Dispiriting as it is to admit for those of us who like our republics modest and our republicans unassuming, we are living through one of those bothersome periods in American history in which cults of personality are all the rage. Cory Booker’s victory on Tuesday evening was as inevitable as will be his coronation in the Senate, followed before long by the breathless and ubiquitous talk of a Booker presidency. Nevertheless, for all his supposed virtues, the celebrity mayor of Newark will have to wait his turn, for the Obamacult has a different understudy, and she is busily readying herself for a seamless takeover. I refer, of course, to Hillary Clinton.
With her complicated past, her high-school principal’s air, and her unsympathetic voice, Hillary is an unlikely cult heroine, but a cult heroine she may well become. The Left has astutely noticed and internalized something that the Right either has not or cannot: Before you can turn someone into a political icon, you must first turn her into a cultural icon. That is to say that Washington follows the voters, and the voters follow Hollywood. This dynamic goes some way to explaining why both the culture warrior Andrew Breitbart and the former actor Ronald Reagan have acquired such committed followings in death whereas successful and efficacious conservative policy experts have not. It was no accident that Patti Solis Doyle, Clinton’s campaign manager in 2008, described her former boss as “the hardest-working woman in show business,” or that Anna Wintour promised recently that “all of us at Vogue look forward to putting on the cover the first female president of the United States.”
Much of the praise for Clinton is the product of standard political jockeying for position. Harry Reid’s boast that “Hillary Clinton may have a bigger fan than Harry Reid; I just don’t know who it would be” and his obsequious description of Hillary as a “remarkable” secretary of state who “will go down in history books” are smart personal as well as party politics. But, as 2016 approaches, such word-paintings are beginning to shine a little more than is probably healthy in a republic. Hillary Clinton was an average secretary of state, perhaps even good. But she was not “remarkable,” and it is telling that her supposedly stellar achievements are often boiled down to the trivial fact that she traveled more miles than any of her predecessors. (On this questionable metric, one must say, “Move over, John Quincy Adams, you parochial, horse-loving mediocrity.”)
It is worrying how many Americans appear unable to celebrate the rise to power of representatives of historically powerless groups without imparting special — even magical — qualities to them. Barack Obama’s win in 2008 was part of, not distinct from, the American narrative, and yet he seems to have convinced people — or, more accurately, they seem to have convinced themselves — that he came from outside as a Platonic Philosopher King who would be able peacefully to abolish politics. Looking back over the JournoList controversy of 2010, what strikes me most is how shamefully credulous the collective Left was about Obama: Nothing must be allowed to get in the way of “a black politician who unites the country,” Spencer Ackerman fumed naïvely when the Jeremiah Wright scandal broke.
Personally, I don’t much care who is president, providing that he obeys the Constitution, keeps the country safe from those who would harm us, and — most important — damn well leaves me alone. That Hillary Clinton boasts two X chromosomes is almost certainly the least interesting thing about her. That being said, critics of this position would presumably say that this is a jolly easy thing for a white male to say and that it is undeniable as a matter of fact that there are many voters out there who would be genuinely ecstatic to see a woman occupy the White House.
But there is being pleased and then there is falling prey to embarrassing hyperbole. The putatively conservative Kathleen Parker, writing in the Washington Post on Tuesday, thrust herself firmly into the latter camp with an op-ed that claimed no less than that Clinton “can save the world.” Parker quickly conceded that this was “a trifle hyperbolic” but then went on to fill the rest of the page with statements that made the initial characterization look modest. “We may not live to see salvation,” she gushed emetically, “but one has to start somewhere.”
In language that was distressingly reminiscent of all that “planet began to heal” hokum, Parker contended that “women, if allowed to be fully equal to men, will bring peace to the planet.” Chief among these equal women, Parker contended, would be “Madame President Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton,” whom smarter Americans have been “studying” for “inspiration,” who has “empowered women as never before with just a few words,” and who will bring an end to the endless “invasions, bunker-busting mega-bombs and killer drones,” which “seem not to be having the desired effect.”
Parker’s words will no doubt be music to the ears of the already assembled Clinton cultists. With their poster-like “Ready for Hillary” T-shirts (this “I’m ready” language always strikes me as odd, implying as it does that America needs to prepare the ground for the coming of a candidate who wishes to be its servant) and their subscriptions to the nauseating “Texts from Hillary” website and to Clinton’s own Twitter feed, they are the early adopters of the new, soon-to-be-constitutionally-obsolescent model of Barack Obama — and they just can’t wait.
In recent weeks, Hillary has smartly begun to reciprocate this nascent attempt to turn her into an Internet icon. Her relatively new Twitter account deliberately features a famous picture-turned-meme of her typing on a BlackBerry (the future!) and boasts also a breezy, slightly-too-cute biography that describes the proto-candidate as a “wife, mom, lawyer, women & kids advocate, FLOAR, FLOTUS, US Senator, SecState, author, dog owner, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, glass ceiling cracker, TBD . . . ” In her first Tweet, Clinton self-awarely thanked two of her biggest Internet boosters for “the inspiration,” and promised rather transparently, “I’ll take it from here.” Subsequent postings were contrived enough to prompt ThinkProgress’s Alyssa Rosenberg to effervesce that “Clinton’s twitter feed makes her look Aware Of All Internet Traditions”!
The process of grafting the Obama pop-culture template onto the less photogenic, more battle-scarred, and, bluntly, much older Hillary Clinton will be tough — and the architects of the New Model Hillary will presumably be aware that there is a genuine risk that, by the time Hillary unleashes her campaign, Americans will have become ready for a little iconoclasm. Nevertheless, many of the ingredients are the same for Clinton as they were for Obama. If she gets the nomination, she will be cast as a proxy candidate for all women, especially those who will be recruited from History and posthumously charged with having “fought” in order to see this moment come to pass. Her opponents will be blithely characterized as “sexists” who are “scared of strong women,” just as Obama’s critics were deemed “racists.” This clash of pieties was briefly problematic back in 2008 when it led some farcically to conclude that we were about to discover whether America was more racist or more sexist and others to brand Hillary and Bill as racists themselves — but there will likely be no such complications this time around.
Hillary Clinton has a long history of spinning straw into gold. The “experience” that she supposedly gained while First Lady largely consisted of her fouling up her husband’s health-care plan and then being called out from the sidelines to lie in front of the cameras; her role as America’s ur-feminist seems to be rather symbolic, as much projected onto her as by her; and her allegedly shining careers as carpetbagging New York senator and then as consolation-prize secretary of state were marked, to put it most charitably, by competence, and the latter was scarred forever by the disaster in Benghazi.
More of a challenge is that Clinton is the very model of a Washington insider; a political poster girl for a baby-boomer generation whose time has come and gone. The key question for America will be whether a new coat of paint, the imprimatur of the Democratic establishment, and the superficial insistence of the Internet Generation that she is special can transmute an almost-70-year-old woman into another timely savior of the downtrodden and dispossessed. It is no overstatement to say that the strength of the republican ideal rests, in some measure at least, on the answer. If ever there was a time for a Silent Cal or a William Howard Taft, it is now. If, conversely, we are destined for another depthless and detached human avatar, the future looks bleak indeed.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.