The Magazine

Hillary Who?

Is there a Clinton in the 2008 race?

Jul 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 43 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Walter Shapiro, in an interview with the candidate in Salon, found himself tied in a bit of a knot over the "Hillary" question. He inquired of the candidate, "Let me ask something that comes up every time I write about you. I sometimes refer to you on, say, the fifth reference as 'Hillary' instead of 'Clinton.' I always get three or four letters saying that I am demeaning women by referring to you by your first name. But your campaign materials refer to you as 'Hillary' and the word 'Clinton' might also apply to another well-known public person. Do you have any feelings about this? Am I offending you every time I type 'Hillary, Obama and Edwards'? Or do you have an open mind as long as I spell Hillary correctly?"

Essentially, Shapiro is concerned about referring to the candidate exactly the way Mark Penn wants him to refer to the candidate. But rather than worrying about taking semantic instruction from the campaign's chief strategist, Shapiro is worried about giving offense. And you had better believe that when people are prepared to fret to this candidate about giving offense, she will rise to the occasion. Replied the candidate: "I probably have more of an open mind. But I understand the point people are taking because if you also refer to Rudy and Mitt and John then that would be even-handed. I get the same indignation from a lot of women who read you and others and say, 'They never call the other candidates by their first name.' And I think that in print--as opposed to building a campaign that really does use my first name because it is so identified with who I am--that's the concern that people have."

It's not everybody who can be Cher or Madonna or Hillary. But let's get serious about the "Clinton" problem. Contra Shapiro, there is no plausible context in which referring to the candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination as "Clinton" would create an opportunity for mix-up with the former president; in any discussion of the two of them, the use of "Bill" and "Hillary" makes sense as needed, but it is by no means necessary in most articles about her.

Rather, the "Clinton" problem is this: the set of associations the name brings to mind when people are reminded of it. I think the extent to which animus toward Bill is a drag on Hillary is seriously overstated: People who can't stand him tend to have a well-formed and free-standing negative impression of her as well. The real problem is the impression of dependence.

Mrs. Clinton is where she is today not incidentally because she married Bill Clinton, but for that reason essentially. It is no disparagement of her skills as a politician to say so. He merely opened the doors; she had to walk through them. But open them he did. The Clinton campaign has every reason to avoid reminding people of the extent to which her political career and prospects derive from his.

The decision to adopt "Hillary" and drop "Clinton" has nothing whatsoever casual to it. It is part of a solution to, or at least an attempt to ameliorate, a genuine problem. Before her, the last person to face a problem along these lines was none other than the current occupant of the White House. The family nickname of the son of George Herbert Walker Bush was not "W" but, ahem, "Junior." That would not do. It took the political skill of Karl Rove to insinuate "Dubya" into public consciousness. (That's what the real insiders call him, don't you know.) People bought it. Penn is betting that they will buy "Hillary," and my guess is that everybody will be calling her that (and nothing else) in colloquial speech by November 2008.

It will be interesting to see if Republicans have the nerve to buck this trend--by referring to the junior senator from New York as "Mrs. Clinton."

Contributing editor Tod Lindberg is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of The Political Teachings of Jesus (HarperCollins).