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Entitled to What?

Hillary Clinton’s long march through the institutions

Aug 4, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 44 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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I’ll just ride your coattails, dear.

I’ll just ride your coattails, dear.

AP / Doug Mills

Contrary no doubt to what she expected, Hillary Clinton has hit some serious snags in the rollout of her unannounced campaign for president. She has made Romneyesque comments about the size of her fortune, such as that she was “dead broke” when she bought her two mansions. When queried about events on her watch as secretary of state that proved embarrassing, she took responsibility without being accountable, projecting the impression that anyone who pressed further was crude. Most damning of all, what has emerged in plain sight from the first month of the publicity tour for her memoir Hard Choices is the extent of her sense of entitlement. She feels entitled to make $200,000 for a speech, to own two mega-houses in pricey neighborhoods, to be treated like royalty. She feels entitled to fawning coverage from reporters, especially female ones. Asked by the journalist John Harwood to respond to Jill Abramson’s comment that “she expects you to be 100 percent in her corner,” Clinton replied, “I think one of the points Jill was making is that I do sometimes expect perhaps more than I should.” Now she feels entitled to go back to her old digs on Pennsylvania Avenue, not as first lady this time, but as the Big Dog herself. This is a lot, but she thinks she deserves it, and her story explains why she does. 

As one of the first female stars to emerge from the best schools in the late 1960s, Hillary Rodham was a pet of a great many female professors, who assured her she was brilliant and could have it all. There was the pact that she made early on with her husband, a brilliantly gifted political salesman, to win and share power. There was the fact that from 1992 on she exerted an emotional hold over millions of professional and would-be professional women who thought her a leader, defender, and heroine, who formed an armed guard around her that reinforced her convictions. There was the Lewinsky scandal, which gave her an aura of martyrdom, cemented her hold on her feminist followers, and lifted her to a celebrity stardom few people will ever achieve.

Coming along at the right time in history, the plain and outspoken Hillary Rodham—featured in Life as valedictorian at Wellesley, then a standout at Yale Law School—was someone on whom her teachers and mentors could hang their ambitions for the future they wanted to see. The Supreme Court, the White House would not be beyond her, and when she threw in her lot with the Arkansas charmer, they were convinced that she’d married beneath her and helped her pack for her trek into nowhere with nothing but grief in their hearts. “I worked hard as a woman to help her get the opportunities she was entitled to,” said one mentor sadly. “I thought she was throwing that opportunity away.”

She wasn’t. She was joining forces with a man who would give her a shortcut to power unique to themselves: She would subsume her ambitions in his, get him elected, and they would share power, giving her clout of a sort rarely given a woman—plus the chance to succeed him when his term was done. Every office he held would become a joint venture, so much so that the pair were soon known as “Billary,” and Bill would tell the New York Times when he won his first race for governor, “Our vote was a vindication of what my wife and I have done and what we hope to do
for the state.” By 1992, when Bill was elected president, Hillary held the same place in his life that Robert F. Kennedy had held in the life of his brother John 30 years before; Sally Bedell Smith would write in For Love of Politics, her dual biography of the Clintons, that Bill “showed his intention to expand his election victory .  .  . to encompass Hillary, as if she had been on the ticket, too.” Thus he named her to head his task force on the reform of health care, planned as the highlight of his domestic agenda, a cabinet-equivalent post without the annoyance of a hearing in front of the Senate. At the same time, aides close to the couple speculated openly about her one day becoming president. “There are a great many people talking very seriously about her succeeding him,” Smith quotes Clinton aide Betsey Wright saying. “Friends, Democrats, people out across the country think it is a very viable plan.” 

Hillary thought so, and so did a cohort of feminists who had been waiting for decades for her or one like her to surface in politics. They could barely contain their delight. Good Housekeeping, Vogue, People, Parade, and Family Circle called her a role model. Time called her “an icon of American womanhood.” Margaret Carlson wrote in Time, “Hillary Rodham Clinton will define for women that magical spot where the importance of the world of work and love and children and an inner life all come together. Like Ginger Rogers, she will do everything her partner does, only backward, and in high heels.” 

And so, critiques of Hillary were taken as attacks on all women, or attacks on strong women, or, in the case of some female journalists, as attacks upon women like them. At a meeting of the Democratic National Committee where her involvement in a questionable investment scheme was mentioned, signs appeared reading “Don’t Pillory Hillary,” and Blanche Wiesen Cook, a biographer of Eleanor Roosevelt, said that attacks on women who were powerful were a persistent element in our national life. The intensity and longevity of the Hillary cult were revealed in 2012, when she suffered a health scare that drove Tina Brown round the bend. “Losing Hillary has seemed . . . unbearable,” the celebrity editor wrote on her website, giving her heroine magical powers. “She has become, literally, the ship of state. She stands for maturity, tenacity, and self-discipline. .  .  . [She is] a caring executive. .  .  . Her determination to defy fatigue and keep going beggars belief.” Brown then ripped into varied “goaty Republican[s],” saving her best for bewhiskered John Bolton, a former ambassador to the United Nations, of whom she wrote in extremely high dudgeon, “Bolton is not fit to wipe her floor with his mustache.”

Not surprisingly, Hillary accepted this view of herself, believing not only that she was entitled to use the power her husband had given her, but that she was entitled to use it without opposition or scrutiny—because she was a pioneer who spoke for all women, and because she was the first lady, a post traditionally honored by both parties as above and apart from the fray. As Smith writes, she took it personally “that wives were subject to criticism,” ignoring the fact that wives were not criticized when they played no political role—when they did little (Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower) or promoted the arts (Jacqueline Kennedy) or planted flowers and trees (Lady Bird Johnson) or encouraged reading (Barbara and Laura Bush). When Betty Ford was criticized for controversial statements, she did not whine; nor did Eleanor Roosevelt, a seasoned and tough political operative who understood that dealing a blow meant being willing to take one without complaining. Hillary behaved otherwise. While claiming Mrs. R. as a model, she never adopted her attitude. At an event to raise funds for a statue of Eleanor, Hillary spoke of “the conversations I’ve had in my head with Mrs. Roosevelt,” in which she had asked her predecessor, “How did you put up with this? . . . How did you go on day to day .  .  . with the kind of attacks that would be hurled your way?” 

Eleanor never responded, but it turned out not to matter: Down but not out after health care had cratered, Hillary Clinton got a new lease on life when Bill was impeached on charges related to his affair with an intern, and she, on a wave of support for the brave little woman, was swept into the Senate from the state of New York two years later, by a margin of more than 12 points. While her approval ratings had been in the 40s for much of her time as first lady, they were close to 70 by the summer of 1998: In the most bitter of ironies for the trailblazing feminist, she had been rejected while being a maker of policy, and embraced as victimized wife. “It gnawed at Hillary that her role as the silent, aggrieved wife earned her record approval ratings,” Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta report in their biography, Her Way. “She isn’t thrilled at being forced to play the wronged little woman,” a Clinton friend told the two writers. “You go with what works.”

And so she did. Thirty-six years before, a traumatized Robert F. Kennedy had left Washington for New York and a new lease on life which included a plan for a return to the White House, and while having your husband cheat with an intern is not on the same plane as having your brother murdered in public, Hillary Clinton planned to do the same thing. But Bobby was murdered while running for president, and Hillary’s plans would be thwarted, too. How could she have known her campaign would be blindsided by Barack Obama, running to be the first African-American president, whose historical drama would seem even greater? And, having taken the post of secretary of state when he offered, how could she have known, when she launched her second bid for president, that his (and her) foreign policy would happen to be collapsing upon them just as she began her campaign?

It was just days after the start of her meticulously planned book tour that the whole Middle East became an inferno, marking the collapse of the Obama “new beginning” that was supposed to transform the world. The jewel in her crown turned into her greatest embarrassment. Instead of touting her and Obama’s triumphs in foreign affairs, she had to gloss over their multiple failures—Benghazi, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine—distancing herself from the president’s many misjudgments, but not enough to tick off his fans. At the same time, she began to display again the flaws she had shown six years earlier that had made her a troublesome candidate. She was older, much richer, and much more enclosed in the bubble. And it became apparent, once she began talking in interviews, that her gargantuan sense of entitlement might be her worst problem of all. 

Hillary Clinton’s sense of entitlement has three aspects—power, money, and a strong dose of vengeance—and each seems to go back a long way. Back in Arkansas, as the wife of a border state governor in the 1980s, she raged about Bill’s modest salary ($32,000), her need to bring in additional income, and the lack of a pool at the governor’s mansion. As a result, she became adept at seeking additional sources of revenue. As the governor’s wife, she earned almost $65,000 a year sitting on boards of some of the state’s biggest companies, accepted advice on a $1,000 investment that yielded a return of $100,000, and enjoyed favorable terms on the get-rich-quick Whitewater investment, which turned out quite badly. The culture of Arkansas was friendly to this, as Smith tells us, and “Bill and Hillary developed a sense of entitlement,” since presents and favors were always forthcoming, and many expenses were picked up by “friends.” (This continued down to 2001 when Bill Clinton left office and the couple set up a registry for furnishing their new mansions at an ultra-posh store in Omaha owned by Warren Buffett, where they listed among their many desires a Fabergé spoon for over $500 and a $980 Spode dish.) This did not conflict with Hillary’s sense of her mission as a social reformer, but was reinforced by it: It was because she worked hard for such wonderful causes that she thought she deserved such luxury. Hillary, a White House aide told columnist Maureen Dowd, is like “an Episcopal bishop who deserves to live at the level of her wealthy parishioners, in return for devoting her life to God and good works.” 

But all politicians think they’re doing good works, and few try to claim rewards in so lavish a fashion. The Roosevelts, Bushes, and Kennedys were rich, but they did not appear greedy, and none was raking in the bucks while running for office. The rule in politics is that you sacrifice while holding office, and rake bucks in later (see Dick Cheney and numerous others), but Bill Clinton’s role as an ex-president and Hillary’s as a celebrity ex-secretary of state has muddied this picture. What’s seemly in a former statesman looks different in someone who’s running for office; as NBC’s Chuck Todd put it recently, “Ex-presidents make money like this, not candidates while they run.” Suggestions that she tone it down some seem to have gone nowhere, and it didn’t help when she announced that some of her speaking fees go to a charity—the Clinton Foundation—and that her daughter Chelsea, under an NBC contract, “earned” $600,000 a year.

Along with cash (and lots of it), Hillary feels entitled to power without accountability, disputing the right of others
to grill her; or accepting responsibility in the abstract for some of her actions, while disowning it in the particular in her very next breath. Here she is in 1994 explaining why her health care reform bill fell flat: “I regret very much that the efforts on health care were badly misunderstood, taken out of context, and used politically against the administration,” she said, deflecting her failure onto other people. “I take responsibility for that.” And here she is this June on Benghazi. Diane Sawyer reeled off a list of the security failures at the U.S. installation before the September 11, 2012, terror attacks: “The mission was far short of standards: weak perimeter, incomplete fence, video surveillance needed repair.” Was there anything Secretary Clinton might have done better? “I take responsibility,” Clinton replied, “but I’m not making security decisions. I’m not equipped to sit and look at blueprints to determine where the blast walls need to be.” In other words: As a strong woman, I am the big honcho, but don’t ask me about blast walls or boy stuff like that. 

Another Hillary ploy is to rule questions out of bounds by questioning the moral authority of the people who ask. Critics of her choices as first lady were described as opposing all strong women, and people who questioned her role in Benghazi were defaming our glorious dead. “I will not be part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans,” she declared in Hard Choices, implying it was unpatriotic even to mention the subject. “It is just plain wrong and .  .  . unworthy of our great country. Those who insist on politicizing the tragedy will have to do so without me.” Asked if she would testify before the congressional committee called to investigate, she acted as if it were she who would judge the committee’s behavior. “We’ll see what they decide to do, how they conduct themselves,” she told Sawyer, and on a different channel she told Cynthia McFadden, “Let’s see if this is on the level or not.” McFadden then asked if she would turn over her notes if the committee sought them. Said Clinton, “They can read it in the book.” 

All politicians want things all ways, and all have their egos, but Hillary’s sense that she is owed something special seems unique. Does part of it come from the fact that she burst onto the national scene in the role of first lady, a ceremonial, semi-regal position? Is it that she was a politician with a constituency of one​—​having the king’s ear, she needed no other? Is it the pact she and her husband made many years before, that Clinton & Co. would be a joint venture, that she would work to get Bill elected to high office and then would deserve her reward? Or does it go back to those long years in Arkansas, when she suffered and labored in a place that she didn’t much like? “By the mid-1980s .  .  . there had been several adjustments in the partnership, most of them made by Hillary,” wrote David Maraniss in his book about Bill Clinton, First in His Class. “Year by year in their joint political enterprise, she had taken on more tasks​—​some that her husband had asked her to do, some that she felt obliged to perform because it was clear to her
that he did not want to do them or was not good at them. .  .  . She was her husband’s public relations trouble shooter and legal problem-solver. .  .  . As public relations consultant, she would devote hours to courting .  .  . the managing editor of the Arkansas Democrat, in an occasionally effective effort to persuade him to go easier. .  .  . Some people sensed a growing resentment in Hillary that she had to take on so many private duties in the partnership when she was being asked, unfairly, she thought, to sacrifice material things.” 

Add this resentment to the feedback she had gotten from feminists—she was a genius who deserved only the best—and to the fact that among her duties was the suppression of “bimbo eruptions” brought on by the wandering eye of her husband, and you have the makings of a genuine grievance mentality, along with the insistence that payment had better come soon. Hillary would probably count those 20 or so years passed in the boondocks as part of her long service to causes and country, but a more objective eye might see them instead as careerist ambition, an investment in a political future that would turn out to pay very well. She may also have come to see her pact with Bill as part of a larger pact with the country, confirmed by his election and reelection. But voters who cast their ballots for Bill never knew of or voted for any such pact, and they may not feel bound by it. They may judge Hillary by her record in office, which nowadays is looking unimpressive, and not think her entitled at all. 

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.

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