The fact that Hillary Clinton is the first female to win a major party’s presidential nomination should not obscure the harm she’s done to our politics in her decades-long career. Arrogance, secrecy, mendacity, and implausible claims of victimhood will be her ultimate legacy.
A tuned-in voter from 1993 would find today’s furrowed-brow columns about Clinton’s flaws strangely familiar. This presidential race is covered by political correspondents who don’t know what “Whitewater” was, but a long memory reveals a lot of recurring patterns in Hillary Clinton’s life.
Five days after Bill Clinton’s inauguration, he announced that his wife would be the architect of the administration’s health-care reform proposal, launching one of the most spectacular displays of hubris in modern political history. The pre-Clinton Democratic party was certainly liberal, but hadn’t quite yet fully embraced a philosophy of subjugating the private sector to the will of those running the state. The then–first lady legendarily dismissed businesses’ concerns about the costs her plan would impose. “I can’t be expected to go out and save every undercapitalized business in America,” she snorted.
Clinton blew off warnings from Democratic senators such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Bill Bradley that her proposal was headed for disaster. When Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala told her the same thing privately, she told Shalala she “was just jealous that [she] wasn’t in charge and that was why [she] was complaining,” according to Shalala’s assistant secretary.
Republican lawmakers found Clinton similarly intractable. Today, former House Speaker Dennis Hastert is likely to be remembered for an infamous scandal. But in June 1993, he was a moderate Illinois Republican congressman thought to be open to the health-care proposal. But when Clinton met with a group of House Republicans for dinner at the Northern Virginia home of John Kasich, and Hastert made a pitch for health-savings accounts, she explained that HSAs couldn’t be part of the plan.
“She said, ‘We can’t afford to have that money go to the private sector. That money has to go to the federal government because the federal government will spend that money better than the private sector will spend it,’” Hastert later told David Brock, the one-time right-wing muckraker who later became the Clintons’ biggest apologist. “And so [I thought], ‘Holy mackerel. I can’t argue these issues, these are philosophical issues.’”
It is unsurprising, then, that White House economists privately nicknamed Clinton’s health-care team “the Bolsheviks” — and not just for ideological reasons, either. A remarkably Stalinist paranoia and secrecy surrounded the health-care task force, one that foreshadowed the private, off-the-books e-mail server that would come to light a quarter-century later. One of Clinton’s first major fights was over whether the health-care task force had to open its hearings to the public; a federal judge found it was violating federal “sunshine” laws.
“While the court takes no pleasure in determining that one of the first actions taken by a new president is in direct violation of a statute enacted by Congress, the court’s duty is to apply the law to all individuals,” ruled U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth.
This was the first of many glimpses of Clinton’s deep-rooted sense that the laws and rules didn’t apply to her. Key papers under subpoena went missing for two years; she refused to release files on the couple’s investment in the failed Arkansas land deal that spawned the Whitewater scandal, and berated aides who pressed her to do so. “She just let everybody have it,” former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta recalled later.
This us-against-the-world mentality was to be a hallmark of Clinton’s career in politics. Early in her husband’s administration, she determined that those who disagreed with her were her enemies, unworthy of cooperation or the truth, and she hasn’t changed her mind since.
In 1993, she chewed out Rahm Emanuel for inviting George H. W. Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, to the White House for a meeting to discuss the promotion of NAFTA. “What are you doing inviting these people in my home?” she asked, according to people familiar with the episode. “These people are our enemies. They are trying to destroy us.”
In the years since, she has spent a lot of time touting her ability to reach across the aisle, but the old fury slips out every now and then. In an October Democratic debate, asked for the enemy she’s proudest to have, she answered, “Probably the Republicans.”
If you’re full of contempt for people, it’s easy to lie to them. Hillary Clinton lied to the public from the first moment they saw her, which for many Americans was January 27, 1992, during a 60 Minutes interview broadcast after the Super Bowl. In that broadcast, Bill Clinton, with his wife at his side, categorically denied having an affair with Gennifer Flowers. Together, they painted Flowers as a mentally troubled woman making up a story about an affair for attention and money:
Hillary Clinton: When this woman first got caught up in these charges, I felt as I’ve felt about all of these women: that they had just been minding their own business and they got hit by a meteor. I felt terrible about what was happening to them. Bill talked to this woman every time she called, distraught, saying her life was going to be ruined, and he’d get off the phone and tell me that she said sort of wacky things, which we thought were attributable to the fact that she was terrified.
Bill Clinton: It was only when money came out, when the tabloid went down there offering people money to say that they had been involved with me, that she changed her story. There’s a recession on.
Flowers, of course, wasn’t hit by a meteor. Years later, under oath, Bill Clinton admitted that he had had sex with her.
Throughout all her ups and downs, Clinton demonstrated a remarkable capacity for self-pity. To hear her tell it, she’s perpetually the victim of unfair attacks, unreasonable expectations, and targeted malevolence. Only the hardest heart could lack sympathy for the national humiliation her husband put her through during the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998, but she famously blamed that entire mess on a “vast, right-wing conspiracy.” She once compared the anger of the 9/11 hijackers to that expressed by those who protested her health-care proposal way back when. More recently, she’s seen herself as “dead broke” while living a life of luxury and contends that she — probably among the five most influential figures in Washington over the past 25 years — couldn’t possibly be part of the “establishment” because she’s a woman.
Gail Sheehy’s biography, Hillary’s Choice, offers a surprisingly revealing moment when Clinton acknowledges that she believes she acts on behalf of the public in the abstract but finds herself feeling disdainful of so many flesh-and-blood people:
What stuck in her throat was perhaps the deep contradiction she had first noticed in college: Was she really the catcher in the rye who saved children before they went over the cliff, or was she secretly a hater of mankind? She had always felt an obligation to help people — people in the aggregate, people with their millions of particular stories collected and bundled into a depersonalized mass, where they could be treated with a policy. But she didn’t warm to many people personally. The streak of misanthropy was still in her. Now she was being accused of abandoning even those she loved, like [her chief of staff] Maggie [Williams].
If you think of yourself as a victim, unjustly opposed by irredeemably evil foes, almost any act of retaliation — any lie, any violation of the law, any unsavory exercise of power — can be justified. That is as true now as it was in 1992, and given all we know of the Clintons now that we didn’t know then, there is no excuse for letting them anywhere near the White House ever again.