Friday, June 29, 2007

Domestic Disturbances by Judith Warner

June 28, 2007, 8:01 pm
Reading the Ink Blot
Tags: ,

Well, it took me two weeks to work up the nerve, but I finally read all your comments about my last Hillary Clinton column and see that we have had a pretty major misunderstanding.

I never meant in that piece to take on the topic of why women, in general, do or do not like Hillary Clinton. Rather, what I wanted to explore was the phenomenon of “Hillary Hate” – why is it that so many women, particularly within Clinton’s ostensible cohort, have the reaction, when her name comes up, of shrugging their shoulders, closing their eyes, waving their hands in a shoo-ing away gesture and saying, with feigned horror, “I don’t know what it is about her, but I just can’t stand her.”

I was not talking about women who voice reasoned opposition to her vote enabling the Iraq war, or her support of anti-flag burning legislation or her handling of her failed health care initiative of the first Clinton administration. I meant rather to explore some possible roots behind the “I-just-hate-her” sentiment that dates back to 1992 (or even further) and remains alive and well today.

That’s the kind of sentiment that Melinda Henneberger, the author of “If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear,” was talking about when she told me that Hillary “rubs a lot of women who are like her the wrong way.” It’s what the Clinton’s campaign adviser Ann Lewis was referring to when she rolled her eyes (at least, that’s what I imagined her doing via the phone) and said, “We’ve been through all this before.”

The irrational, gut-level kind of Hillary-hate — not, again, opposition to her political actions or views — has fascinated me now for more than 15 years. It was the topic that propelled me to write a biography of the then-revolutionary new First Lady-to-be back in 1992. Back then, the hatred of Hillary could be best summed up, as the American Spectator put it, as a reaction to her perceived “consuming ambition, inflexibility of purpose, domination of a pliable husband, and an unsettling lack of tender human feeling.”

In 2000, the hatred had shifted to become a condemnation of her dependency upon her husband, her over-flexibility of purpose and her excessively tender human feelings. And yet, in the Senate race, the old words were bandied about again: “Lady Macbeth,” “phony,” “ambitious.”

And now here we are, again.

There is something enduring about Hillary that — independent of policy and politics — rubs some people the wrong way. It used to be her headband. Now it’s her voice, her life of compromise, her “poll-driven” scriptedness, (“She’s all brain and no backbone, a carefully programmed ventriloquist’s dummy, controlled by poll results and spin doctors”) her “appearance as an angry, insecure, compromised person with a big chip on her shoulder over something or other, who covers it up with a fairly sophisticated kind of bluster” and, of course, her ambition.

Much of this comes back to the matter of her “authenticity,” or lack thereof, although it seems to me that the frozenness, the defensiveness, the shut-downedness that people so criticize now when they see her is probably the most “authentic” reaction a person could possibly have to the public flogging she’s long endured. Openness, trust, chattiness, vulnerability would probably be great things for Hillary to project, if she could pull them off; but there’s no way, humanly, that they could ever be real, given what she’s lived through.

Say what you like (“While I find this essay thoughtful, I also find it feeding the old presumption that the political choices women make are more emotional — and thereby less logical — than the ones made by men”), you’ll never convince me that women’s reactions to Hillary are primarily rational. My saying this has nothing to do with my view of women. It has to do with the fact that poll after poll – and now a fascinating new book by political psychologist Drew Westen, “The Political Brain” – indicate that voters, all voters, are primarily irrational. They have their issues (and single-issue voters do tend to vote only according to their issues), but the instincts that generally cause them to cleave to one candidate over another are, on the basest level, Westen argues, well, base.

This doesn’t change according to education or income level; it’s neurologically hard-wired. Even our most reasoned and conscious political decisions are in fact motivated, it seems, by our dark and emotional unconscious.

It has often been said that the figure of Hillary Clinton functions like a Rorschach test, drawing out whatever anger, anxiety, disgust, fear and hope circulate just below the surface of the national consciousness. So what does it mean if someone stares at her image and sees someone who just “gets under my skin”?

I made a stab the other week at analyzing that particular reaction to the Hillary inkblot. I did it provocatively, peevishly, perhaps, even a bit too nastily in tone. (Sorry about that: too many readers read my love letter to my girls as an anti-motherhood rant, and that unleashed, shall we say, a little bit of unconscious aggression.)

Now I’ll throw the question back at you: policy aside, what do you think we see when we look at Hillary Clinton?

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