All Hillary, all day

A conservative Washington think tank spends a day focused on Hillary Rodham Clinton.

By David Corn
Published April 10, 2000 9:01AM (EDT)

What is it about Hillary Rodham Clinton that inspires such loathing? There is a flood of get-Hillary books. The latest, a screed by former Reagan/Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan, hit the bestseller list. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, her opponent in the Senate race and a moderate-to-liberal Republican, has raised millions of dollars in contributions by teaming up with right-wing direct-mail king Richard Viguerie to send out hysterically pitched we-must-stop-Hillary letters to conservatives. To many, she is all that is wrong with American politics, all that is wrong with ... well, with whatever that is wrong with America. Why do the Hillary-haters detest her so much? In search of an answer to the age-old question, I dropped by the American Enterprise Institute on Friday for a one-day conference titled "The Legacy and Future of Hillary Rodham Clinton."

The event was sponsored by the right-leaning institute's magazine and the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a conservative outfit headed by David Horowitz, the combative leftist-turned-rightist author and Salon columnist. The lineup of speakers included nearly 100 Hillary friends and Hillary foes, but tilted toward the Hillary-sucks side. Panelists included renowned Clinton hater Christopher Hitchens; Joyce Milton and Laura Ingraham, both authors of anti-Hillary books; and Horowitz himself.

The conference opened with bad news. Dick Morris, it was announced, had canceled without explanation. Why would the toe-sucking political consultant -- a one-time Clinton ally who has been a prominent Hillary slasher -- pass up the chance to twist the knife once more? The first speaker, Nation and Vanity Fair columnist Hitchens, offered an explanation: Perhaps it was because Hitchens repeatedly has accused Morris of being a "procurer and pimp for Mr. Clinton." Hitchens meant those charges literally, but at this forum he provided no further details regarding this salacious aside. After all, Hillary, not Bill, was the piqata of the day.

Hitchens whacked the first lady for maintaining a "split personality" as she shifts between "strong woman" (such as when she recalled Morris to the White House) and "weak sob sister" (such as when she attributed her hazy recollection of her suspicious commodities deal to the fact she was pregnant at the time). He compared her unfavorably with Eleanor Roosevelt. FDR's wife, he argued, tried "to get her husband to do the unpopular thing, the uncommercial thing" -- supporting the Spanish loyalists besieged by Franco's fascists, abolishing Jim Crow.

Hitchens further criticized Clinton for having "justified" her husband's brutish infidelities, and for displaying an "abnormal want of curiosity" about Juanita Broaddrick's charge that Bill raped her years ago. But where Clinton has set new heights of mendacity, Hitchens concluded, is in the field of ethnic pandering. Noting that all politics in New York is "global" -- by which he meant kowtowing to ethnic groups -- Hitchens asserted that "never" has this game "been played with more cynicism than Mrs. Clinton has brought to it." His evidence: her miscues regarding Palestine, the amnesty for the jailed Puerto Rican activists, the St. Patrick's Day parade and a Pakistani-American fund-raiser. Hitchens' claim that her pandering is abnormal may be something of a stretch. He often argues in his bad-boy way that hate is healthy, if directed at the proper people and institutions.If that is true, then regarding Hillary, Hitchens is in the pink.

Hillary's critics from the right are deeply offended by the first lady for other reasons, though they had some difficulty explaining all of them. Milton, the author of "The First Partner: Hillary Rodham Clinton," observed that it was not Clinton's marriage that differentiated her from other first ladies -- plenty of past presidents have been cheats. But "the thing that makes her different is ... hyperactivity. She's very excessive in everything she does." But wouldn't that describe other politicians -- and Nancy Reagan, who was a control freak when it came to looking out for her husband? ---

In trying to define "what riles people so much" about the Clintons, Milton maintained that when Bill and Hillary are accused of wrongdoing, their immediate response is to blame someone else, that they have no sense of shame. Ronald Reagan didn't exactly take responsibility for Iran-contra. Newt Gingrich, now an AEI fellow, hasn't expressed shame for his extramarital affair. "Not that she should get down on her knees and grovel," Milton commented, "but maybe say, 'I went a little overboard when I blamed the Monica stories on a vast right-wing conspiracy.'" Then Milton took another tack: "She's so bossy ... A lot of people have trouble with that." Is that really what has the Hillary-haters so upset?

The day's last panel, "Hillary Rodham Clinton as a Feminist Heroine," produced the most anti-Hillary passion. Christina Hoff Sommers, author of "Who Stole Feminism?" began her case against Clinton by recounting and mocking a meeting of successful female academics who identified themselves as "angry and struggling" and whom Sommers tagged "gender feminists" -- people who consider American women to be "tyrannized and victimized" by men. "I believe the first lady is in their camp," Sommers said, though she acknowledged that Clinton didn't attend that meeting and doesn't use the buzz words of the "gender feminists." But Sommers still says Clinton is one of them. The evidence? She has complained about the inequity in pay between men and women and the exclusion of women from major medical clinical trials.

And there's more evidence: Clinton likes the work of Eve Ensler, author of the one-woman play "The Vagina Monologues." Ensler, Sommers told the crowd, was once described as a "loony feminist" by a British journalist. From all this, Sommers has deduced that while Clinton "does not openly write or speak" as a "gender feminist," she is indeed a "committed and zealous gender feminist."

Phyllis Schlafly, the social conservative leader, derided Clinton as "a very dull subject. She is not an interesting person. She has not accomplished anything of note ... She is just a housewife ... She made her money and built her career the old-fashioned way -- she married it." But, at the same time, "She's a 'macho-feminist' ... with a lust for revenge," who "quarterbacked the [Monica] coverup." In other words, a boring marital appendage who is Machiavelli in drag.

Ingraham, the cable-TV chatterer who has her own anti-Hillary book due out soon, attempted to put forth a more sophisticated argument. "I don't think she's evil, she's just wrong" -- from her "family politics to her beliefs about gun control." Yet her marriage and views on education are not the real problems, Ingraham said. "What's most dangerous about Hillary is not Whitewater, the billing records ... The most dangerous thing is her seeming inability not to be self-reflective and talk about her mistakes." Is that what bugs people about Clinton? She doesn't 'fess up to her errors? "Conservatives get in trouble when they start making Hillary personal," Ingraham said. But when Karen Burstein, a former New York judge who supports Clinton, accused Ingraham of demanding that Clinton expose "a kind of pain inside her" that Ingraham does not demand other politicians reveal, Ingraham protested. She merely wants Clinton to "explain her life's choices," such as her marriage. "Was this a political bargain [between her and Bill]?" That sounds awfully personal. At this point, Lynne Cheney, an AEI fellow, exclaimed, "It drives me crazy when Hillary acts like a happy wife." And Ingraham added, "It's a sham." It does sound like the personal is what's bothering them.

But that's not true forHorowitz, who in a 50-minute-long closing statement, branded Clinton "America's foremost leftist." And, he informed the dwindling crowd, "The first truth about leftist missionaries ... is that they are liars." In fact, "To be progressive is the deepest narcissism." He claimed that "today's leftists" -- including Clinton -- are the "ideological heirs of Stalinist progressives." But Clinton and her band have gotten cagier: They seek "total power" and the opportunity to create a social utopia through "incremental ways." She will even "sound like a conservative" if she has to.

Anyone who sat through the entire day could be forgiven if he or she ended up confused. To rightist Horowitz, Clinton is a single-minded messianic socialist to be feared. To leftist Hitchens, she is a two-faced, unprincipled 1960s sellout to be despised. To Milton, she is an overly ambitious and pushy woman to be scorned for having cut some sort of deal with her husband. To Sommers, she is a dangerous, in-the-closet feminist to be exposed. To Schlafly, she is a traditional wife who won't own up to that. To Ingraham, she is a first lady who dares stay mum about her marriage -- but we don't want to get personal. There is much for which Clinton deserves criticism. Remember the health-care plan she botched? She also occasionally has been slippery with the truth and placed politics ahead of principle -- as do most pols. But she does push her critics to excess.

"People say I'm obsessed about the Clintons," Hitchens quipped delightfully. "I'm not. I just think about them all the time."

For all their thinking about Clinton, her most vociferous detractors cannot agree on what ticks them off about her. But for each, the ever-changing Clinton -- who, over the years, has slipped in and out of many different roles -- offers much ammunition and is a highly convenient and inviting target. As she campaigns for the Senate, she will remain within their crisscrossing lines of fire.

David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

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Hillary Rodham Clinton