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The First Lady Syndrome

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

There are differences between the two, of course. The late Princess Diana campaigned against land mines, whereas Hillary Rodham Clinton was an enthusiastic advocate for the cluster bombs that now litter the Serbian and Kossovan landscapes, set to kill or cripple for the next half century. But memories are short. Who knows? Perhaps we will soon see HRC clutching some Balkan infant, bent over the maimed tike in the approved Di manner, and who will then recall that she bears some responsibility for that lost limb? “I urged him to bomb,” she confided to Lucinda Franks. “You cannot let this go on at the end of a century that has seen the major holocaust of our time. What do we have NATO for if not to defend our way of life?”

For the better part of the past decade HRC has been a not insubstantial part of the same NATO-defended “way of life,” a lead player in the world spectacle, just as Diana was, advertising for public edification and enjoyment the tribulations of the married state. Diana of course took her narrative a few chapters further than Hillary. Her amours and revenges, after separation from the heir apparent, were flagrant. With Hillary there is only, as yet, allegation and surmise. In his thin and humdrum account — Bill and Hillary: The Marriage — Christopher Anderson insists that Hillary had a long affair with Vincent Foster rounding up all the usual Arkansas state troopers to support that claim. Otherwise there are scant indications that she sought sexual distraction from the flagrant serial adulterer she so eerily reckoned, almost from Day One, to be a sure thing for the White House. She certainly seems to have known, almost from Day One, that every time she turned her back Bill was screwing the campaign volunteers, the flight attendants, the receptionists, the pretty girls in the front row, the pretty girls in the back row, this woman he saw in church, that high school teacher, this woman in the real estate office, that other woman in the real estate office and so on, and on and on.

Anderson has this vignette from the McGovern campaign: “Hillary was on the end of the line. ‘What do you think you are doing to me? To us?’ she screamed, her words clearly audible to the workers in the room. ‘Hillary, I don’t know what you heard, but…’ ‘Don’t fuck with me, Bill,’ she yelled as his face turned crimson. ‘You are a real shit, do you know that, Bill? Christ, a real SHIT.’ But…’ ‘You know, Bill, there’s a guy here who has been trying to get me to go to bed with him and that is exactly what I’m going to do.’ With that, Bill began sobbing. ‘I’m begging you, Hillary,’ he cried, ‘don’t go and do something we’d both be sorry for.’ Well, did she? We don’t know.

In the old days First Ladies, like Elizabeth the Queen, or Elizabeth the Queen Mother or Jackie (Camelot vintage) were there to advertise the essential solidity of marriage. It was the role of film stars to underline its inherent frailty. Hillary has a far more complex assignment. Her core constituency, women who came of age reading Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, the Boston’s Women’s Health Collective and maybe Shulamith Firestone, scarcely want as their standard bearer Woman as Doormat. Women know that men are beasts, and part of the infinite superiority of women is their capacity to persevere in the face of this beastliness.

But there are limits. If the dialectic of women’s liberation taught anything, it’s surely that a woman doesn’t have to put up with unending crap such as Bill has been serving Hillary down the years. So Hillary has to reassure that constituency that yes, she does draw the line somewhere, that in post Lewinsky months she can’t bear to be in the same room, the same city or even the same country as the First Man.

Yet at the same time, knowing not only from more or less Day One that Bill couldn’t keep his pants zipped up, but also that she could get both of them into the White House, (and out the other end sans impeachment conviction) she’s always had to act out the other half of the pantomime and display the ties that bind. So, yes! After months of coolness he gets to hold her hand. Hillary’s chief of staff, Melanne Verveer, is order to lob the red meat of passion to a waiting world and she dutifully confides to the press that “We’ve slowly seen a physical passion come back into their lives.”

So the generation that came of age reading De Beauvoir, Greer and maybe Firestone find themselves, with the Hillary narrative, reading a story endlessly in contradiction with itself.

Germaine Greer has spoken of Hillary harshly and in truth we have in our First Lady the whole sad arc of middle-class radicalism since the late l960s, endlessly in contradiction of its early heroic premises. Given a couple of dice rolling another way, Hillary could have been a Weatherperson, could have died amid the rubble of that bomb depository on West 11th St. But like almost all of her generation she never did take opposition to the Vietnam War as far as reading manuals on bomb fuses.

Hardly had she raised her foot to step over the threshold of radicalism than she turned back. She declined to go with the SNCC, turned down an offer to work with Saul Alinsky as a community organizer in Chicago. Anderson quotes her political science prof at Wellesley, Alan Schecter, as saying that by the late l960s his pupil had decided that the best radical strategy was to “‘use the legal system’ as an agent of change.” She wasn’t alone in that calculation. The long march of the left through the courtrooms was under way: the world would become a better place, courtesy of courtroom briefs, complaints and class action suits.

And so what we have seen, across the last three decades, is the left vanishing into the quicksands of regulation. All society’s problems could be fixed by a statute, a rule, a waiver, a program. Much of the antiwar left vanished into the consumer movement, the environmental movement and legal fixitry. The mass movement died and litigation — often successful — flourished amid the ruins.

Let’s pay Hillary the compliment of taking her seriously as a woman set on bringing about social change. She declines the road that led to West 11th St and goes instead to Yale Law School. She works for John Doar, helping draft articles of impeachment against Nixon. The road seems clear. She’ll rise effortlessly through the ranks of non-profit, do-goodery; she’ll shuttle comfortably up and down the Northeastern corridors of power.

But she makes a far riskier bet. The road to the White House runs through Little Rock, so South she goes, with bottle glasses, bell bottoms, and according to another woman in Bill’s life at the time, Dolly Kyle browning, hairy legs and a dislike of deodorants. Year after year she puts up with Bill’s crap. She hold his hand, puts up with the most terrible humiliations, drives him forward.

In l993 she finally wins her incredible wager with Destiny. And here she is, the First Woman, in the White House with a mandate from the First Man to fix American health care. Was there ever a person who could gaze back at the late l950s and at the strategy she had selected and say with more apparent justification, I did the right thing?

The strategy bombed, as we all know. In l993 there was a huge constituency, an explosive constituency for health reform. The First Woman had it in her power to lead a mass movement to that goal. She flirted with the idea, issued a few denunciations of the health care industry and then led health reform straight into the deepest of all quicksands, a regulatory labyrinth so baroque in its complexity that even its designers were unable to issue any reliable guidemaps.

Somewhere in the early months of the health battle an advocate of universal health care met with Hillary and pointed out that over 70 percent of Americans favored this radical course. He reported later that Hillary gazed at him and said coldly, “Tell me something interesting.” Hillary, as with so many of the brightest minds of that generation, no longer had any concept of a mass movement, beyond a spike on one of Dick Morris’s polling graphs. Supremely “realistic,” she’d lost contact with reality. She won her bet. She lost the war.

When Hillary Clinton made her radical graduating speech at Wellesley attacking the Vietnam war in l969 a third of the world had broken with capitalism. But 1999 capitalism’s triumph had been so absolute that Bill scarcely had to work the phones to get the okay for his war. Russia and china soon came to heel. The triumph of neo-liberalism is absolute.

It’s scarcely surprising therefore that Hillary should have urged the First Man to drop cluster bombs on the Serbs to defend “our way of life”. It was another logical step for all those radical “realists” embarking on careers in the early l970s. War is more social engineering; fixitry via high explosive, social therapy via the nose cone of a cruise missile.

There’s not much of a left any more. Bet there are plenty of therapeutic cops around, and Hillary is their leader, the very essence of social worker liberalism. All it takes to usher in the New Jerusalem are counselors, community action programs and tougher gun laws which is what Hillary called for after Columbine, not long after she gave the First Man that bit of advice about bombing the Serbs. As a tough therapeutic cop, Hillary does not shy away from the most abrupt expression of the therapy, the death penalty.

In this perspective perhaps we ought to look at her commitment to Choice as at least in part another piece of therapeutic policing. Steve Levitt, an economist at the University of Chicago, and John Donohue III, a law prof at Stanford, have been circulating a paper — reporting in the Chicago Tribune on August 8 of this year, that the legalizing of abortion in the early l970s has contributed to the falling crime rate in the l990s. Indeed they claim that legalized abortion may account for as much as half the overall crime drop between 1991 and 1997. Levitt says abortion “provides a way for the would-be mothers of those kids who are going to lead really tough lives to avoid bringing them into the world.” The authors cite stats from five states that legalized abortion before the Roe v Wade decision of 1993. These five states with high abortion rates in the early 1970s had greater crime drops in the l990s. The Trib’s story quotes Cory Richards, a policy wonk at the Guttmacher Institute as saying, “This is an argument for women not being forced to have children they don’t want to have. This is making the point that it’s not only bad for the women, but for children and society.”

So, from the social engineering, crime fighting point of view the reintroduction of the death penalty in 1977 saw Roe v Wade as its logical precursor and concomitant. That’s not the way Germaine Greer or the Boston Women’s Health Collective saw the Choice issue, but one can certainly imagine Hillary argue for abortion as socially therapeutic. She comes from the liberal social engineering tradition that sponsored the great sterilizing boom earlier in the century, whose rampages in Vermont are only now coming to light.

Hillary, never forget, is a Methodist and that bleak creed of improvement is bedrock for her. She’s a social cleanser. This is the cold steel that stiffens her spine and carries her forward, self-righteous amid the untidy mess of all her contradictions.

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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