Imagine a socially maladept but extremely wealthy friend of yours was told, “People like tap dancing. You should tap-dance more.” You would cringe when the person was telling you about a major career setback and suddenly lurched into a little tap-dancing interlude. “Did I ever tell you about the time the world turned to ashes for me?” Tap-tap, tappity-tap. You’d feel sorry for your friend but mainly you’d feel that this person is deeply weird.
At some point in recent years, one or more of Hillary Clinton’s many handlers, advisers, or consultants told her, “You should laugh more. People like laughter.” Except she is sour, dour, and without a humorous molecule in her body. Her laughter is always feigned, hence always a non sequitur. When she reminds herself it’s laughing time, it comes across as a tic. It’s as bizarre as sudden-onset tap dancing.
In historic footage going back many years in the new documentary Hillary, Clinton presents as an inveterate scold and crusader. In more than a quarter of a century as a public figure she has never, as far as I know, said anything funny that wasn’t written for her. Yet in a fresh new batch of interviews taken for Hillary, the title figure becomes the second major movie anti-hero of recent months to exhibit a problem with bursting into unexplained, mirthless, and (hence) deeply disquieting laughter. Recalling the much-delayed concession speech she famously withheld until the morning after her 2016 defeat, Clinton says that afterwards, “I just collapsed in the back of the van. [Pause for hearty laughs.] I was like: What. Just. Happened.” According to her, “all the forces [Donald Trump] had unleashed had been rewarded. It made me sick to my stomach.” So, er, why the laughs? She’s Arthur Fleck in a pantsuit.
In Hillary, Clinton continues to act a part and act it badly. Her role today is that of a good-natured and not-at-all-bitter role model for tomorrow’s women. But her words betray her aggrievement and entitlement. She is not good at this. She was never good at this. She simply lacks the personality of a public-facing figure and should never have embarrassed herself trying to be one. If it hadn’t been for her proximity to William Jefferson Clinton, a man who genuinely did have a genius for connecting with people and lit up every room he was in for many years, the idea of trying to win elected office never would have infected her mind. There’s no shame in lacking political gifts. What is shameful is that she continues to blame her personal failings on the rest of us.
“People dislike Hillary Clinton.” “People dislike strong women leaders.” The former sentence is true; Clinton avers without evidence that the latter sentence is the underlying truth. She has been doing this since her political career began, exactly the same way it ended: with her losing an election and blaming it on misogyny. In high school, she explains in this four-part, four-hour documentary debuting on Hulu March 6, she ran for student-council president, and lost to a boy. Her explanation: “The boys basically said no, no girl is ever going to be president.” Oh? It was a very large school. The boys put out a press release saying that? Or is Hillary Rodham engaging in mind-reading? Is there any possibility that fellow students simply disliked her, not girls in general? As with many other claims in this movie, and in her life, she provides zero support for her explanation of the dark forces conspiring against her, and no one around her ever challenges her. She lives in a bubble, a Truman Show in which everything around her is staged to suit her willed reality.
Clinton herself kicked off this reclamation project, which just debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, by gathering up all the campaign film her staff collected in the 2016 campaign and finding a sympathetic filmmaker to assemble it. That director is the documentarian and Hillary buff Nanette Burstein, who previously made The Kid Stays in the Picture, a considerably more candid and entertaining film, about the producer Robert Evans.
Don’t mistake the film for journalism. Hillary simply ignores the most sordid and embarrassing aspects of Hillary’s life: Juanita Broaddrick, the $100,000 gain Clinton supposedly made in “cattle futures trading,” It Takes a Village. A neophyte to the story might be baffled by footage from Donald Trump rallies in which Hillary is painted as a corrupt felon, given that Burstein elides the reason tens of millions of Americans (correctly) believe these labels are well grounded. Burstein spends a few minutes on what Planet Hillary dismisses as a kerfuffle about emails and calls in New York Times reporter Peter Baker to inform us that the rules about the emails were “arcane.” They weren’t. Clinton committed multiple felonies that we know about when she caused classified information to be taken out of secure channels. She probably repeated the felony many more times that we don’t know about because she assiduously scrubbed her servers of 30,000 emails. Many of these emails would also likely have been covered by Freedom of Information Act laws and were required to be produced to the public, which amounts to another likely set of lawless acts. The public understands all of this perfectly well. It’s not complicated.
Midway through the documentary, Clinton muses about self-assessment. “You can take criticism seriously because you may actually learn something. But don’t take it personally.” Then she returns to her modus operandi, which is blame-shifting. She takes everything personally. “Like I am the most investigated innocent person in America and this is not just politics; it’s deep cultural stuff,” she says elsewhere in the film.
Projecting her own image problems on Bernie Sanders, she says, “Nobody likes him,” though his support is real and unfeigned. She once infamously insulted stay-at-home moms by saying, “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies,” and her reflection on that moment today is “I couldn’t figure out — what is it they want from me?” As if it were “they” who were being unreasonable rather than she who damaged her own reputation. When informed by his own aides that focus groups hated Hillary in this moment, Bill said, “They just hated her hairstyle that night.”
Hillary is an episode in its subject’s never-ending project to convince the public that we were all wrong about her in every particular and that she therefore should be president. A typical rationalization: “I take responsibility for the unfortunate relationship I have with the press.” Oh? Here come the qualifiers. “I was too quick to be defensive. I didn’t play the game well enough. I knew there was a game to be played and I was striking out all the time.”
Let’s break this down. First, she is begging the critical question, which is whether the press was actually biased against her. It wasn’t. As Times reporter Amy Chozick revealed in her book Chasing Hillary, the full-time press corps covering Clinton consisted entirely of women who were excited about the prospect of covering the first woman president. These reporters were jazzed about taking a picture with her and many of them wept openly when she lost. The hostility to her opponent, though, was meanwhile completely without precedent and crystallized in a front-page column in the Times that exhorted reporters to oppose Trump with everything they had. In Hillary there is a shot of Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate, telling her that he has just had a call from then-president Obama, who told him, “This is no time to be a purist. You’ve got to keep a fascist out of the White House.” The press shared and continue to share this attitude. The film, by the way, omits any mention of the moment in the third Clinton–Trump debate when Trump suggested he might not accept the outcome of the election, and the immense outrage in the media that followed, because Clinton has for three years been suggesting the outcome was illegitimate.
Note also how Clinton pretends there was no substance to negative information that appeared about her in the media; it was merely an exercise, a “game.” But it wasn’t a game. She couldn’t neutralize the adverse information about her because it was true. She couldn’t wipe it off, like, with a cloth. When pressed on such things, she reverts to an argument that isn’t quite straw-manning but mischaracterizes opposition to her as rooted in craziness: “People still believe weird, wacky things about me because they’ve been told [laughs in spasmodic, Arthur Fleck mode] that, you know, I kill people, I rob people, I mean who knows what the heck they’ve been told?” Well, we’ve been told that it’s a felony to remove classified information from secure channels but also told that it was okay when you did it, Madame Secretary. But do go on about how the system is rigged against you.
Apart from a few journalists, the other interviewees in the film are her husband and her various sycophants and flacks. All seem like so many Dr. Frankensteins trying to inject some life into this soulless object. Seen in archival footage, it is Trump who makes the most salient points. “I think the only card she has going is the woman card,” Trump is seen saying in a TV interview. Cut to Hillary in an interview done for the film: “Yeah, you’re right. I am.” This was indeed what she offered the American public; she badly miscalculated the value of her I-deserve-this argument, and that’s why she lost to a man who had a 36 percent approval rating at the time. Far from being a feminist icon, she got as far as she did solely because of her husband’s success. None of us would today know her name if she hadn’t married Bill Clinton.