I won’t lie to you: the Destruction of Hillary Clinton, Susan Bordo’s methodical analysis of Hillary Clinton’s drawn-out ruination is a painful read. Bordo, a media critic, cultural historian, and fellow Clinton fan, uses her preface to acknowledge the “pain, anger, and frustration” she herself is still feeling at the time of publication — though impressively, this anger never overtakes her authoritative tone nor diminishes her argument.
But amongst the agony of this book is a strange satisfaction. Here is a well-informed, thoroughly researched voice confirming what you feel in your gut. It wasn’t fair. It was the opposite of fair. It was the furthest from fair any American politician has ever been treated by the mainstream media (Donald Trump might disagree). Hillary Rodham Clinton was not a fatally flawed candidate; she was and remains a brilliant woman around whom a cruel, decades-long distortion took place.
Over the past few months, we Clinton fans — not to mention Clinton herself — have been forced to self-flagellate, to admit, “yeah, Hillary was a flawed candidate, but...,” qualifying our view as if to make what we are about to say palatable. Hillary wasn’t a perfect candidate, no — no candidate ever has been. But by conceding that HRC was some kind of deeply problematic figure, we buy into the false narrative that ultimately made her so.
Bordo’s book is not a biography, but just reading through the introductory timeline showing the key dates of her exceptional life, one is reminded that Hillary Clinton wasn’t just a scheming politician who lucked into becoming First Lady, and then Senator, and then Secretary of State; she was an remarkable individual right from the word go. Student body president at Wellesley. First student to address the graduating class at commencement. Said speech featured in Life magazine. One of only 27 women in a class of 235 at Yale Law School. Appointed to the House Judiciary Committee investigating Watergate, one year out of law school. Bill or no Bill, Hillary was one of those awe-inspiring overachievers, one of those young women who is smart and passionate and electrifying. She went on to rank high, as Bordo points out, among the most admired women in the world, even prior to her bid for president.
Having reminded us of HRC's exceptionality, Bordo begins her comprehensive survey of her destruction. There isn’t actually anything new in Bordo’s analysis, at least not if you’ve been following the Hillary thinkpieces closely these past few years/decades. From the difficulties facing women in politics to the “scandals” surrounding the Clintons as a unit; the unique hatred she inspired from the right to the ignorance surrounding all that she has achieved among the left (helpfully laid out over pages 100-102); from Benghazi to emails; from a man-hating feminist to a Wall Street puppet; from Sanders to Trump to Comey to Putin; it’s all been written about before. What is so satisfying — and devastating — about Bordo’s book is the way she lays it all out, weaving it together into a clear picture that allows the reader, whether they were cognizant for the Clinton Era or not, to see exactly what happened to HRC. Bordo has successfully picked apart the various threads of unfairness (there are so many that sometimes one struggles to think about it) that brought us to the conventional Hillary narrative that destroyed her.
There is, of course, the sexism thread. This was endlessly analyzed in both the lead up to and the wake of the election, but Bordo, a feminist scholar, is encyclopedic. There was the “likeability” factor. The “double bind” facing women in leadership: Don’t be too feminine, but don’t defy expectations of how a woman should behave. The everchanging demands as to how she should look, and subsequent critiques of her changing appearance, pointing to an alleged lack of authenticity. The endless double standards. The country’s issue with female ambition. The misogyny, from the thinly-veiled to the outright hostile: witch, bitch, she-devil, dominatrix.
Then there is the thread sewn by the right-wing establishment. Donald Trump did not drum up the frenzied Hillary-hate on the American right; it was already deeply entrenched, thanks to a 25-year campaign against her for her membership in the entity known as “The Clintons,” “a slithery, elusive man-woman” that drove its critics to hysteria. Nearly two decades of vicious media coverage from Fox News (not to mention smaller right-wing outlets) was supplemented by countless Clinton-conspiracy books, “a still-growing number of poorly researched, openly vicious books churned out by the right-wing fantasy factory of Clinton crime exposes,” writes Bordo. Part of this right-wing Clinton-antipathy came from Bill’s political success: the popular, working-class, Bush-defeating, social fabric-destroying Democrat was a GOP nemesis, even prior to his Oval Office indiscretions. But much of it came from her Hillaryness, her unabashed feminism, her careerism and independence, her insistence that she and her husband were equals, which from the moment she entered the public stage has made her a threat, a target for conspiracy theories and mockery.
Then, along came Bernie Sanders, to drum up the frenzied Hillary-hate on the left. It’s hard to quantify how much damage the Sanders-Clinton primary did to HRC’s image — Bordo places much of the blame at his feet. Bordo writes about the way Sanders branded his opponent as an establishment figure, a tool of Wall Street, and not a “real progressive” to his young support-base, many of whom did not know otherwise, and quickly grew to despise her. The irony of this image taking hold — considering the anti-Hillary atmosphere into which it entered was based upon the ire the feminist First Lady caused conservatives — is hard to bear. Once it became clear Sanders could not win the primary, his followers’ demonization of Clinton intensified; Sanders, meanwhile, did little to correct them. Bordo contrasts his delayed, half-hearted endorsement of his victor to her passionate “unqualified endorsement” of Obama in 2008. The intensity of the Bern led many to believe Clinton was as bad as Trump.
Bordo spares no effort condemning the mainstream media for perpetuating the anti-Hillary narrative spun by her political enemies. She describes the “relentless emphasis on scandals that eventually came to nothing, and their repetition of narratives centred on Clinton’s lack of popularity, lack of charisma, penchant for privacy, and ‘authenticity.’” In being so focused on analysing “optics,” on reporting on the perceptions of talking heads, the media — left, right, and center — entrenched those misconceptions. With these threads of injustice, along with her in-depth breakdown of the email “scandal,” Bordo makes you marvel at how close to the presidency HRC got at all.
I’ve always wondered why I seem to be looking at a totally different woman than many of my friends — people whom I admire, whose opinions I respect, see a woman totally in it for herself, while I see a woman who lives for others (I try to find common ground with them by suggesting the truth lies somewhere in between). This book starts to shed some light on how this disparity — “between the Hillary we were campaigning for and the Hillary we continually heard described as ‘deceptive,’ ‘untrustworthy,’ ‘unlikable,’ and even ‘evil’” — came about.
If you, too, are still scratching your head over what happened to Hillary Rodham Clinton; if you’re struggling to buy the “people just weren’t inspired” line, considering how inspired you were; if you can’t comprehend where this “Lady MacBeth” carticature came from, or how it caught on so fiercely, the Destruction of Hillary Clinton might just contain the answer.
The woman who was defeated in the 2016 election wasn’t Hillary Clinton, or even a real person at all, says Bordo. She was “a caricature forged out of the stew of unexamined sexism, unprincipled partisanship, irresponsible politics, and a mass media too absorbed in 'optics' to pay enough attention to separating facts from rumors, lies, and speculation... cunning, deceptive, in league with the forces of greed and elitism... fueled by personal ambition: that was the 'Hillary Clinton' who hovered in the air of this election.” Books and conversations like this, which illuminate the real woman — and what happened to her — are essential if Hillary Clinton is going to retain the place in history she deserves.
Hillary Clinton, real or imagined, will not be the first female POTUS. But as long as we keep dispelling the myths and fantasies, the real Hillary Clinton will inspire for generations to come.
Image via MHP Books
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