The Magazine

An Exceedingly Strange New Respect

Hillary Clinton makes friends in some surprising precincts.

May 12, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 33 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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'Strange new respect' is the term coined by Tom Bethell, an unhappy conservative, to describe the press adulation given those who drift leftward, those who grow "mature," "wise," and "thoughtful" as they cause apoplexy in right-wingers, and leave their old allies behind. But no new respect has been quite so peculiar as that given by some on the right to Hillary Clinton--since 1992 their ultimate nightmare--whose possible triumph in this year's election has been the source of their most intense fear. Lately, however, a strange thing has happened: A tactical hope to see her campaign flourish--to keep the brawl going and knock dents in Obama--has changed to, at least in some cases, a grudging respect for the lady herself. Actually, they may not have changed quite so much as she has (who knows, perhaps merely changed in her image and tactics), but the Hillary of May 2008 is radically different from the Hillary of two months ago, much less the one of last year, or of eight years back. And this one (at least till the nomination is settled) has some traits the right wing can love.

First of all, she is tough. Boy, is she tough. Next to John McCain's torture and FDR's polio (or John Kennedy's terrible health and PT-109 put together), she has arguably been through more harrowing times than any major contender in history. Hillary may not have been tortured for six years by the North Vietnamese, but her marriage to Bill could have seemed the equivalent, and surely her life since the start of this year has been torturous in the extreme. One of the problems that conservatives had with Hillary before this is that she often seemed to be playing the victim, trying to use unearned power, looking for outs and excuses, trying to have things both ways. As first lady, she seemed to think that she and Bill had both been elected and she had a right to half of his power, which she used, sometimes misused, but didn't want to answer for. When criticized, she tried to evade the accounting by saying she was only the wife.

She campaigned hard and diligently when she ran for the Senate, but she was elected largely as a reward for her personal suffering, and she had behind her (which Al Gore resented) the full force of the White House publicity and patronage organization and an overwhelming advantage in funds. Again, she was a diligent senator, but the only reason she entered the 2008 race as the Democratic frontrunner was the presence of the machine built up by her husband, the web of backers and donors and favors a two-term president has at his disposal, and the president himself, thought at the time to be a master campaigner. She was invincible. She was inevitable. She was proceeding unperturbed to a largely unearned coronation. But that was then.

Fast forward two months into the new year and into the contest, and suddenly all this was gone: Barack Obama had the Big Mo and the huge cash advantage, Bill Clinton had become a distinctly mixed blessing, and old "friends" and backers had run for the hills, fleeing the ship that they assumed to be sinking and jumping onto the sleeker new frigate nearby. Each day brought another instance of treachery and/or self-preservation. Old allies deserted, the press now assailed her. The Kennedys, who once fêted her and her mate during happier days on the Vineyard, bestowed their fraying prestige upon her opponent. Obama was the new JFK, the new RFK, or, some even implied, the messiah. She was the obstacle, the impediment, the residue of past scandals; the woman who was in the way.

One observer once said that the main importance of PT-109 in the life of John Kennedy was that it was the only time in his life (until he was murdered) when the power and wealth of his father couldn't help him at all. Hillary in February 2008, after Obama's stunning string of 10 victories, was like JFK in the water--everything she was used to relying on had proved to be useless, except that in her case the people around her kept trying to hold her head under, insisting it was for her, and of course for the party's, own good. In these dire straits, Hillary channeled her inner survivor, and, like John Kennedy, became a Gut Fighter writ large. She fought her way to an island, dragging her crew mates behind her, fed them on coconuts, and sent word for rescue. And then it came. "This one's for you!" she cried out to her base in hard-pressed Ohio as she pulled out the Big One, to their riotous cheers.

It was about this time that her presentation, and her persona, underwent notable change.

After March 4, she suddenly seemed to look and sound different: She began to seem real. The shrillness was gone, and so was The Cackle, and so were the forced southern accents that once caused so many so much merriment. Hillary!--whoever that was--never really cohered as a character; her previous poses--the Perfect Wife, the Aggrieved Wife, the Empress-in-Waiting--were all unconvincing, but in her new role--the scrapper, forced to the wall, and hanging in there with ferocious and grim resolution--she is suddenly all of a piece. Along with her inner JFK, she has channeled her inner Robert F. Kennedy (going back to the days when he was still "ruthless"), along with her inner Margaret Thatcher--"No time to go wobbly"--along with echoes of the John McCain who clawed his way out of the grave only last winter, and the George W. Bush who just as tenaciously saved his Iraq policy--and maybe Iraq itself--from the Democrats in Congress last year.

It is no accident that it was just at this juncture that she began to rouse outrage in parts of what once was her base. It is a truism that liberals think people are formed by exterior forces around them and are helpless before them, while conservatives think individuals make their own destiny. Liberals love victims and want them to stay helpless, so they can help them, with government programs; while conservatives love those who refuse to be victims, and get up off the canvas and fight. Hillary may still be a nanny-state type in some of her policies, but in her own life she seems more and more of a Social Darwinian, refusing to lose, and insisting on shaping her destiny. If the fittest survive, she intends to be one of them. This takes her part of the way towards a private conversion. She is acting like one of our own.

If this weren't enough to make right-wing hearts flutter, Hillary has another brand-new advantage: She is hated on all the right fronts. The snots and the snark-mongers now all despise her, along with the trendies, the glitzies; the food, drama, and lifestyle critics, the beautiful people (and those who would join them), the Style sections of all the big papers; the slick magazines; the above-it-all pundits, who have looked down for years on the Republicans and on the poor fools who elect them, and now sneer even harder at her. The New York Times is having hysterics about her. At the New Republic, Jonathan Chait (who inspired the word "Chaitred" for his pioneer work on Bush hatred) has transferred his loathing of the 43rd president intact and still shining to her. "She should now go gentle into the political night," he advised in January. "Go Already!" he repeated in March, when she had failed to act on his suggestion. "No Really, You Should Go," he said in April after she won Pennsylvania, which made her even less likely to take his advice. "Now that loathing seems a lot less irrational," he wrote of the right wing's prior distaste for both the Clintons. "We just really wish they'd go away."

And what caused this display of intense irritation? She's running a right-wing campaign. She's running the classic Republican race against her opponent, running on toughness and use-of-force issues, the campaign that the elder George Bush ran against Michael Dukakis, that the younger George Bush waged in 2000 and then again against John Kerry, and that Ronald Reagan--"The Bear in the Forest"--ran against Jimmy Carter and Walter F. Mondale. And she's doing it with much the same symbols.

"Clinton became the first Democratic candidate to wave the bloody shirt of 9/11," the New York Times has been whining. "A Clinton television ad, torn right from Karl Rove's playbook, evoked the 1929 stock market crash, Pearl Harbor, the Cuban missile crisis, the cold war, and 9/11 attacks, complete with video of Osama bin Laden . . . declaring in an interview with ABC News that if Iran attacked Israel while she were president," she would wipe the aggressor off the face of the earth. "Clinton is saying almost exactly the same things about Obama that McCain is," Chait lamented: "He's inexperienced, lacking in substance," unprepared to stand up to the world. She has said her opponent is ill-prepared to answer the phone, should it ring in the White House at three in the morning. Her ads are like the ones McCain would be running in her place, and they'll doubtless show up in McCain's ads should Obama defeat her. She has said that while she and McCain are both prepared to be president, Obama is not. They act, he makes speeches. They take heat, while he tends to wilt or to faint in the kitchen. He may even throw like a girl.

And better--or worse--she is becoming a social conservative, a feminist form of George Bush. Against an opponent who shops for arugula, hangs out with ex-Weathermen, and says rural residents cling to guns and to God in unenlightened despair at their circumstances, she has rushed to the defense of religion and firearms, while knocking back shots of Crown Royal and beer. Her harsh, football-playing Republican father (the villain of the piece, against whom she rebelled in earlier takes on her story) has become a role model, a working class hero, whose name she evokes with great reverence. Any day now, she'll start talking Texan, and cutting the brush out in Chappaqua or at her posh mansion on Embassy Row.

In the right-wing conspiracy, this adaptation has not gone unobserved. "Hillary has shown a Nixonian resilience and she's morphing into Scoop Jackson," runs one post on National Review's blog, The Corner:

She's entering the culture war as a general. All of this has made her a far more formidable general election candidate. She's fighting the left and she's capturing the center. She's denounced MoveOn.org. She's become the Lieberman of the Democratic Party. The left hates her and treats her like Lieberman. . . . Obama is distancing himself from Wright and Hillary is getting in touch with O'Reilly. The culture war has come to the Democratic Party.

She might run to the right of McCain, if she makes it to the general election, and get the votes of rebellious conservatives. Or she, Lieberman, and McCain could form a pro-war coalition, with all of them running to pick up the phone when it rings in the small hours. The New York Times and the rest of the left would go crazy. Respect can't get stranger than that.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to
THE WEEKLY STANDARD.