Every Mystery Machine must have its Velma.
You’ll remember Velma Dinkley, the grim-faced young fogey of the Scooby-Doo gang: turtleneck and knee socks, orange; pleated skirt and pumps, red; spectacle lenses a very groovy shade of aqua; hair in a severe, LPGA-ready bob. She was the thick and bookish counterpoint to the comely Daphne Blake. But the id moves in mysterious ways, and Velma has enjoyed a strange post-1970s career as a minor object of erotic fixation, being portrayed on film by the knockout Linda Cardellini and, in a dramatic illustration of Rule 34, by the pornographic actress Bobbi Starr.
Perhaps that is what sometime sex symbol Hillary Rodham Clinton had in mind when she nicknamed her campaign van “Scooby” — a mystery machine, indeed; as of this writing, nobody has documented her presence in it — noting its resemblance to the famously psychedelic Saturday-morning ride of Mystery Incorporated. Mrs. Clinton — the Grand Glorified Imperial Herself — is very much a creature of the 1970s, and Scooby-Doo may very well feel fresh in her mind.
De gustibus non disputandum est and all that. Nobody is more mindful of the role that her bodily appearance plays in her public persona than Herself, who has compared her own evolving coiffure to a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger. (Of course she’s pals with Haim Saban, the billionaire owner of that entertainment franchise and many others.) You’ll remember that in 2006, just before Herself’s first, failed presidential campaign, the artist Daniel Edwards unveiled a statue of the former first lady, The Presidential Bust of Hillary Rodham Clinton: The First Woman President of the United States, the generous proportions of which provoked at least 11,487 “bust” puns among the nation’s least ambitious headline writers. The resin casting was displayed at the Museum of Sex in New York. “Her cleavage is on display, prominently portraying sexual power which some people still consider too threatening,” the artist said. Mr. Edwards — whose other notable work of the time was a life-size statue of an enormously pregnant Britney Spears on her hands and knees giving birth on a bearskin rug — said that he was provoked to sex up the junior senator from New York by a comment from Sharon Stone, who proclaimed the Solon of Chappaqua too residually sexy to be elected president and said that those ambitions would have to wait until she was “past her sexuality.” Herself was at the time not yet 60; if she is elected, she will turn 70 her first year in office.
Sharon Stone, the Clintons, Scooby-Doo, the man-feminists of the New York art scene, the just-one-name-like-Sting-or-Cher thing: That Hillary Show has a distinctly retro feel to it already. We have seen this movie before: Last Vegas, The Bucket List, About Schmidt, John Podesta and Paul Begala starring in Grumpy Old Men. Once more unto the breach. The Lion in Winter, with all the domestic friction and succession drama but no lion.
Herself, who speaks in clichés and who gives some indication that she thinks in them, too, says that she is in the van — “Road trip!” she tweeted — because she is “hitting the road to earn your vote.” The Clintons — not too long ago “dead broke,” as Herself put it — have earned well more than $100 million since the president left office, the Washington Post reports, with his speech income alone amounting to some $105 million. That’s armored-car money, and an armored car is of course what Herself is riding around in, as she did during her first Senate campaign. There is something ineffably Clintonesque in that: She declined the use of the customary limousine because she wanted to appear to share the lives and troubles of the ordinary people, so she rides around in a customized armored van, having spent a great deal of money — starting prices for such vehicles are comparable to those of Lamborghinis — to avoid the appearance that she has a great deal of money.
Appearances apparently do matter.
That van is the cosmetic surgery of populism, the tummy tuck of a 1 percenter auditioning for a role somewhere between Evita and Auntie Mame. But the Clintons have always had a strange knack for getting people to admire them for their phoniness, not in spite of it. Their admirers — and there are many of them — are like those odd ducks who prefer breast implants to the genuine articles, the more obviously artificial the better.
That’s the strange thing about the career of Herself: Because she is a feminist, or at least a woman who plays one on television, to bring up the subject of her appearance is taken as prima facie chauvinism, boorish boobishness of the sort that illustrates exactly why we need a woman as president. (Maybe. But this woman?) At the same time, appearance is 83 percent of every presidential campaign, and 97 percent — at least — of a Hillary Rodham Clinton campaign. In some cases, the appeal is literally skin deep: When Team Herself unveiled its campaign icon — an uppercase “H” with a vector pointing to the right — the daft young actress Lena Dunham remarked that she wanted to get a “tramp stamp” tattoo of the logo.
Much of life comes down to good design. How good the H is going to be at that remains unclear: On launch day, the “Jobs” section of her website was a highly symbolic link to nowhere. Jobs? “Not found.” Yeah . . . tell America about it. But she will have first-rate help, gobs of money, and plenty of celebrity flesh to throw at the slavering gibbering maw of the electorate. Herself knows that appearances matter: None of her political career makes a hell of a lot of sense if you think about it for three minutes.
She’s a feminist who has served as very little other than an extension of her traditionally patriarchic, manipulative hound dog of a husband, elected to the Senate as a tribute to him, like some sad little Ma Ferguson of the New York suburbs. Her record in office has run from mediocrity in the Senate to catastrophe as secretary of state.
But she has some feelings she’d like to share, some adventures in High Herselfery.
The Clinton campaign’s launch video opens with a young mother describing an all-too-familiar predicament: She is moving to a new neighborhood because her child is about to start school and the local public schools are terrible. That’s some powerful stuff — powerful stuff that conservative school reformers watched with gobsmacked disbelief: You know who has a solution to the specific problem of poor families’ being trapped by their ZIP codes in craptastical public schools? Literally every Republican positioning himself to run against Mrs. Clinton in 2016. You know who opposes that solution? Herself, who as a Senate candidate and a presidential candidate not only ran against school choice but went so far as to link it to Islamic terrorism and white supremacy.
But she has a van!
The video goes on to show a gay couple excitedly talking about their pending wedding, never mentioning that literally every single presidential administration Herself has served has opposed gay marriage, as indeed did Herself as a presidential candidate. Her husband signed a law prohibiting HIV-positive people from even entering the United States on tourist visas, treating some gay people as if they were plague rats, but so what? She has a van!
She is positioning herself to run as an economic populist, an Elizabeth Warren–style scold of the wicked 1 percent. She will be doing this while her husband sports wristwatches that cost more than the typical American’s house and after having plotted the launch of her second campaign from the multi-million-dollar beachfront estate of the late Oscar de la Renta in the Dominican Republic.
Of course appearances matter. Or at least Hillary Rodham Clinton had better hope that they do: If not upon such superficialities as her possession of a uterus, upon what will she base her campaign for president? Upon the remarkable foreign-policy successes she achieved as secretary of state, during which time the United States not only ceded Iraq and Afghanistan to brutality and chaos but stood by practically mute for the emergence of the Islamic State? Upon Senator Herself’s scanty record as a lawmaker? Her husband won on charm, charisma, and a psychopathic gift for instrumentalizing human beings without hesitation or regret. One out of three is not going to do it.
The politician’s proposal is never really “Vote for me — I’m just like you!” It’s “Vote for me — I’m the version of you that you really want to be!” Maybe there are people who see that when they look at Herself. (Again: De gustibus and all that.) Every political machine is a mystery machine.