Ask most people who the leading contender for the US Democratic 2008 Presidential nomination is, and they’ll likely answer ‘Hillary Clinton.’
This is despite the fact that of all the prominent Democrats, Clinton is probably the least popular among both the mainstream and grassroots commentariat. Hillary’s ‘inevitability‘ is more a matter of imagined resignation than of decisive choice.
Obama is heralded for his statesmanlike charisma, Al Gore for his environmental leadership, John Edwards because he actually seems to have a decent policy platform. When Clinton is praised at all, it’s for the simple fact of being female and even then, she isn’t exactly popular in the feminist blogosphere or amongst college-educated women generally.
But I can’t help but wonder if the criticism Clinton attracts is based on something more than her politics. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine the other leading candidates attracting the same level of vitriol or scrutiny that she does.
Anyone seeking a position of power should rightfully be put under the microscope, but when it comes to Clinton that microscope is often more US Weekly than US President.
Part of it’s simply that we know her so well. The habit of referring to Clinton by her first name, like Nicole, Kylie or Paris, is about more than her gender or differentiating her from her equally famous husband. It’s a sign of intimacy, and it’s an active attempt on her part to foster that intimacy even Clinton refers to herself as ‘Hillary.’
But like the tabloid staples, the manner in which we ‘know’ Clinton is largely divorced from her actual qualities as a Senator, former First Lady or even a nuanced human being. Rather, Clinton is an icon, a signifier, a self-confessed ‘Rorschach test,’ onto which we project the interpretation of our choosing.
And while the ‘gender card‘ can feel like a cheap one to play, it’s relevant to this discussion. As former Sydney Morning Herald journalist Julia Baird argued in her 2004 book Media Tarts, both the media and the public have a tendency to embrace high-profile female politicians with enthusiasm, before later discarding them with equal fervour.
Women’s presence in politics may no longer be a novelty, but high-profile, ambitious women potential leaders, Prime Ministers or Presidents are. To all but the most conservative of pundits, they are seen as a cause for excitement, a sign of a fresh new political narrative.
This can work in their favour take the buzz that surrounded Natasha Stott Despoja, Carmen Lawrence and Bronwyn Bishop in the 1990s or, more recently, progressives’ enthusiasm for Julia Gillard but it can also work against them. A public figure who is painted in the broad brushstrokes of a hero can just as easily be painted as a villain when they fail to live up to the standards set for them.
This problem isn’t exclusive to women, of course any public figure who benefits from the power of personality (or, if you take Tony Abbott’s word for it, will face similar issues. Pundits are already starting to wonder if Obama’s charisma comes at the expense of substance.
But for powerful women, it is almost impossible to escape. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is hardly charismatic, yet she has been a constant subject of personality-based media coverage and Presidential speculation. And when women try to shift the focus to hard policy, as Clinton has during her time in the Senate, they are accused of being ‘robotic,’ or lacking in vision.
It isn’t all bad news for Hillary, though. With this month’s release of two damning biographies claiming to reveal ‘the truth’ about her, her marriage and her ’20 year plan’ with Bill to make them both President, Clinton-oriented criticism has shifted from policy to personality, and from inside her own Party to outside it rendering her once again a sympathetic figure within the Democratic Party and grassroots.
It’s ironic when it comes to policy, Clinton can’t win: she’s either a rash and radical First Lady out to socialise health care, or a too-cautious Senator bent on pleasing everyone. But when the terrain shifts to personality, and the attacks turn hyperbolic and shrill, she becomes someone the people can barrack for.
Perhaps the narrative will work in her favour, after all.
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