Old joke: What do you get for the man who has everything? Penicillin. That would be more apropos if Bill Clinton were running for president again instead of his wife, but the question remains: What does Hillary Rodham Clinton actually want?
The Clintons like money. This is obvious. It seems to me that Bill likes it a little more intensely than Hillary does, being, as he is, a deeply insecure man who has spent his entire life keeping score: Whether it’s his net worth or his approval polls or bedpost-notching, Bill Clinton has always looked to quantify his value as a man. Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, seems like the kind of woman for whom a few hundred million dollars would be sufficient. She could probably be quite happy on the salary of a big-city school superintendent, provided she never had to fly commercial or see a hotel bill. Whatever it is that gets her out of bed in the morning, it isn’t the prospect of another $12,000 Armani jacket.
There is an aspect of her story that is either literary or psychological, depending on your point of view. Her résumé shows her going from triumph to triumph, but her actual career as a public figure has been a sorrowful tale of relentless humiliation. A former Goldwater girl turned into the most conventional sort of 1970s activist, she discovered political power before she discovered political ideas. The idea she eventually discovered was feminism, which she spent a few decades dabbling in as she rode the coattails of her husband, an old-fashioned, glad-handing, back-slapping Southern Democrat of a familiar sort, a jumped-up ward heeler with a weakness for cigars and interns. When Mrs. Clinton scoffed at American women who “stayed home and baked cookies,” her husband’s people read her the Riot Act, and she meekly published a cookie recipe. It was a harbinger: President Clinton’s subsequent misbehavior — which was far from limited to being fellated by an intern — got pretty bad, but Mrs. Clinton, who had once heaped scorn on “Stand by Your Man,” did exactly that.
Things did not get better from there. She became a senator from New York as a final tribute from a Democratic electorate to her husband. The man who preceded her in office, the great Daniel Patrick Moynihan, wryly saluted her “Illinois-Arkansas enthusiasm,” Hillary and New York being as much a marriage of convenience as Hillary and Bill. She was a legislative nonentity in the Senate, because she was running for president from the day she was sworn in. (A few of the 2016 Republican contenders know a thing or two about that.) When her moment came, she was outdone in the Democratic primary by an even bigger legislative nonentity in the Senate. It was funny, in a cruel way, and people laughed at her, in a cruel way.
What Hillary actually wants to accomplish in office is a great mystery.
Barack Obama condescended to offer her the scrap of a Cabinet position, which she botched, doing great damage to his administration and the country in the process. She was one of the most inept chief diplomats in memory. Bill Clinton had found a place on the global stage through his close relationship with Tony Blair while Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright minded the shop. George H. W. Bush before him had in a moment of Middle Eastern crisis shown himself to be a true master of the game. Mrs. Clinton’s State Department had the nation, including its Democrats, longing for the steady-handed confidence of the Carter years. She was bad enough that John Kerry was considered an improvement.
When her moment came again, she was put through the wringer by a dopey socialist from Vermont whose young, idealistic partisans — the people people like Mrs. Clinton like to think of themselves as — still don’t want her. They’ll take her over Donald Trump, of course, and they’ll feel a little like the man who hears: “You’re responding reasonably well to the chemo.”
She must be relieved that policy questions will have almost no effect whatsoever on this election. She clearly is bored by them. Her proposals so far have been the usual product of Clintonian political engineering, more clever than intelligent, and inevitably old, tired, hackneyed, and boring. She has big ideas about “free college,” which have about a 0.0004 percent chance of surviving into March of 2017.
What she actually wants to accomplish in office is a great mystery. We know what she wants to be, but not what she wants to do.
#related#And the sobering answer to that question may very well be: She hasn’t thought much about it. She wants to walk in the doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as something other than a mistreated appendage of Bill Clinton, as though that action would somehow undo 30 years of abuse and degradation. When she discovers that it won’t, even the literary powers of a Tom Wolfe would be insufficient to capture the moment. You’d need Herman Melville, if not an Ezekiel: “Mine eye shall not spare, and I will have no mercy.” At least it’s an ethos.