Debating Clinton

Doug Henwood responds to a critical review of his new book on Hillary Clinton.

Katha Pollitt reviews My Turn in the January 25 issue of the Nation. I suppose it’s undignified for an author to take issue with a reviewer, but I’m confident that I can transcend such petty concerns.

I should say right away that Katha is a friend; not only am I very fond of her personally, I’ve admired her writing (both prose and poetry) for more years than either of us would probably like to count. But she got some things wrong, which I will enumerate politely.

It’s funny how often defenses of Hillary Clinton begin with confessing a soft spot for Bernie Sanders. But this rhetorical move is always a prelude to a dismissal: while he may have sentimental appeal, he’s just not a serious candidate. (“Businessmen are serious. Movie/producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.”) And Pollitt’s review is no exception.

Why isn’t he serious? He’s upended the Democratic race and forced Clinton into a temporary, primary-season populism that no doubt will be junked come the general, should she win the nomination. (We already see signs of that in her accusing Sanders of being some sort of tax-and-spend fanatic.)

But as is also typical of the genre, Pollitt makes no serious political case for Clinton’s candidacy. Nor does she really try to rebut my critique of her forty-year record. As someone — I wish I could remember who, sorry — pointed out on Twitter, Hillary’s fans always tout her experience but don’t welcome any scrutiny of her record.

Here it is in a sentence: she represented corporate Arkansas in Little Rock (often in cases involving the state of which her husband was governor), screwed up health care reform as first lady, was a mediocre senator, ran a terrible presidential campaign in 2008, and was an unmemorable but bellicose secretary of state. There’s plenty of detail on all this in the book, as well as on her penchant for secrecy and duplicity. It’d be a pleasant surprise if some of her defenders would engage with this history.

On to some specific points of dispute:

“I’m not interested in “Hillary’s marriage and its compromises.”

Unlike Ed Klein, I have no idea what her marriage is like. But I wrote extensively about how Hill and Bill’s forty-year partnership redounded to the benefit of both of them — how their personalities and styles of thought complemented each other powerfully.

“He ignores as well the curious fact that the person he regards as an enthusiastic tool of corporate capitalism and seller-out of other women (cf. welfare reform) is regarded as a radical socialist feminist by much of the country.”

The first part of this sentence is irrefutably true — she’s pledged public allegiance to capitalism (“I represented Wall Street as a senator”) and praised welfare reform years after her husband left the White House. (She also called welfare recipients “deadbeats” — how very feminist.) But how is it anything resembling a refutation of those truths to invoke crazy right-wing caricatures of her politics?

“But when he does weigh in on Hillary the person, he’s snarky: She swears (imagine even noticing that about a man). . .”

What I wrote: “Hillary apparently often swears like a longshoreman, one of the more endearing things about her.” You’ve got to admire someone who can say this to Joseph Califano: “You sold out, you motherfucker, you sold out.” Of course, she did the same herself just a few years later.

“His run-through of her imbroglios, from Whitewater to that private e-mail server, is terse and straightforward — the only time he seems really angry is when he charges the Clinton Foundation with bungling its rebuilding efforts in post-earthquake Haiti. (At the time, only Bill was at the helm of the foundation, but Henwood argues that Hillary, as secretary of state, urged investment in reconstruction projects that fell far short of what was needed.)”  

This bears little resemblance to what I wrote about the Clintons’ doings in Haiti, which were truly grotesque, and very much a joint project of the two of them. Their history with that country — a country whose annual per-capita income is equal to about twelve seconds of her standard speaking fee — goes back to their 1975 honeymoon there.

As secretary of state, she and her underlings enabled a deeply corrupt election, worked to suppress an increase in the minimum wage (of concern to women garment workers, something you’d think feminists would care about), and seriously botched reconstruction after the 2010 earthquake. USAID, an agency under State Department supervision, built horrid housing and deployed toxic trailers to accommodate the displaced — at the same time the embassy in Port-au-Prince commissioned snazzy housing for its staff.

What both Clintons did in Haiti deserves serious scrutiny, not this sort of dismissal. If I say so myself, the Haiti passages of the book are almost alone worth the price of admission.

Although I use a highly critical 2003 quote from Brad DeLong, which includes the declaration that “Hillary Rodham Clinton needs to be kept very far away from the White House for the rest of her life” as my epigraph, DeLong now endorses her. 

Perhaps I’m being cynical, but perhaps the reason that DeLong took down his blog from that era (thank God for the Wayback Machine!) and now disowns the statement is that he’d like a job in a Hillary Clinton administration, probably better than the one he had in Bill’s. But Hillary, who compiled an enemies list after the 2008 primary, can read the Wayback Machine too.

“After all, the sins he finds so damning in Hillary are those of a multitude of successful male Democratic politicians, who similarly cozy up to the rich, accept huge speaking fees, have books ghost-written for them, and worse.”

I say as much several times in the book — she’s an utterly orthodox political figure, not the great progressive feminist her supporters make her out to be. On page seven, I say: “Although this is a polemic directed at a prominent figure, I also want to make clear from the first that Hillary is not the Problem. (I should also say, because most truths are not self-evident, that all the misogynist attacks on her are grotesque.)”

I’m not sure that many other politicians, however, command the kind of speaking fees that Hillary did — and I don’t know of any others who tried to stiff their ghostwriters out of their fee, as she did with the unacknowledged author of It Takes a Village.

“John Kerry, for example, voted for welfare ‘reform’ and the Iraq War, but Henwood endorsed him in 2004.”

Yes, I’ve sometimes voted for the lesser evil; I voted for Obama in 2008 too. And other times I haven’t; I’ve also voted Green and Socialist. Very close to the end of the book, I say: “If people want to tell me that Hillary would be a less horrid option than whatever profound ghastliness the Republicans throw up, I’ll listen to them respectfully. If they try to tell me there’s something inspiring or transformative about her, I’ll have to wonder what planet they’re on.”

Some of my more militant friends have expressed disapproval of this position. But it would have been nice had Pollitt acknowledged my concession to “realism,” one that earned me a volley of brickbats from my Trotskyist and Green friends.

But I would like to thank Katha Pollitt for writing about the book, which is something that no other liberal feminists have done yet.