How Much Is Hillary Clinton Like Claire Underwood?

There seem to be two major responses to the Washington Free Beacon’s enterprising investigation into the Diane Blair documents at the Clinton library University of Arkansas Special Collections library. The first is: up and at ’em! She’s a candidate for president (well she hasn’t ruled it out); her record in public life is obviously germane; what’s the problem? The second is: can we not revisit the entire 1990s? It was bad enough at the time. And please, give the Clintons a break after all these years. Byron York makes the first case; Frank Bruni makes the second.

York wins by a mile, it seems to me. When you’re electing a president, obviously his or her character under pressure is an important thing to understand. Many candidates – like Obama, for example – have such a slim record in public life (and such an apparently impeccable private life) that the details can be a little sparse. Nonetheless, we know about his pot-smoking, his intimate family background (not least because he wrote his own book about them), his marriage, his friendships, his religious affiliations, and on and on. Now think of what we learned (and didn’t!) about a former half-term governor’s improbable rise. When you come to someone like Hillary Clinton, who’s been in the halls of power for two interminable decades, the record is much deeper and wider. It is not somehow prying into someone’s zone of legitimate privacy to note the following, as York does, in order to counter the hagiography that has emerged in the last decade or so:

New voters also need to learn about Mrs. Clinton’s checkered history as a lawyer and the game of hide-and-seek she played with federal prosecutors who subpoenaed her old billing records as part of the Whitewater investigation. After two years of defying subpoenas and not producing the records, she suddenly claimed that they had been in a closet in the White House residence all along.

Add to that Clinton’s amazing $100,000 windfall in cattle futures and the shenanigans in the White House travel office, and you’re dealing with completely legit questions about ethics in public life. The benefit of time passing is that these maneuvers can be seen more dispassionately, and dismissed as ancient news, if appropriate. I can’t imagine, for example, that cattle futures will figure prominently in the 2016 campaign. And Clinton’s stonewalling the largely-debunked Whitewater “scandal” may well burnish her rep for steeliness, rather than make her seem conniving.

But what about the Lewinsky mess, which was obviously not her doing, which derailed her husband’s second term, and in which she was much more sinned against than sinning? I don’t believe it should be a prominent feature of the campaign – and trying to shoehorn it into the debate, as Rand Paul has been doing, is bound to boomerang. Forcing a spouse to relive her husband’s infidelity and dishonesty and even perjury crosses a line in civility Americans are rightly sensitive to. But the trouble is – this wasn’t an entirely private matter – you can’t erase impeachment from history –  and the Clintons, in any case, have a strong story to tell about Republican over-reach. There is, moreover, a completely legitimate question to be drawn from the episode: What does it tell us about Hillary Clinton’s political character?

It tells us that she is one cool customer. Claire Underwood has a doppelganger. Here’s the money quote for me from the WFB piece:

In her conversations with Blair, the first lady gave her husband credit for trying to end the affair with Lewinsky, and said he did not take advantage of his White House intern. “It was a lapse, but she says to his credit he tried to break it off, tried to pull away, tried to manage someone who was clearly a ‘narcissistic loony toon’; but it was beyond control,” wrote Blair. “HRC insists, no matter what people say, it was gross inappropriate behavior but it was consensual (was not a power relationship) and was not sex within any real meaning (standup, liedown, oral, etc.) of the term.”

So for Clinton, there is no power dynamic at work in a female intern having an affair with the president of the United States. I’d love to see her make that case in other sexual harassment cases. And for Hillary, Bill Clinton was not lying when he said that he did not have sex with Lewinsky. On the question of Bill’s honesty, Hillary thinks he was always telling the truth. As for feminism, Hillary Clinton had more sympathy for Bob Packwood than for the countless women he grotesquely harassed and groped:

In a Dec. 3, 1993, diary entry, Blair recounted a conversation with the first lady about “Packwood”—a reference to then-Sen. Bob Packwood, an influential Republican on health care embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal. “HC tired of all those whiney women, and she needs him on health care,” wrote Blair.

If a Republican male candidate were on record calling the victims of Bob Packwood’s depravity “whiney women”, I have a feeling the Democrats would be using that quote quite expansively in any campaign. Then there’s the campaign to smear any women who might have had sexual relations with Bill:

In a confidential Feb. 16, 1992, memo entitled “Possible Investigation Needs,” Clinton campaign staff proposed ways to suppress and discredit stories about the then-Arkansas governor’s affairs. Campaign operatives Loretta Lynch and Nancy McFadden wrote the memo, addressed to campaign manager David Wilhelm. The first item on the itinerary discussed “GF,” a reference to Gennifer Flowers, the actress and adult model who had recently disclosed her 12-year affair with Bill Clinton. “Exposing GF: completely as a fraud, liar and possible criminal to stop this story and related stories, prevent future non-related stories and expose press inaction and manipulation,” said the memo.

Now of course Hillary knew full well of her husband’s long affair with Gennifer Flowers. But that didn’t stop her from trying to smear her as a “fraud, liar and possible criminal.” And that, it seems to me, speaks to a level of political calculation that is well worth considering in a future president. And it can work both ways. I suspect many partisan Democrats – after Obama’s civil, patient attempt to negotiate with a deranged GOP – will long for a president who will wage war on the right, take no prisoners, and generally Claire-Underwood the opposition. Maybe many independents will like that as well. But you cannot make that case while simultaneously portraying Clinton as a feminist icon. If someone describes the victims of sexual harassment as “whiney women,” if she buys Bill Clinton as a victim who told the truth in the Lewinsky scandal, and if she is capable of knowingly destroying the reputation of a woman who could disrupt her pursuit of power, then she is not, I’m afraid, a feminist icon. She is something a lot more formidable and cynical than that.