Hillary Clinton’s 2016 brand: Tough. Capable. Experienced. Ready. A fighter.
Who freaks out when a man stands behind her for a few seconds.
That last detail about Hillary’s personality didn’t emerge until the world was treated to excerpts from her forthcoming memoir What Happened, in which Clinton makes yet another effort to cast herself as the victim of structural sexism. She writes that when Donald Trump wandered up behind her during the second debate, in St. Louis, she thought, “This is not OK. . . . Two days before, the world heard him brag about groping women. Now we were on a small stage and no matter where I walked, he followed me closely, staring at me, making faces.”
You can almost hear the theme from Halloween as Clinton continues with her unnerving tale: “It was incredibly uncomfortable. He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled. It was one of those moments where you wish you could hit pause and ask everyone watching, well, what would you do? Do you stay calm, keep smiling and carry on as if he weren’t repeatedly invading your space? Or do you turn, look him in the eye and say loudly and clearly, ‘Back up you creep, get away from me. I know you love to intimidate women but you can’t intimidate me, so back up.’”
Wait — months later, that’s her big comeback, her esprit d’escalier? More like colère d’escalier.
Picking up this anecdote — treating a sliver of a wisp of a crumb as though it’s a boulder with which to crush feminism’s enemies — diehard Clinton defender Jill Filipovic wonders, ludicrously, in the New York Times whether the incident was the game-changer of 2016. She speculates that a “different split-second choice could have changed the course of world history,” suggesting that if either Clinton or the debate’s moderators had made a big fuss about Trump’s violation of her personal space, Hillary would have won the election.
That Clinton didn’t react simply neutralized the moment, though. If anything, it hurt Trump a bit by making him look a little weird. If Clinton had responded angrily, she would have looked unhinged and everything else about the evening would have been forgotten. On her better days, Mrs. Clinton has a Nurse Ratched streak, and she would hardly have done herself any favors by coming across as touchy and dyspeptic. As for the moderators, Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz, they declined to intervene on Clinton’s behalf not because they are secretly knights of the International Brotherhood of Sexism but because they thought moderators should remain neutral. Or because, less charitably, they didn’t want to make it too obvious that they were on Clinton’s side.
Clinton and Filipovic make a mistake familiar to anyone who tries to slog through feminist thinking. Both see no options except for a) lashing out angrily and b) cursing their feminine fate while suffering in silence. As political analysts, they have remarkably short memories: Neither seems to recall that the same issue arose in the very same building as the Trump–Clinton clash — the Field House at Washington University in St. Louis — in another presidential debate, on October 17, 2000.
While George W. Bush was speaking in his third debate against Al Gore that season, Gore deserted his podium, deliberately took half a dozen steps over to Bush’s, and loomed over the shorter man, inches away, trying to look intimidating. Gore’s behavior was utterly bizarre, much more intrusive than what Trump did. Bush paused, looked at the vice president, and gave him an amiable, disarming nod. It instantly punctured Gore’s John Wayne act. The audience burst into laughter. Gore then compounded the damage by interjecting a line of purest Beltway nerd-speak: “What about the Dingell-Norwood bill?” As if anyone in the audience knew or cared what a Dingell or a Norwood was. Indeed, Bush himself perhaps didn’t know what Gore was talking about, and it didn’t matter, because we vote for a commander-in-chief, not a policy-Poindexter-in-chief. Bush’s good humor and sangfroid produced the likeability he needed to oust a near-incumbent running on an impressive eight-year record of peace and prosperity.
Trying to explain the importance of something called a ‘sense of humor’ to some feminists is like trying to teach tact to C-3PO.
Clinton could have won that interaction with Trump by raising an eyebrow and saying, “Can I help you?” Or she could have cut him down to size with some other dry one-liner: “Excuse me, I’m speaking now.” It would have been brilliant. Audiences are dying for an unscripted moment of levity at these things. But Clinton came up empty for the same reason she lost the election: because she has no political gifts whatsoever. If a jocular instinct floated anywhere near her consciousness, it would sizzle and die like a mosquito gliding into a bug zapper. Nor does even the possibility of a witty riposte occur to Filipovic, a professional writer who might be expected to have some ability in this arena, ten months later.
Trying to explain the importance of something called a “sense of humor” to some feminists is like trying to teach tact to C-3PO. This is why feminists get tagged with words like “shrill” — not because they “dare to stand up for themselves” but because they’re so often such molar-grinding humorcidal stiffs. “That’s Not Funny,” goes a popular Internet meme, the caption to a picture of a grim and clenched young woman standing with her arms crossed. If feminists were hilarious, the stereotype wouldn’t stick.
What’s most unfortunate about what Clinton and Filipovic have written about Trump’s personal-space incursion is that both link Clinton’s non-response to her being a woman. Clinton says that after “a lifetime of dealing with difficult men trying to throw me off,” she may have “overlearned the lesson of staying calm, biting my tongue, digging my fingernails into a clenched fist, smiling all the while, determined to present a composed face to the world.” Filipovic says Clinton was tied up in a “particularly feminine . . . psychological turmoil — the hashing and rehashing of saying too little or saying too much, . . . the biting isolation of concluding it must be you who is terribly and irredeemably flawed.”
I doubt that Clinton’s problem with voters was that she smiled too much, or that she was tormented by a lack of self-esteem. But in any case I’m picturing Margaret Thatcher reading these excuses, and I’m quite sure her response would be, “What utter tosh.”
— Kyle Smith is National Review Online’s critic-at-large.