Maybe we’re not stuck in Scandal Land.
For a while I’ve assumed Hillary Clinton would run for her party’s nomination and be a formidable candidate in the general election. After Tuesday’s news conference I’m not so sure.
Did she seem to you a happy, hungry warrior? She couldn’t make eye contact with her questioners, and when she did she couldn’t sustain it. She looked at the ceiling and down at notes, trying, it seemed, to stick to or remember scripted arguments. She was shaky. She couldn’t fake good cheer and confidence. It is seven years since she ran for office. You could see it.
Her claims—she stayed off the State Department email system for “convenience,” she thought “it would be easier to carry just one device,” her server “contains personal communications from my husband and me”—were so transparent, so quickly disprovable. Minutes later journalists were posting earlier statements in which she said she carries two devices, and The Wall Street Journal’s report saying Bill has sent only two emails in his life.
This wasn’t high-class spin. These were not respectable dodges. They didn’t make you grudgingly tip your hat at a gift for duplicity. I could almost feel an army of oppo people of both parties saying, “You can do better than that, Hillary!”
This wasn’t the work of a national, high-grade political response team, it was the thrown-together mess of someone who knew she was guilty of self-serving actions, who didn’t herself believe what she was saying, who didn’t think the press would swallow it, and who didn’t appear to care.
She didn’t look hungry for the battle, she looked tired of the battle.
Everyone knows what the scandal is. She didn’t want a paper trail of her decisions and actions as secretary of state. She didn’t want to be questioned about them, ever. So she didn’t join the government’s paper-trail system, in this case the State Department’s official email system, which retains and archives records. She built her own private system and got to keep complete control of everything she’d done or written. She no doubt assumed no one outside would ask and no one inside would insist—she’s Hillary, don’t mess with her.
She knew the story might blow but maybe it wouldn’t, worth the chance considering the payoff: secrecy. If what she did became public she’d deal with it then. When this week she was forced to, she stonewalled: “The server will remain private.”
Is it outrageous? Of course. Those are U.S. government documents she concealed and destroyed. The press is not covering for her and hard questions are being asked because everyone knows what the story is. It speaks of who she is and how she will govern. Everyone knows it.
She knows it too.
At the news conference she seemed like a 20th-century figure in a 21st-century world. Her critics complain it’s the 1990s returning but it isn’t, it’s only the dark side of the 90s without the era’s peace and prosperity.
Mrs. Clinton is said to be preparing to announce her candidacy for the presidency in three to four weeks. But did that look like the news conference of a candidate about to announce? It lacked any air of confidence or certitude. For a year the press has been writing about the burgeoning Clinton Shadow Campaign. Where’s the real one?
Defenses of Mrs. Clinton were ad hoc, improvised, flat-footed. It all looks disorderly, as if no one’s in charge, no one has drawn clear lines of responsibility or authority. We hear about loyalists, intimates, allies, pals, hangers-on, Friends of Hill. People buzz around her like bees on random paths to the queen.
In 2008 Barack Obama had impressive, disciplined people around him—David Axelrod,Robert Gibbs,David Plouffe. I remember thinking at the time that they were something unusual in politics: normal. Hillary has people like David Brock, a right-wing hit man who became a left-wing hit man. Who’s he supposed to do outreach to, the other weirdos?
Is this thing really happening? Is the much-vaunted campaign coming together?
After the news conference I thought what I never expected to think: Maybe she doesn’t really want this. Maybe that’s what this incompetence is meant to be signaling.
Here I will speculate, but imagine being Hillary Clinton right now:
Her mother, the rock of her life, died in 2011. In the past years she’s had health issues. She’s tired, having worked at the highest levels of American life the past 25 years. She’s in the middle of a scandal and, being Hillary, knows that others might pop along the way.
Add this: Maybe she thought her ideological hunger, which was real, would sustain her throughout her life, and it hasn’t.
Maybe what happened to her, in part, is the homes of her Manhattan mega-donors. She’s been in the grand townhouses and Park Avenue apartments since 1992. She’d go in and be met and she saw what they had. Beauty. Ease. Fine art of a particular, modern sort, the kind that is ugly, that reminds its owners that just because they’re rich doesn’t mean they don’t understand that life is hard, painful, incoherent. It is protective, cautionary, abstract and costs $20 million a picture.
But what lives they have! Grace and comfort and they don’t have to worry about the press, they don’t have to feel on the run, they don’t have to press the flesh with nobodies.
She’d like those things! But she went into “public service” and had to live on some bum-squat-Egypt Southern governor’s salary.
She wanted what they have. They’re her friends, no more talented than she. But they went to Wall Street and are oozing in dough. She stayed in the lane she was in. And she figures she missed out on the prosperity her husband presided over.
She has her causes—women’s rights, income inequality. But she can advance them in other ways.
Maybe she isn’t really hungry enough for the presidency anymore. And maybe she doesn’t have illusions anymore. She’s funded by Wall Street. Her opponent will be funded by Wall Street.
Maybe she’s of two minds about what she wants. But it’s not really hunger that’s propelling her now, its Newton’s law of inertia: Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.
Maybe she thinks about another line of work, a surprising fourth act. She likes to be served, be admired, be taken care of by staff. But you can get those things without being president. If you are wealthy, and she is now—and maybe that was the purpose of all those six-figure speeches—you can get those things easily.
Maybe she doesn’t, really, want to run. Maybe she’s not sure she can. Or maybe she’ll go for it: It’s what she’s been going toward all her life.
Maybe Democrats who saw that news conference will sense an opening and jump in. There’s the myth of the empty bench, but it won’t be empty if she leaves it. That’s another law of physics: Nature abhors a vacuum.
We all talk so much about the presidency and who’s got the best chance. Maybe it’s not Hillary. Maybe that’s over and no one knows, even her.