic.  We all know it.  People have talked about the special feeling they get when just standing in her presence; some have described it as a tingling, others a warm radiance, still others just a variation on speechless awe.  But how can we help it?  She is a one-woman empire, and very much the Empress of that empire.  She waves one hand and houses appear in ravaged New Orleans; waves the other and schools sprout out of the ground in Africa.  She simply picks up a book and it becomes a bestseller.  She espouses a spiritual philosophy and suddenly there are thousands of adherents around the world.  She plays with an Amazon Kindle, and it goes on everyone’s Christmas list.  (I can only hope that her primetime hug with Tina Fey on “30 Rock” last week will ensure the show is picked up by NBC in perpetuity, or at least until Alec Baldwin’s contract runs out.)

But Oprah took a big leap of faith during Campaign 2008, something she had never done before.  This time, she took sides.  This time, she endorsed a candidate.

Her admiration for Barack Obama had been obvious for years before the endorsement.  In fact, he had appeared on her show twice: once in 2004, following his starmaking address at the Democratic National Convention, and then again in 2006 before he declared his intent to run for the Presidency.  As she noted on The Larry King Show in May of 2007, she never attempted to hide her regard for Obama, the man she referred to as “my Senator” (Obama is, of course, the junior Senator from Illinois, where both Oprah and her company Harpo Productions are based.)

What was shocking, however, was the fact that she decided to throw the full force of her iconic power behind a candidate in a political race–not simply by lending her name, but by actively going out on the stump for him.  And while in her role as “America’s most popular daytime talk show host” she did not have the same obligations as, say, a network news anchor–she had neither the journalistic gravitas nor the professional obligation to remain impartial–nevertheless, the impact of her endorsement felt like that of a network news heavyweight (someone like Tom Brokaw comes to mind.)  For Oprah had, in the 21 years her show had been on the air, held herself above the fray, using her show’s platform to feature all the candidates, and allowing her viewers make their own decisions.  She famously humanized both Al Gore and George W. Bush during the 2000 Presidential campaign when they each appeared individually on her show.  So viewers had become used to a certain degree of impartiality.  On the aforementioned Larry King Live episode, Oprah hinted that she understood the risk she was taking by getting involved in politics at this stage in her career, but also acknowledged she had strong reasons for doing so:  “I think that what he [Obama] stands for, what he has proven that he can stand for, what he has shown was worth me going out on a limb for–and I haven’t done that in the past because I…didn’t know anybody well enough to be able to say, I believe this person.”  

Oprah campaigning for "her Senator," Barack Obama

Oprah campaigning for "her Senator," Barack Obama

And most of us know what followed from there.  Oprah was on the stump for Obama in places like Iowa and New Hampshire during the early campaign for the Democratic Party nomination, drawing sell-out crowds in stadiums from state to state.  She held star-studded fundraisers in his honor that raised millions.  But on her daily talk show, she remained mute about her support.  It was a matter of principle, she said:  because she had indicated a personal preference in the Presidential race, she would keep discussion of the campaign off of her talk show.  She wouldn’t attempt to have any candidates on, because she didn’t want to appear disingenuous, pretending to be objective during the interviews.  The candidates, she said, would have to wait until after November 4 to be featured as guests.

But here is where the risk came in.  Oprah, no doubt, was very conscious of the demographics of her viewership when she made her decision to support Obama’s campaign.  And she must have realized that a significant portion of that population would be Hillary supporters–because her audience is “predominantly female, white, and over age 55.”  (Source: MSNBC)  So when she announced that she would not have Hillary Clinton, (or later, Sarah Palin) on her show, despite myriad requests from many of her female viewers, she must have anticipated some sort of backlash.  Supporters of the candidates (particularly Sarah Palin’s) protested, and boycotted the show in an indication of their displeasure.  And the results of the protests made their mark–one USA Today-Gallup poll taken earlier this year indicated that between 2006 and Fall 2007, after Oprah had endorsed Obama, her favorability ratings dropped from 74 to 66 percent.  (Apparently, though, her gamble paid off:  according to this source, Oprah was responsible for bringing in approximately 1 million votes for the Obama campaign during the Democratic primaries, which enabled his ultimate victory.) 

But I think this willing sacrifice on her part (to “take one for the team” so the team will win) is emblematic of a major change in what I call “La Vida Oprah.”  While her life has always informed her work, and vice versa, small stress fractures are beginning to appear as she attempts to maintain the delicate balance between the two.  Why?  I think it is because she has realized that the authenticity of her mission, the show’s motto, “live your best life” is more important than her ratings.  Thus, she chose a work that had a profound influence on her own life, Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth: Awakening to Life’s Purpose for her book club, despite the displeasure from many of her fans about choosing piece of writing about new age spirituality.  And then, she chose Barack Obama as her candidate, because she thought it would be best for the country to have him as President–despite the fact that she lost the very high viewership numbers his appearance on her show during the campaign (as well as Hillary Clinton’s, John McCain’s, and Sarah Palin’s) would have guaranteed.  My own personal hope is that Oprah will extend her dedication to doing what she thinks is best (instead of what is popular) by cancelling her “Favorite Things” segment, where the display of excess and emphasis on “stuff” has always seemed to run counter to her true message–and is especially troublesome during this time of economic crisis.  Despite the fact that she gives the “stuff” to her on-set audience for free, her “Favorite Things” episodes have often seemed somewhat hypocritical, especially when they have aired within a week or two of stories about people living beyond their means/losing their homes, or financial guru Suze Orman’s very firm messages about fiscal discipline and avoiding the trap of “keeping up with the Joneses.”  

Despite this small quibble of mine, I must admit, there is a certain magic in this new La Vida Oprah.  Not the tingly, awe-inspiring kind, but something that more closely resembles hope.  Because by living her best life, it benefits us all–we have a new President-elect to show for it.  So I say, Viva la Vida.  (Thanks, Coldplay.)