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Monday, June 16, 2008

Lorrie Moore: Clinton campaign obit

Lorrie Moore, writing in New York magazine at the end of Hillary Clinton's campaign, confesses her obsession with watching Hillary:
In the animated Disney movie of Snow White it is the evil queen, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, who has all the screen presence. I once watched the film in a Greenwich Village art house in the seventies, and although Snow White wasn’t actually hissed, the jealous older queen got all the applause and cheers and audible moral support.
...
How does she do it? she perhaps was asked a lot.

And the answer, of course, is with mirrors.

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Blogger Alice on Mon Jun 16, 08:40:00 PM:
Basically, I think it's a bad idea to remind people in the middle of an essay that others have gotten tired of your obsession with saying mean things about Hillary Clinton, as Moore does in the New York magazine essay. The essay doesn't feel fresh or revelatory of something I hadn't thought of before; I just feel like I've listened to someone complain to me for longer than I felt like listening. I guess that's how Moore felt about the Clinton campaign.

I share some, even most, of her distaste for the Clinton campaign's tactics, but did the criticism really have to be based around an evil queen-raccoon-Richard III comparison? It often seemed like Clinton was trying on different personae to fit whatever audience she was speaking to. That strange blend of opportunism, desperation, and lack of focus led to some big problems such as the gas tax debacle which she defended long after economists told her it was a bad idea, the inability to decide about drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants when other states have shown that they work fine, or the numerous instances of "misspeaking" about RFK, Bosnia, etc. Evil people stay on message. And if you think Clinton was working with mirrors --and I'm not sure what Moore means exactly in that last line--then those mirrors weren't working the way they were supposed to. Attributing someone's bad qualities to evil or villainy takes away some of their responsibility. She made bad choices--call her on them, keep bringing up the war vote, but Moore spends more time on belaboring the raccoon thing which she isn't even sure works the first couple of times her son mentions it.

A few weeks ago in the New York Times Book Review, Moore recommended that Obama read Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady to see how a "virtuous orphan is plotted against by a charming, ruthless couple the orphan once trusted and admired." That comparison doesn't work for me either: Hillary Clinton isn't Madame Merle.

I love Lorrie Moore's sense of humor in her short stories and novels, and I'd be interested to see what she'll write about the Obama campaign. But please no more writing about villainesses.

I thought Katha Pollitt, Gail Collins, Bob Herbert, and Hendrik Hertzberg wrote more thoughtful pieces about some of the implications (both good and bad) of Clinton's campaign.
 
Blogger Ben on Tue Jun 17, 03:16:00 AM:
I agree that the raccoon analogy didn't add anything and was just nasty, and I think that whole NY Review of Books piece -- where writers recommended books to the candidates, but they all chose for maximum wittiness rather than the value of the books themselves -- was a colossal disappointment, starting from Lorrie Moore's leadoff strikeout.

But I don't agree that understanding Hillary means recognizing that she isn't evil. (That's how I'm interpreting your comment about responsibility, which I don't quite follow; how is a villain less responsible than a bad manager?) She is evil, which we know because she made so many choices that require evil to make. Here I'm talking about push polls, negative flyers, "as far as I know" B.O. is not a Muslim, etc. I'm willing to forgive anything I think might not have been intended in bad faith or which I might have said after months of sleep deprivation, including the RFK comment, the "fairy tale" comment, etc. She didn't defend the gas tax thing after disagreeing with economists; she knew it was 100% useless before she supported it, she knew that while she supported it, and she knew that when she tried to spin it into pigeonholing Obama as an elitist. She's no dummy; she never agreed with her own proposal, not for a minute.

Of course, Obama says things he doesn't believe too. I don't believe he really supports ethanol, or that he really opposes gay marriage. But the guy doesn't go on TV and rail against gay marriage and against scientists who point out that it takes more gasoline to produce ethanol than is replaced by ethanol at the pump; he's made his compromises for politics, and he's prudent about how hard he pretends to push them.

Early in the campaign Barack said something to the effect of "If I have to destroy my Democratic opponents to get the nomination, I don't want it." That to me is the fundamental difference between them; she clearly didn't believe this in the slightest.

I think Chris Hitchens's title "No One Left to Lie To" is apt. Dishonesty is such a fundamental part of how the Clintons operate that voters, including their supporters, do not even expect honesty of them anymore.

Don't you agree that the lies came in torrents? For my money, in terms of blatant, extended lies, the kind that are karmic black holes, that carve out new space in the depths of cravenness, you can't beat her speeches comparing the Florida and Michigan delegates issue to all history's struggles for franchisement.

No one died as a result of that lie, but I can't put it higher on the moral ladder than Bush's selling the Iraq war. He at least honestly thought that the war was going to improve the world and save lives in the long run, but lied to make the case appear strong to others with different metrics of justification from him. But she doesn't think for a second that seating the MI and FL delegates is objectively right.

The fact that she lost isn't evidence of her failure at her game. She got a massive number of primary votes, more, if I'm not mistaken, than any candidate from any party in history, except Obama. The game she failed at -- convincing voters hungry for a real, decent person that she is one, by acting like one, damn the consequences -- is one she never cared to play.
 
Blogger Katy on Tue Jun 17, 09:40:00 AM:
I understood Alice's comment about evil to mean that ascribing Clinton's actions to a supposedly evil nature is too easy. It doesn't force us to address the complications of the situations. That's why I object to calling terrorists or Saddam Hussein or Iran evil--saying that enables actions like the Iraq war because it brings us to hasty conclusions without real analysis.
 
Blogger Alice on Tue Jun 17, 10:32:00 AM:
'Evil' is a brickbat. It's a term that doesn't allow for complexity or analysis because the argument is based around stacking up judgments rather than taking apart a situation and seeing why it unfolded the way it did. I like Elizabeth Drew's term "molehill politics" from the New York Review of Books, which gets at many of the differences you've pointed out between the two campaigns:

"The Clinton campaign's false assumption—based on a 350-page, state-by-state study in the summer of 2007 by key strategist Mark Penn—that Clinton's victory was 'inevitable' led to a series of mistakes: (1) presenting herself as the "inevitable" nominee; (2) prematurely running a general election campaign; (3) assuming that the race would be over on February 5—Super Tuesday; and (4) believing that a number of small states that held caucuses could be skipped. And if Penn's strategy didn't work there was no Plan B. It's never a good idea to have a pollster in an important policy position in a campaign, since he or she can design the polling to get the answers he or she wants, as some believed Penn had done in the Clinton White House. (Hillary Clinton brought him in after the electoral disaster of 1994.) The Clinton campaign has been divided and sometimes almost paralyzed by internal feuding among outsized egos. By contrast, this hasn't happened in the Obama campaign: Obama deliberately picked congenial people and instructed his staff that he wanted 'no drama.'

"In early March, Clinton went from, in a debate, 'I'm honored...to be here with Barack Obama...absolutely honored' to, a day and a half later, angrily, shouting, 'Shame on you, Barack Obama.' In that instance, she was engaging in molehill politics: a flyer on trade that the Obama campaign had sent out quoted her as saying that the North American Free Trade Agreement had been a 'boon' to the United States' economy. The use of the word 'boon,' an accidental error, was taken from Newsday, which put in quotes the gist of her remarks. Obama replied calmly. 'Senator Clinton has...constantly sent out negative attacks on us, email, robo-calls, flyers, television ads, radio calls, and we haven't whined about it because I understand that is the nature of these campaigns.'"

In Drew's essay, "molehill politics" is a pretty good term for analyzing the specific examples of some of the egregious (and less egregious) things said in the campaign. This term is more appropriate than 'evil' because it's specific, it avoids moralizing language that can be deployed for less than savory uses, and it allows for historical analysis.
 
Blogger Ben on Tue Jun 24, 07:50:00 PM:
This question gets at several philosophical and political problems.

First, does evil exist? Katy, Alice and I would all have answers somewhere in the gray area between yes and no, but I gather I'd be closer to yes than they would be.

At the same time, I can appreciate the importance of resisting the easy classification of people we hate or oppose as "evil"; for me, as a liberal Jew, this comes up often when I feel compelled to disagree with those who argue that the Holocaust was exceptional, or that it occupies a special category of deliberate, genocidal evil greater than the evil we see in, say, Darfur, Yugoslavia, etc.

The truth of the matter is that most awful things are done by people who aren't constantly or extremely malicious. The evil of the Osama bin Laden we imagine is a sort of perverted reverse empathy that has become sadism; but Osama is a real live guy, and most awful things are done by people who are at least as apathetic and insensitive as sadistic. Osama in person probably seems mostly sane; it's a small part of him that lets him tune out the pain of others, but unfortunately that's all the evil it takes.

This is true even more of bureaucratic institutions, where people can collectively emit orders for executions and mass starvation without having a single individual person feel bloodlust. Evil multiplies so prolifically in institutions that all it takes is an absence of organizational values at the top to effectively be evil. Everyone has been at the butt end of institutional indifference, has felt that dreadful awe that comes with realizing the teller or bailiff has shut your pleas out completely and stands before you with a heart of coal. But some leaders forget what it's like to feel that indifference. Not to solicit feedback, not to encourage whistleblowing and institute transparency, requires an insensitivity that has a bit of evil at its core.

So I agree that blanket use of terms like 'evil' often come along with jingoism and blind nationalism. E.g., Saddam Hussein is evil, therefore a war to attack him is just and a good idea.

But just because our own American madman used 'evil' to set up an enemy to justify war, doesn't mean that Hussein wasn't actually evil.

Now, I don't mean to rope in Hillary with the real evil guys i mentioned above. I just think all of us have a spark of evil somewhere in us, and in her it seems to be bigger than in most.

It's always surprising to me that with some politicians, you have a constant stream of people coming forward and saying, that person screwed me over; and with others, you never hear that. Before 2000, there was a long history of people whose money George W. Bush lost for them, people who bailed him out of this or that, etc. Giuliani has driven more people away--including his own son--than we'll ever know; he did it on a weekly basis on his abusive radio show. Whereas, to McCain's credit, there's no one from McCain's life, army career and constituent politics who seems to hate him.

I know Obama hasn't been around long enough to attract a real coterie of haters, but you know when reporters ask around, they aren't finding anyone who'd talk bad of him, including his old Republican adversaries in the Illinois Senate. Hillary's been very exposed for two decades, and she has plenty of people who hate her for irrational, often sexist reasons, but she and Bill have lots of detractors who are former friends or campaigners or staffers. And from what I know of her campaign tactics, it looks like her staff understood that if she could get a few thousand votes by slandering a decent opponent, that was an exchange they were expected to make; and if they were in doubt, she made her directions clear by example. I know that's common. But that doesn't mean it's not, in a small but significant way, evil.