Bill Clinton won because he was always winning; if Hillary Rodham Clinton has lost, it is because she is losing.
President Clinton had a diabolical knack for turning his self-inflicted problems into referenda on the moral standing of his opponents, or of anybody who happened to be convenient for the purpose; thus the Monica Lewinsky scandal became a question not of the president’s venality in the Oval Office and elsewhere or of his consequent crimes — perjury, etc. — but a public trial of Kenneth Starr for the crime of being a buzzkill. Everybody — everybody, friend and foe — knew that President Clinton and his minions were lying about the matter, but the Democrats place an extraordinary value on cleverness: They are the party of the student council, and Bill Clinton has spent 50-odd years proving to the world that he is the cleverest boy at Hot Springs High School, and his admirers loved him not in spite of his gross opportunism and dishonesty but because of those very things. Finally, the Democrats rejoiced, a man who can show those Republicans for the unsophisticated, unclever fools that they are!
The early 1960s were defined by a dramatic political polarity: the glib and vague but attractive and clever John Kennedy set in contrast to the hard, scheming intelligence of the fundamentally uncool Richard Nixon. As Oliver Stone’s fictitious Nixon put it when addressing a portrait of the late Kennedy: “People look at you, and they see who they want to be. They look at me, and they see what they are.” The Clintons’ marriage contains uncomfortably within it both of those poles, and Mrs. Clinton, unhappily for her, is the Nixon in the relationship.
Like Nixon at his lowest, she must be asking herself — or will be asking herself soon enough — “What was it for?” The lies? The endless public humiliations? The cruelty to women? The edifice of deceit that is the only real monument to what the name “Clinton” stands for? Nixon, the best efforts of his admirers notwithstanding, is remembered mainly as the one thing he insisted he was not — a crook — largely repudiated by the very same conservative movement that once embraced him, his face familiar outside that movement mostly as a grotesque latex mask. Nixon was — and is — a monster, in the ancient sense of that word: a warning, an omen.
The wheels came off of that as soon as she achieved proximity to real power: President Clinton put her in charge of his health-care program, and it was a catastrophe. She was never really allowed to have her hands on another substantive policy issue, and her most prominent role throughout the rest of her time in the White House was spent not basking in the glow of the presidency but obscured in its shadow, reduced to little more than helping her husband to avoid suffering the consequences of his sexual adventuring and his lying about that under oath. She marched into Washington a “co-president” and slithered out an appendage.
Following the health-care debacle, she abandoned any ambition of securing the sort of radical change she once embraced. Since then, it has been all politics — all calculation. And she is not a very good politician or calculator, as Barack Obama could tell you with a self-satisfied smirk.
The story is as old as Faust. But what did Hillary Rodham Clinton get out of her infernal bargain? There is money, to be sure, the Clintons having grown vastly wealthy, but she does not give the impression of a person who is in it for the money — she seems like the sort of person who could live quite contentedly on a fraction of what she might make as an academic and an ornament to corporate boards. Bill Clinton was in it for the adoration and affirmation (and does not seem to despise money), but Mrs. Clinton cannot hide the wry cynicism with which she regards the public — she lacks her husband’s psychopathic gift for being simultaneously sentimental and predatory.
Chemical addiction is not the only sort of addiction, or even the worst sort. The addict’s panicked manic drive to achieve an ever-higher level of stimulation, as though there were some blissful nirvana at the end of the continuum, animates the work of the Marquis de Sade — another monster for our times, two intervening centuries be damned — who imagined a man so addicted to performing the wildest of moral outrages that he arranges a tableau that will allow him to commit incest, murder, rape, adultery, and sacrilege all at once. (It gets complicated.) For the worst addicts — opiates, alcohol, gambling — life ultimately is reduced to the point that nothing remains other than the service of the addiction, and the cruel truth sets in not only that there is no ultimate satisfaction waiting to be had on the other side of a higher dose or a more refined hit, but that the stimulant itself in the end loses its ability to satisfy. The addict’s Faustian contract, like all such bargains, turns out to have been constructed with deceit.
Those addicted to political power do not usually wind up living in the streets, but they suffer a parallel dehumanizing abasement: There is nothing left in them, in their minds or their souls, that transcends the pursuit of political power itself. As with de Sade’s protagonists or the defeated drug addict, the relentless process of subtraction from the human sum has left only a single exotic appetite.
The problem for Mrs. Clinton is that they do not sell presidencies on street corners. And if she is once again denied the nomination and the presidency and finds herself asking on January 20, 2017, the inevitable question — “What was it all for?” — the answer will be: Nothing.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.