Groveling, Backpedaling, and ‘Hugging It Out:’ The Fear of Being Authentic

Long a role model for young Americans, especially women, Hillary Clinton rewards bad-boy behavior.

National Journal
Ron Fournier
Aug. 13, 2014, 5:21 a.m.

Throughout her long ca­reer as a law­yer, a pub­lic wife, and a pub­lic ser­vant, Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton has been a role mod­el for mil­lions of young people, es­pe­cially wo­men, en­ter­ing polit­ics and gov­ern­ment. I hope none of them are pay­ing at­ten­tion now.

The state­ment she is­sued Tues­day to calm an of­fen­ded Obama White House was ex­actly the type of be­ha­vi­or you don’t want your daugh­ters mod­el­ing—grov­el­ing to a thin-skinned boss, eat­ing her own words, and swal­low­ing her pride by “hug­ging it out.”

It’s silly, really, this en­tire Obama versus Clin­ton frame. Barack Obama, Hil­lary Clin­ton, and former Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton nev­er looked smal­ler than when they were race- and sex-bait­ing dur­ing the 2008 Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion fight. They nev­er looked big­ger than when they covered the scars and formed a genu­ine “Team of Rivals” in the Obama White House.

Now they’re back to the petty. And over what? Hil­lary Clin­ton’s cri­ti­cism of Obama was fair and smart—and it might even be right. She re­buked his for­eign policy prin­ciple of “Don’t do stu­pid shit,” ar­guing that Obama should have armed the Syr­i­an rebels to pre­vent the cre­ation and growth of an Is­lam­ic state.

She didn’t call him an idi­ot. She didn’t say he was a bad lead­er. In fact, she praised the pres­id­ent more than she cri­ti­cized him, and her cri­tique gave Obama an op­por­tun­ity to bet­ter ex­plain his for­eign policy prin­ciples. Who doesn’t want what Obama plans to do about this scary new world or­der?

In­stead, he ac­ted like a typ­ic­al politi­cian. Mr. Hope-and-Change dialed the 20th cen­tury and sicced his at­tack dogs on Clin­ton. His top con­sult­ant, Dav­id Axel­rod, tied her to Pres­id­ent George Bush’s de­cision to in­vade Ir­aq, as if none of what’s oc­curred in the Mideast these past six years is Obama’s re­spons­ib­il­ity.

I made a mis­take at the end of my column Tues­day, “The Au­da­city to Be Au­then­t­ic: Hil­lary Clin­ton’s Risky Hedge Against Obama.” For the first 16 para­graphs, I chal­lenged con­ven­tion­al wis­dom that Clin­ton was dis­tan­cing her­self from Obama and that do­ing so was an ob­vi­ous polit­ic­al vic­tory. I noted that Clin­ton’s re­marks, con­sist­ent with her long-held in­ter­ven­tion­ist views, ac­tu­ally ran counter to those of a ma­jor­ity of the pub­lic, es­pe­cially the Demo­crat­ic base. Why would she be will­ing to do that? “Call me naïve,” I con­cluded “but maybe Clin­ton is simply be­ing hon­est.”

I was naïve.

A few hours after that column pos­ted, Clin­ton is­sued this state­ment through a spokes­per­son:

Earli­er today, the Sec­ret­ary called Pres­id­ent Obama to make sure he knows that noth­ing she said was an at­tempt to at­tack him, his policies or his lead­er­ship. Sec­ret­ary Clin­ton has at every step of the way touted the sig­ni­fic­ant achieve­ments of his pres­id­ency, which she is honored to have been part of as his sec­ret­ary of State. While they’ve had hon­est dif­fer­ences on some is­sues, in­clud­ing as­pects of the wicked chal­lenge Syr­ia presents, she has ex­plained those dif­fer­ences in her book and at many points since then. Some are now choos­ing to hype those dif­fer­ences but they do not ec­lipse their broad agree­ment on most is­sues. Like any two friends who have to deal with the pub­lic eye, she looks for­ward to hug­ging it out when she they see each oth­er to­mor­row night.

There are sev­er­al prob­lems with her state­ment.

  • It’s in­ac­cur­ate. Clin­ton cer­tainly did cri­ti­cize some of Obama’s policies, most dir­ectly with the “stu­pid stuff” for­mu­la­tion.
  • It’s in­con­sist­ent. She denies at­tack­ing “him, his policies or his lead­er­ship,” and two sen­tences later notes “hon­est dif­fer­ences.” If you can’t be hon­est about “hon­est dif­fer­ences,” what are you go­ing to be hon­est about?
  • It’s bor­der­line de­mean­ing, like a sub­or­din­ate try­ing to get back in the boss’s good graces. Clin­ton is an ac­com­plished per­son who has chal­lenged glass ceil­ings. She shouldn’t have to come even close to apo­lo­giz­ing for her opin­ions.
  • It’s too cute by half, too Clin­to­nian. She’s try­ing to dis­tin­guish her policies from Obama’s without up­set­ting all the pres­id­ent’s men. She can’t have it all.

For young people who might be pay­ing at­ten­tion to polit­ics, I hope they don’t take away the wrong les­sons. They’re already abandon­ing gov­ern­ment and polit­ics in alarm­ing num­bers.

Clin­ton didn’t make a mis­take chal­len­ging a male au­thor­ity fig­ure. She wasn’t wrong to speak her mind. Her as­pir­a­tions are not de­pend­ent on her “hug­ging it out.” The les­son here is to be true to your­self. Stick to your guns. Be au­then­t­ic. After all, that’s really what Amer­ic­ans want in a lead­er.

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