Politics & Policy

The Hillary Fascination

She’s a rock star only because people keep calling her one.

‘I think she’s one of the most fascinating women of our time and this world,” confessed Bob Greenblatt, the chairman of NBC, as part of his announcement that his network is making a miniseries about former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, with Diane Lane in the starring role.

Words are funny things. For instance, G.K. Chesterton once remarked that that the word “good” has many uses: “For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of 500 yards, I should call him a good shot but not necessarily a good man.”

#ad#So it is, I suppose, with the word “fascinating.” Given the perpetual soap opera revolving around the Clintons, I can understand the fascination with Mrs. Clinton. But while a soap opera can make for a compelling spectacle, that doesn’t mean every character in it is compelling in his or her own right.

Quick: Can you think of a single truly interesting thing Hillary Clinton has ever said?

Before you answer, let me narrow the terms. Wildly implausible statements about how she parlayed pocket change into $100,000 in the commodities markets simply by reading the Wall Street Journal don’t count. Neither do her explanations of how her Whitewater billing records miraculously appeared out of thin air in the most secure building in America. Nor do her explanations of how and why she stuck by her husband.

What I mean is: Have you ever heard her speak, as a politician in her own right, and been wowed by her eloquence or floored by her insights or even particularly impressed by her raw political skill?

I’m hard-pressed to think of any examples. I suppose her famous dismissal of any interest in how, on her watch, four Americans were murdered by terrorists — “What difference, at this point, does it make?!” — could count as fascinating in its brazen indifference and staggering cynicism. But c’mon.

The simple fact, by my lights at least, is that Hillary Clinton is not a compelling personality in her own right. Even Bill Clinton’s harshest critics have to concede that he was a masterful politician, a jazz impresario mixing deep insights, policy minutiae, and folksy cornpone peppered with compelling half-truths and daring outright lies. Barack Obama isn’t nearly as gifted as Bill was on the stump or in the backrooms, but the man has political talent. Hillary’s a very solid policy wonk, but the only thing that makes her a rock star is that people keep calling her one.

The same goes for her career. Quick: What has the woman done? As a lawyer, what important cases did she win? As a first lady, her only major “accomplishment” was a failed health-care-reform scheme that didn’t even get a vote in the Senate. As a carpetbagging senator from New York, what historic legislation did she shepherd? Most of her party, including the president, repudiates her vote for the Iraq War. Pretty much the only thing her biggest supporters can tout about her tenure as secretary of state is that she “traveled a million miles,” which strikes me as the ultimate triumph of quantity over quality (particularly given the hot mess that is American foreign policy).

In other words, what fascinates me is the fascination with Hillary. I don’t deny that it exists, I just don’t think she warrants it. Also, I don’t think finding Hillary Clinton deeply interesting necessarily means there’s a deep interest out there in the American public to see her become president. Huma Abedin, the humiliated wife of Anthony Weiner, is interesting for many of the same reasons Hillary is; that doesn’t add to Abedin’s qualifications for high office.

And this is one reason why I think all of the talk about Hilary’s “inevitability” is misplaced. Yes, she’s way ahead in the polls. But she’s also been out of the line of fire in domestic partisan politics for a long time. That softens people’s attitudes until they are given a reason to change them. (George W. Bush’s popularity has gone up markedly for similar reasons.) When the Benghazi scandal was in the news, her favorability dropped. You can be sure it’ll happen again if she runs and stakes out positions.

Sure, the smart money is on her to win the Democratic nomination if she runs. But, then again, the same smart money went to Clinton in 2008. Clinton lost to Obama for several reasons, some of them tactical. But trumping all of the others was that Obama was a more compelling candidate.

And that’s Hillary’s Achilles’ heel: Candidates matter.

— Jonah Goldberg is the author of The Tyranny of Clichés, now on sale in paperback. You can write to him by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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