Politics & Policy

Don’t Cry for Me, America

Hillary reprises the Eva Perón-Indira Gandhi-Eleanor Roosevelt-Madame Chiang style of feminine politics.

The odds against her are growing daily, but Hillary still, at this point, has a shot at becoming the first woman to be elected president of the United States. Why has her potential gender breakthrough failed to generate anything like the excitement inspired by Barack Obama’s potential race breakthrough? Gloria Steinem was quick to blame sexism. But there is something else at work.

There are two traditions of modern female leadership, the do-it-yourself tradition and the widow-orphan tradition. Hillary’s problem is that right now she’s squarely in the widow-orphan camp. If she wants to win, she needs to get with the do-it-yourself gals.

At this stage in the race, it won’t be easy.

The widow-orphan tradition includes the two Gandhi-Nehru dowagers, Indira, the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, and Sonia, the widow of Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi; Eleanor Roosevelt, relict of Franklin D.; Soong May-ling, better known, after her marriage to the future Generalissimo, as Madame Chiang; and Eva Perón, the second consort of Juan Domingo Perón. Jiāng Qīng, Madame Mao, of “Gang of Four” fame, also has a place in this club.

At the top of the do-it-yourself list are Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir.

Which group do you think most Americans would like to see the first Madame President of the United States drawn from?

A woman who wants to be the first of her sex to win the White House needs above all else to show that she requires no crutches and can stand on her own two feet. What did Hillary do in a pinch? When Barack came too close, she invoked the tutelary protection of her husband. She sicked Big Bill on him.

Eva couldn’t have reposed more gratefully on the strong arm of Juan Domingo. Hillary might as well have replaced “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow” with “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” as her official campaign jingle.

Can you imagine Margaret Thatcher, when she was within striking distance of the First Lordship of the Treasury, sending Denis out to square Ted Heath or Jim Callaghan?

To distinguish herself from the Gandhis and Peróns of the world, Hillary needs to show that she is not a political spouse, trading on the accumulated political capital of a husband constitutionally debarred from seeking the White House a third time. She needs to show that she’s her own woman. Instead, Hillary has reprised Evita’s quest for a dual monarchy, a husband-wife spouse-ocracy built around a girl’s marriage to a powerful guy.

Benazir Bhutto went a long way in Pakistan as the daughter of the martyred Zulfikar Ali. Sonia Gandhi went a long way in India as the widow of the martyred Rajiv. But in America Rose McConnell Long only got as far as the Senate after Huey’s martyrdom — the same place Hillary has gotten as result of Bill’s de facto political martyrdom by the 22nd Amendment.

Americans just don’t like dynastic politics, at least at the presidential level. John Quincy Adams got the White House in 1824 only because the election was settled in the House: Jackson was the clear popular favorite. The country gave Adams the chuck four years later. The Kennedys had less than three years at 1600 Pennsylvania. Franklin and Teddy came from distant branches of the Roosevelt trunk, and nobody remembers the Harrisons.

The Bushes succeeded in their dynastic bid only because they were careful to minimize the element of blood intimacy. In 2000 George W. campaigned as Ronald Reagan’s heir, not George H. W.’s. When John McCain was giving his son a hard time that year, George H. W. stayed out of it.

Hillary, by contrast, has premised her campaign and her prospective presidency on the fact that Bill put a ring on her finger, and that that ring, like a Teutonic talisman, conferred on her Bill’s magical powers; she might as well have gone back to the kitchen and started baking cookies with Tammy Wynette. Hillary is not only standing by her man, she is campaigning as his surrogate, the heir to his political vitality — so much so that the incensed Kennedys went to the trouble of adopting poor legacy-less Barack as their own native son. If she gets to inherit a former president’s political capital, why shouldn’t he, too, have some kind of testamentary bequest? (Query: If there is a deadlocked convention, will the Roosevelts be convened as a political probate court to arbitrate the conflicting wills?)

In trying to sell Hillary as the second coming of Bill, the Clintons made a costly mistake. They excited America’s traditional fear of dynastic corruption while they at the same time raised doubts — fair or not — about whether Hillary can stand the heat, whether she, as a woman, has what it takes to be president.

It’s not easy to see how she gets herself out of the hole she and Bill have dug. One thing she had going for her before January was a reputation for toughness. She might plausibly have presented herself as an Iron Lady in the tradition of Thatcher or Meir, whom David Ben-Gurion once quipped was the “only man” in the Israeli cabinet.

But when, last month, Hillary called on the playground bully to save her from the other kid in the sandbox, she looked weak, and made it legitimate to ask whether, as president, she will be strong enough to stand up to the Russians and the Chinese and the Iranians — or whether she plans to leave that to Bill too.

True, Hillary might yet find a way to close the toughness gap she and her husband gratuitously opened up. The problem is, her feminist base — whom she’s increasingly relying on to pull her through — doesn’t want toughness in the White House: The ladies of the Left want her to be a warm and fuzzy mélange of the tooth fairy and the permissive hippie-matriarch of The Partridge Family, dedicated to building up the kinder, gentler maternalist welfare-state.

Thus all the crying, so neatly elucidated on Drudge. But the tears, though they saved the day for her in New Hampshire, only serve to identify her candidacy more closely with the weepy fragility of Evita.

Hillary’s attempt to reprise Olivia de Havilland in Gone with the Wind, wiping a tear from her eye, might conceivably get her the Democratic nod, though with each passing day this seems less likely. It won’t save her in November. When national security is a priority, Americans want Rhett Butler in the White House, not Melanie Hamilton.

Should Hillary’s campaign end in failure, the lesson to be learned will be this: Women who aspire to the White House should emulate the toughly unsentimental do-it-yourself political style of Margaret Thatcher, not the tear-drenched widow-orphan politics of Madame Perón and les femmes Gandhi.

— Michael Knox Beran’s most recent book is Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran, a lawyer, is the author of Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861–1871, among other books.

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