Politics & Policy

Hillary Clinton’s Entitlement Problem

(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
She seems to think a certain standard of living was her due as a member of the political aristocracy.

It seems clear now that there are two Hillary Clintons. The first, who exists wholly in the abstract, is the one we have been waiting for. She is a Maker of History and a savior of women; an equal partner in the power couple that presided over the prosperity, cool, and competence of the 1990s; a world-beating secretary of state; a feminist who smashes glass ceilings and fights for all that is right and good. Millions of us are “Ready!” for her.

The other exists in the real world. This Hillary is a person who lacks concrete achievements; whose inevitability never quite translates into evitability; whose rhetoric always seems to turn up empty; who has an impressive capacity for saying things that hurt her and her interests; and, most distressingly of all, who becomes instantly less likeable the moment she opens her mouth.

It is the second Hillary that is currently making the news. Indeed, important as the Democratic party’s internecine war was to her loss, one has to start considering the possibility that what ultimately doomed Hillary Clinton in 2008 was that she is Hillary Clinton. The husband whose name she took has a political knack unmatched in our times — a capacity to spin straw into gold and to rise unscathed from the dirtiest of ashes. Hillary, alas, seems to have the opposite quality, possessing a remarkable ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and to turn favorable moments into cudgels that might later be wielded against her. Responding in May to a question about suicide, Clinton voluntarily launched into an unwise disquisition about gun rights, including in her messy remarks the politically dangerous recommendation that the federal government should look to “rein in” the right to bear arms. This weekend, she made a similar error. Asked about her astronomical public-speaking fees, Clinton declined to give the honest answer — which is, “I have the opportunity to make a lot of money speaking; wouldn’t you take it?” — and instead went off on a peculiarly defensive tangent. “We came out of the White House not only dead broke but in debt,” Clinton explained to Diane Sawyer. “We had no money when we got there and we struggled,” she continued, “to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages for houses.” Later, she repeated the claim, noting that the couple was in dire need of the cash to “get us houses.”

What a difference a plural makes.

Leaving aside for a brief moment how utterly farcical it is to use “struggle” and “houses” in the same sentence, the notion that the Clintons were presented in their post-presidency with anything other than a license to print money is unyielding in its abject hilarity. By 2001, Bill Clinton had made $200,000 per annum for eight years while paying nothing toward his housing or upkeep, and, in addition to the extraordinarily lucrative speaking gigs that American ex-presidents are now to expect, he had a lifetime of pensions and benefits to look forward to. (David Graham points out that, in the last 14 years, he has received nearly $16 million from the government.) By the end of the year in which he left office, the couple had made $16 million and enjoyed between $5 and $30 million in assets. By 2004, they had $50 million to their names. And by 2014, Clinton had become the highest-earning former president in America’s history, with net assets of nearly $200 million. Being smart sorts, the couple knew full well that this was coming, which is why in 1999, with their apparently destructive legal bills still racking up, they bought a $6 million house in Chappaqua, N.Y., so that Hillary could legally run for the Senate. One suspects that if the Clintons had been genuinely worried that their legal fights might bankrupt them, they would not have done this, nor would friend Terry McAuliffe have agreed to loan them $1.3 million toward its purchase.

Nobody with so much as a passing understanding of the Clintons’ complicated relationship with the truth will be surprised to see history being rewritten on live television. But, this broader tendency notwithstanding, there was something extraordinary about Hillary’s tone. Her husband, she told Sawyer, “had to make double the money because of, obviously, taxes.” I daresay he did. But so does everyone else who earns good money — and he would presumably have had to make even more if Clinton had her way. Why, pray, does Clinton consider this to be an imposition?

We talk often of “entitlement” these days. For once, we have a genuine example of it. Rather than seeing her sumptuous lifestyle as the happy consequence of her considerable income, Clinton appears to believe that she is all but required to maintain a certain standard of living — whether or not she has the funds to enable it. This, it should not be lost on anybody, is precisely how embarrassed British aristocrats behave. Even in penury they are unable to escape the pregnant title of “Lord” or “Viscount” — nor the expectations that go with them — and, in order to live up to their stations and maintain the habits of their class, they are required to beg, borrow, or steal. Thus is “Can I pay for it?” subjugated to “Do I want it?” Thus is the cart put before the horses, the stables, the chauffeur, the shooting parties, the butler, the dinner parties, the tweed wardrobe, and the yacht. Downsizing for a while is, naturally, quite out of the question. “Do they know who I am?”

I do not profess to be an expert on Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs,” but I am nevertheless reasonably sure that the multiple houses to which Clinton so artlessly refers fall neatly into the “esteem” and “self-actualization” definitions of “necessity” and not into those categories that relate to “physiological” requirements or to basic “safety.” When most Americans worry aloud about their “struggles,” they are primarily referring to the basics: to groceries, rent and mortgage payments, medical and legal bills, and children’s educational costs. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, just lamented before the nation that, temporarily, she had a tough time paying for the lifestyle to which Pennsylvania Avenue had accustomed her. In doing so, she got the traditional order of things quite the wrong way around, using language reserved for those who are struggling in order to gripe about her position in the millionaires’ pecking order. You don’t buy a Ferrari and then complain that you can’t afford the gas.

At its root, this affair neatly revealed the treacherous relationship that exists between the Clintons as idea and the Clintons as reality. Like many in their social milieu, Bill and Hillary are not merely the consumers of luxury goods, they are the luxury goods — the price tag for their services being in large part based upon the high cost of access to their circle. Diane Sawyer’s implied question — “Why do Hillary Clinton and her husband make so much money?” — is an intrinsically awkward one for the pair to engage with. It is one thing for an interviewer to ask a Mick Jagger or Jon Bon Jovi why he is so rich and famous. The inevitably immodest answer of the professional libertine does little to strike at the cultivated image. The Clintons, however, profess to be warriors for the downtrodden and champions of the poor. “Because I’m f***ing awesome” will simply not do. Look at Hillary’s face. Look at the robotic nodding motion that she hoped would hide the irritation. Look at the pretense that anybody who does not see the Clintons as having barely escaped poverty is simply not remembering history. All in all, this reaction betrayed something important: That Clinton recognized Sawyer’s inquiry for the threat that it was, and she panicked. You’d expect better from a Viscount.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.


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